The Coravin: Wines by the Milliliter

Posted by | Posted in Accessories | Posted on 10-07-2013

Precision is everything

Lucas Paya pours ’82 Lynch-Bages by the milliliter at barmini

This summer, a groundbreaking wine device was released after years of research, and it immediately took the wine world by storm.

Online bulletin boards started buzzing, sommeliers started salivating, and collectors clamored to get their hands on one. So much has already been written about the Coravin that there’s not much more to be said about the device itself. In short, the Coravin was invented by a medical device entrepreneur as a way to access wine in a bottle without removing the cork, by piercing the enclosure with a slender hollow needle and injecting Argon gas that displaces the wine that is forced out.

The idea is, because the natural properties of cork allow it to reseal itself after being pierced, you can remove wine from a bottle, place it back into storage, and revisit the same wine days, weeks, or months (years?) later without it suffering the usual effects, such as oxidization, of an open bottle. As boutique wine importer Lyle Fass told me, “For old wines [the Coravin] is miraculous.” Fass tasted a 1971 Chateau Beycheville that had been accessed a month earlier and reported that “it was fresh, vibrant, delicate and had not degraded at all.” This understandably has many wine collectors excited about the ability to sample their bottles at various points on the aging curve, but as Fass notes, “[Coravin] will change the game for restaurants.”

Restaurants were basically the laboratories for testing the Coravin. Del Posto, the elegant temple of Italian cuisine in Manhattan, has been offering wines by the glass using a Coravin for the last year. The list includes glasses of Piedmontese superstars like Gaja and Conterno for $200. Like Eric Asimov, who was skeptical of astronomic by-the-glass prices at NoMad, I was not convinced that simply using a Coravin to serve a traditional 6-ounce pour would reinvent restaurant wine programs.

Enter barmini by José Andrés. The Spanish chef, long known for pushing traditional boundaries in his cuisine, has established a “cocktail lab” next door to his molecular gastronomy showcase, minibar. Under wine director Lucas Paya, barmini is using the Coravin in the most innovative way I have seen.

I recently spent some time with Paya to hear about barmini’s “Wine by the Milliliter” program. Simply put, using a Coravin, Paya and his team members will pour you any amount of wine you want (with a minimum of a 30mL, or about a 1 oz., taste) from a diverse and impressive list of wines, some of which are over thirty years old. Because wine and water weigh virtually the same, the restaurant assumes that a gram of weight is roughly equal to a milliliter of volume. Using a sleek digital scale that has zeroed out the weight of the glass, a server pours from the bottle until you say “when” (you can eyeball it or ask that they stop at a particular measurement).

The use of a scale is the killer application of the Coravin. As Paya explains, when offering traditional glasses of expensive wine in a restaurant, servers have the difficult task of getting the pour level exactly right, otherwise one or the other of guest or restaurant will get cheated. The digital readout means all interested parties know where they stand. Think of a butcher slicing deli meat—you can ask for a pound of ham, but can mutually decide on a little more or less once you see it stacked on the paper.

Another benefit of using the Coravin is that the restaurant does not have to worry about taking a loss on wine that does not sell by the end of the night—the main reason why wines by the glass normally cost more that the equivalent fraction of the same wine by the bottle. And of course, you don’t have to buy a whole glass if you don’t want to. At Del Posto, it would cost you $200 for a glass of 1996 Gaja Costa Russi, but at barmini, a taste of 1997 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo can be had for just $36 (although after tasting it, you may decide to commit to a bigger pour!).

The fun, though, is in the breadth of choices available for tasting. Paya muses, “You’re in the area, you want to pop in and have a drink; your wife orders a cocktail and you get a glass of ’82 Lynch-Bages.” Sure enough, it’s on the list, at $1.07 per milliliter. (I tried it, and it was fantastic.) Paya says that he always wanted to have a reserve wine program at minibar, but it was too difficult to make it work economically for the restaurant with storage costs, etc. Now, he states with delight, barmini can become a “high-end wine bar,” something that is missing in Washington, DC. While Paya expects to continually expand the offerings, at first the choices largely cater to the tastes of the community: downtown DC’s power corridor. Thus, you’ll find Bordeaux and heavy hitters from California such as Harlan Estate and Bryant Family overrepresented on the list for now.

All of barmini’s wines were sourced from “reputable sources” like auctions and private collections, according to Paya. Perhaps no source is more reputable than the elBulli Cellar, which was auctioned off earlier this year. Paya worked at elBulli, and was the original purchaser of a lot of the wines up for sale, so it was perhaps a bit strange to be buying them back eight years later. But for some of the wines, he simply could not pass up the opportunity to have them available in his current restaurants.

For example, we shared a glass of 2001 Domaine de la Grange des Pères Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, an extremely rare blend of Cabernet, Mourvedre and Syrah from the Languedoc region of France. As Paya explains, “This is the perfect example of what a Coravin can do. This is a cult wine at perfect maturity, but so obscure, so that if we opened it and tried to serve it by the glass tonight, it might not sell and it would go to waste.”

A taste of 2011 Dauvissat Chablis La Forest leads to the inevitable discussion about premature oxidation (“premox”), the unfortunate affliction of some white Burgundies that exhibit mature aromas and flavors much earlier than these normally age-worthy wines should. Paya told me he remembers throwing many bottles down the elBulli sink. This brilliant Chablis, which was first accessed by the Coravin two weeks before my visit with Paya, was appropriately young and fruity. But with the Coravin, Burgundy enthusiasts have what Paya calls “a great opportunity to investigate more thoroughly” the premox issue. We can all learn more about the wines at different points in time and collectively educate ourselves “without breaking the bank.”

It has been “so far, so good” for Paya at minibar, with wine aficionados embracing the program, and novices thus far showing a willingness to experiment. Other Washington restaurants are testing out Coravins as well, mostly with traditional by-the-glass offerings. In addition to Kapnos and Graffiato, mentioned in this Dave McIntyre column, I’ve heard from Simon Stilwell at Rasika and Joe Quinn at Proof that they have the device in hand and are anxious to start literally poking around their cellars.

Some day, Paya tells me, he hopes to be pouring “50-year-old La Tâche and Madeira from the 1800’s” via Coravin. If that is not enough to get you salivating, check your pulse. I’ll be lined up at the scale, waiting for a few grams.

* * *

My own experience with Coravin has been less exciting. I received a sample device from Coravin to review for Terroirist, and have accessed a bottle of 1988 Chateau Cos d’Estournel on three occasions, each time the wine tasting worse than the last. I will post a final review at the end of my three months with the Coravin, but so far, I am not as impressed as Alder Yarrow. I may need to experiment further. Stay tuned.

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