It was pretty early on in my time out selling Tablas Creek, before, I think, I'd even moved out to Paso Robles. I went to a terrific restaurant in Washington, DC, and got into a conversation with the owner and wine buyer. We were talking about what her favorite bottles were to recommend on her list, and she said that if people were open to it, her favorite bottle wasn't a single bottle... it was two different half-bottles, one of which (I remember) was the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. This, she said, gave her guests the chance to pair different wines with first and main courses, and offered more diversity and value than wines by the glass. I've always remembered that conversation, and we've bottled our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in half-bottles since before they were called Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.
At the same time, half-bottles aren't easy. I had a Twitter exchange last week with Amber LeBeau, whose SpitBucket Blog is becoming a must-read piece of the conversation on wine, at least for me. She was suggesting that half-bottles should be well positioned to take advantage of the consumer's growing interest in moderation, and wondered how much more it cost wineries to make them. Click on through to Twitter to see the whole thread:
Oh, and I should mention that we don’t sell the wine for 2/3 the price because if we did customers would never buy it. So we sell it for essentially half plus a dollar and eat the rest of the extra cost.— Jason Haas (@jasonchaas) May 29, 2019
I feel like 280 characters (OK, times two) was enough to lay out the main challenges for us with half-bottles. They are expensive, because the bottle, capsule, cork, and label cost just as much as a full bottle would, and the consumer (with reason) doesn't want to pay more than half as much for half the wine in a full bottle. In the cellar, you have to stop and recalibrate your bottling line, which slows you down, and you have to source smaller lots of everything, which is expensive. And like any alternate-size formats -- we see the same issue with magnums and kegs -- there's always the challenge of moving on to the next vintage at the right time. It's a nuisance to everyone to have sold out of your 750ml bottles but still have a few orphaned cases of half-bottles in distributor stock, because the reps are unlikely to want to sample a vintage of a wine that's only available in half-bottles, while purchasing managers won't usually bring in the new vintage of half-bottles until the old one is gone.
Still, we keep on making half-bottles for two reasons. I do feel that it's an incredibly customer-friendly way to offer wine, particularly if you subsidize the price, as we do, so it ends up at more or less half the price of full bottles. And second, I have always felt that because there are many fewer half-bottles made than there are full bottles, the half-bottle list is a place where we can stand out. Even on big wine lists with hundreds of bottles, the half-bottle selection is likely a single page of maybe a dozen options. I've always liked our odds in that short list.
But with the growth of by-the-glass programs, and particularly the high-end glass pours enabled by the widespread use of the Coravin, I wonder if the days of the half-bottle are numbered. I know that we've revised downward the number of cases of half-bottles that we've bottled steadily over the last decade, to keep them in balance with the demand we've seen. At our apex in the late 2000's we were bottling 450 cases each of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc in half-bottles. By the early 2010's we were down to 250 cases of each. Then 200, then 150. Last year we bottled just 125 cases of each. This year, it will be only 75. Sure, we can bring back the unsold stock at the end of the release and make a special price for our club members, but ultimately, if people aren't that interested in buying wine in the half-bottle format, we'd be silly to continue to make it.
So, a question to you all. Do you like wine in half-bottles? Do you buy it? If so, where? For home consumption, or out at restaurants? And are there specific kinds of wines you order in half-bottles? I'm curious. Because if you're a lover of these smaller formats, as I am, it seems like our days of being able to find them may be numbered.