New-wave Wine Bars

Unusual wines and eclectic decors distinguish 10 lively venues around the country
Nov 15, 2000
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New-wave Wine Bars

Unusual wines and eclectic decors distinguish 10 lively venues around the country

By Jacob Gaffney

Sitting in a plush green chair, HBO Creative Services vice president Mark Davidson welcomes 20 coworkers to an evening brainstorming session. Instead of gathering in a stuffy office conference-room, they're at Rhône, a newly opened wine bar tucked away on a cobblestone street in Manhattan's recently revived Meatpacking District.

"We like this space," says Davidson. "It combines lounging with a different take on the wine experience. My impression of a wine bar used to be fuzzy--not hip and cool like this place."

Not far from the HBO party, a young woman studies the wine list. She selects a glass of Château de St.-Cosme Gigondas 1997 for $9; she swirls, sips, then smiles, pleased with her choice.

Owner Jeffrey Goldenstein is smiling, too. He says his new venture is successful because people want to learn about different types of wine, but don't have the opportunity at most restaurants or typical bars. Rhône's wine list offers 35 wines by the glass (from $5 to $17) and 200 bottlings, with selections focusing exclusively on France.

Rhône is part of a growing number of wine bars that are combining hip decor with interesting bottlings, mixing a lively social scene with wine education. New York City has been particularly fertile soil for this emerging crop. In the trendy East Village, Veloce (Italian for "speed") zeros in on Italy, serving 25 wines by the glass (from $6.50 to $14). The bar's furnishings are sleek and futuristic, but a warm color-scheme of beige and light brown gives the bar a welcoming touch. Intimate Bar Demi, in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, offers 20 wines by the glass (from $6 to $13), and it seats a maximum of 12. In Midtown, Artisanal focuses on wine-and-cheese pairings. It's owned by chef Terrance Brennan, who offers one of the best cheese selections in the city at his restaurant Picholine.

However, New York isn't alone -- wine bars are a nationwide trend, flourishing from North Carolina to Northern California. Although they share an ability to present a complex subject with clarity and verve, each establishment has its own distinct character, and many are devoted to the wines of a specific region.

One way a wine bar with an adventurous list might encourage patrons to experiment is to offer "flights" of wine. A flight -- generally consisting of 2- to 3-ounce samples of three or four different bottlings -- gives wine lovers a chance to taste before they buy.

At the Hudson Club in Chicago, flights have become so popular that wine director Curt Burns has developed a specialized carrying system for his servers. The stainless-steel devices allow servers to carry up to two flights in each hand. At first, says Burns, "We spilled a lot of wine, mixed up the glasses and paid for a lot of dry cleaning." But now the samplers have become so popular that at times a single table will order six different flights. "They make up one-third of our sales, about 150 flights a night," adds Burns.

In Atlanta, Vino! rotates flights daily and matches them with tapas (small servings of Spanish hors d'oeuvres). Owner Ophelia Santos says the idea of having little tastes of wine paired with little tastes of food in a Mediterranean café was a hard sell at first. "In Atlanta, people only liked [famous] labels," says Santos. "There was confusion as to what flights are, but now they bring a level of sophistication."

The real beauty of these new wine bars is that they allow customers to choose -- free from intimidation -- a wine from a list whose offerings range from obscure varietals to old favorites. These lively, contemporary spaces have no room for the old-fashioned, conservative sommelier.

On a late-summer evening, MaryAnn Mosel and Laura Hastings are chatting in New York's Enoteca I Trulli, a small, casual wine bar that offers only Italian wines.

"We like wine, and this is an opportunity to learn more," says Hastings. "The choices of wine at a typical bar just aren't attractive."

Both women like the idea of a wine bar that concentrates on the wines of one country, giving them a chance to branch out, learn about a specific region and avoid predictable choices. "Here you don't feel intimidated or taken advantage of," says Mosel. "We have a wide variety to choose from, but then again," she adds with a laugh, "I am drinking a rosé right now."

Following are reviews of 10 wine bars located around the country -- most of them new, some old stalwarts -- where you can learn about what's hot in the wine world or simply enjoy a glass of rosé with friends.

For the complete article, please see the Nov. 15, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 170.

1829 Cleveland Ave., Charlotte, N.C.
Telephone (704) 333-WINE
Open Monday to Saturday
Wine selections 200 wines by the bottle; 200 wines by the glass from $5 to $17.50

The Bonterra Dining & Wine Room opened last year on the site of a historic landmark. Built in 1897, the red-brick building was a Methodist-Episcopal church until it closed its doors in 1988.

