Sommelier Journal "Bigger can be Better.."
June 2011

Bigger can be better when it comes to restaurant wine service.

A good friend of mine often declares, "Magnums show you care." As a committed wine professional and a passionate host, she would know. Still, she acknowledges that despite the simplicity of her statement, the actual reasons why magnums show you care are myriad.

Almost any wine lover would agree that large bottles are special. Generally (but not always), the bigger the bottle, the healthier the wine. At tableside, when guests inquire about big bottles, I explain, however unscientifically, that because a magnum is the equivalent of two standard-size bottles, there is more wine in contact with itself and less in contact with the cork, slowing the wine's gradual oxidation. Wines from large-format bottles therefore tend to show more youthful characteristics than smaller bottlings of the same vintage, especially when the bottle is stored under ideal conditions.

Bottle maturity aside, there is little question that large-format bottles pose an unusual challenge in terms of wine service. The majority of restaurants are content to offer their wine selections in standard 750-ml bottles–although many have embraced the half-bottle format, which has its own set of advantages. But any restaurant that maintains a sizable private-dining area or caters to large groups would do well to add magnums to its program. An enthusiastic sommelier who recommends a magnum to a group that would easily consume two or more bottles automatically elevates the restaurant's level of service. Most people don't regularly see or drink wines from magnums, so the event becomes even more celebratory.

The same principles apply to even bigger bottles: if magnums show you care, salmanazars (9 liters) show you are smitten. Unfortunately, the cost-benefit ratio is just too low for most establishments to seek out, purchase, and promote the largest formats. These bottlings are produced in limited quantities, and they can be expensive and challenging to store. And there remains the question of service: how exactly does a restaurant sell and serve as enormous a bottle as a methuselah, which equates to eight standard bottles of wine?

Sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud in midtown Manhattan has acquired more experience with large formats than most professionals. Every evening, he opens a stellar big bottle–often one from Burgundy or the Rhône, the regions that inspire the restaurant. "The wine is invariably fresher," he reports. "The feeling of festivity is palpable."

Madrigale launched his program as less of a business endeavor than a unique way to share his passion and give diners the opportunity to sample rare wines. "I take a photo of the bottle and send it out via Twitter before service begins," he explains. "Guests have told me that they were in a cab on their way to another restaurant when they received my tweet. They immediately canceled their reservation and asked the driver to head to Bar Boulud!"

Considering the restaurant's location and Madrigale's thousands of followers on Twitter, the response to his big-bottle program has been predictable. "People love it," he says. "The large format offers guests the chance to taste glasses of a great wine from a huge bottle. The spontaneity as well as the visual create a memorable experience." Of course, not all restaurant-goers use social media. Madrigale engages the staff at Bar Boulud to help promote the program. He decants or siphons the wines as needed and trains staff to serve the large bottles enthusiastically and elegantly. "Ultimately, it is about sharing," he says. "The atmosphere created in a packed restaurant with a 6-liter bottle of red Burgundy being trotted from table to table is beyond electric."

Large-format bottles unquestionably symbolize everything that is wonderful about the wine world: top appellations, outstanding vintages, and the ageworthiness of great wines. In the context of service, however, big bottles provide even more: another way for creative sommeliers to elevate the dining experience for their guests. Thus, they are the ultimate symbol of sharing.