Free the Carafe!

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There are a number of words or phrases in the English language that are simply pleasing. They invariably evoke interestingly positive responses. One such word is "meadow." Such a phrase is "spring training." And another word is "bistro."

Anyone who has spent any time at all in Europe and especially France from where the word comes will know that the bistro occupies a privileged middle ground in the universe of food. On the one hand, for locals there is the cafeteria or sandwich bar to supply energy for the afternoon's work. For the visitor there is the simple facility for feeding the face to generate fuel to visit another museum, another subtitled movie, another conference on Globalization and American Hegemony, another sashay to clothing shops mainly featuring aggressively skinny salesgals. And on the other boundary is the gastro-temple with the crisp napkins, the waiters clad like bridegrooms, the triumphant menu of specialities, classics and high-end prix fixe.

In between is the bistro. The good bistro is Everyman's Land. It has firm standards about the quality and liveliness of food. It melds cost and value in an agreeable way. It wants to connect with clients, not lead or educate them. It has a swift, embracing quality. It boasts a sense of specific place and also of generality at once. And more often than not it has wine by the carafe.

Let's hear it for wine by the carafe. In good French bistros, the carafe wine is as much a reflection of the owner's style and skill as the food. Many owners will have links to specific vineyards, perhaps in the region from which they hail, and they will be favored with barrels of a product that may not be widely available, but widely desirable. And it will be priced reasonably, because the purchase is direct and in some bulk. The wine that is offered may be associated with the regional cuisine of the joint?for example, from Alsace or Cote du Rhone or Bordeaux. So there is a sense of completeness to the meal, and a sense of the clear link between the kind of food a region favors and the wine it drinks. Some bistros are celebrated as much for their house wines as for their food. And a bistro which is proud of its wine is surely going to be ambitious about its food too.

Name some New York restaurants where this is true. The only decent (and even aggressive) example in my limited but diligent experience is Orso on W. 46th St., which serves an outstanding Italian carafe wine, the red especially, and does so furthermore in a beautifully shaped container that generates its own sense of elegance. The quality of the carafe wine would be almost enough to draw me to the restaurant were the food not also good, the room pleasant and fun, and the tariff very fair. Whoever chooses what is poured into the carafe has a sense of the restaurant's style, of continuity, and seems to enjoy pleasing customers. And the house wine delivers special value, because it becomes the platform on which the rest of the wine list is based (there's a splendid list at Orso).

But why is this an issue? And why don't American restaurants in general supply special and interesting house wines?

Let's deal with why first. As usual, puritanical cultural values have united with government self-interest and entrenched interest groups to wrap the booze-and-wine business in barbed-wire regulation. According to John Osborne, who is the wine buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits on Astor Place, the law requires a three-tier system of producers or importers, wholesalers, and retailers. You have to be one of the three. So restaurants can't produce or import their own signature wines. Substantial retailers are able to bring in wines they specially select, but they have to do so through importers, and for economic reasons are likely to have to do it by the container?which may involve 1000 cases, or 12,000 bottles.

This is impossible for restaurants. So to offer carafe wines they have to simply pour it from one bottle into another. They pour the lowest-quality wine from a magnum into a carafe for which they charge 7-8 bucks?a waste of money given what the consumer receives. The core factor is collecting taxes for Uncle and Cousin Sam, principally done at the wholesale level. There is no way for a winemaker in Napa Valley or the Rhone to make a convivial deal with a restaurant to send along a minivan of House Red. It has to follow the government money trail, which is expensive and no fun.

But again, what's the problem? Not only do restaurants have often extensive wine lists, but all serve wine by the glass, often interesting ones at that. No one need suffer alcohol withdrawal in virtually any eating establishment more complicated than a pizza parlor. However, it's a matter of fun. The standard wine bottle, which is how most people consume the product, is just slightly more than two modest people can handle without acquiring that glad buzz that somehow seems colored warm burgundy. Of course there are numerous scholars of wine willing and able to study a bottle for themselves.

However, the general division of bottle, half-bottle and glass is not necessarily satisfactory. First of all, relatively few restaurants offer any half-bottles at all, even though they would be valued by single diners, especially those travelers charging their meals to their employers and therefore, through tax deductions, to you and me. The alternative, wine by the glass, is rather like ordering risotto by the spoon or french fries by the pair. The process involves metering out fun. There is an absence of a sense of largesse and luxury. This is especially so since so many restaurants see their wine-glass segment as a major profit center.

This is understandable. They have to make a profit, and this is a simple way of doing so. But some supply the product in glasses as minuscule as what the eye doctor gives you for eyewash. Others offer a reasonable pour but charge $7-8-9-11 for a glass of wine a full bottle of which costs nothing like the multiple of the glasses. Again, the place is in business. It has to do well. A number of restaurants do very well with their selections, because there is now good technology for storing wines that have been opened. And they price these fairly, and provide a genuine incentive to patrons to visit. But in other cases, perhaps the majority, it seems fair to wonder if the extra buck or two squeezed out for the glass deprives the customer of a sufficient sense of fairness and amusement to lure them back again. Since serious restaurants depend on satisfied diners who generate return visits, this is no trivial factor.

In any event, here is a minor barrier to graceful human pleasure erected by bureaucrats and politicians to extract public money from private activity. Prohibition has been repealed, but we are left with Inhibition.

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