The interior has been largely rebuilt. The heavy oak bar, topped with tiles made of cork from Portugal, has been placed where the pulpit used to be. The sloped, amphitheater floors were leveled, and the congregation sits at tables, instead of pews.

"All the big banks are headquartered here, so we have a melting pot of people," says owner John Duncan. "We knew Charlotte was a ready market. The building is our draw, and we renovated it by hand."

The wine list is anchored by a selection of 10 flights of three 2-ounce portions, and every evening, a new flight is offered hourly. The flights are grouped by varietal, such as the "Fat, Chewy Cabernet" flight for $15: Dominus Estate Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1997, Livingston Napa Valley Stanley's Selection 1996 and the Dry Creek Reserve Sonoma County 1997.

1050 Charter Oak Ave., Napa Valley, Calif.
Telephone (707) 963-8888
Open Daily
Wine selections 250 wines by the bottle; 100 to 120 wines by the glass from $5 to $30

Cantinetta is the new venture of Tra Vigne restaurant, a Napa Valley favorite. The wine bar is located in a 19th century stone building originally used to house Sherry.

Although wine director David Stevens' goal is to recreate the ambience and conviviality of an Italian wine bar, the list's focus remains on California. A popular flight offered at Cantinetta comprises 2-ounce samplings of three "cult" Cabernets for $85: the Shafer Hillside Select 1995, Harlan Estate 1996 and Bryant Family 1997.

The wine bar also offers small dishes to accompany the 5-ounce wines by the glass, from plates of cured meats and cheeses to beef empanadas and smoked salmon with asparagus (each costs $2.50).

2709 McKinney Ave., Dallas
Telephone (214) 303-0302
Open Tuesday to Saturday
Wine selections 100 wines by the bottle; 70 wines by the glass from $5 to $18

Owner Terence Ballou tries to purchase wines that he considers rare finds in the Lone Star state, such as the 1996 Frankland Shiraz Western Australia Isolation Ridge ($12 for a 6-ounce glass).

Chandeliers and candlelight provide ambience in the evenings at Cork. The copper-coated bar shines in the flickering light. Ballou offers his wall space to local artists, who hang their paintings to be sold.

To go with the wine, Cork offers a selection of mostly American cheeses such as Maytag Blue from Newton, Iowa, and Reserve Cheddar from Grafton, Vt., for $4 a serving. One of Ballou's favorites is his Dallas-made chèvre, which he describes as "a big Texan cheese from big Texan goats."

888 N. Wabash, Chicago
Telephone (312) 337-4078
Open Daily
Wine selections 325 wines by the bottle; 50 wines by the glass from $6 to $18

Cru places an emphasis on wine education without sacrificing comfort. This cozy wine bar features warm, golden colors, brown leather sofas and overstuffed chairs in a room illuminated by chandeliers and two large fireplaces.

Owner Mindy Trafman also uses Cru as a classroom to teach wine courses. Whenever she sees students lounge back on the couch, prop their feet up on a coffee table or curl up next to the fireplace with a glass of wine, she knows they're feeling right at home.

101 Carl St., San Francisco
Telephone (415) 566-3063
Open Daily
Wine selections 500 wines by the bottle; 55 to 60 wines by the glass from $5 to $25

Eos wine director Eugenio Jardim makes a special effort to find offbeat wines and rarities, such as the Novy Cellars Syrah Rosé 1999 ($5.50 per glass) or the dry Corazon Gew¿rztraminer California 1999 ($10 per glass).

"People come in here -- wine savvies -- look at the list, and say 'I don't recognize any of these!'" says Jardim. "That puts a smile on my face."

Named for the Greek goddess of the dawn, Eos invites a guest winemaker or importer to give a lecture on wine every Wednesday evening. Recently, Larry Turley dropped by and poured six single-vineyard Zinfandels.

504 N. Wells St., Chicago
Telephone (312) 467-1947
Open Monday to Saturday
Wine selections 250 wines by the bottle; 102 wines by the glass from $5 to $35

Named for an automobile that was popular in the 1930s and '40s, the Hudson Club is furnished with beige booths and red rounded seats, reminiscent of the car's design. The lights hanging from the ceiling mimic taillights and hood ornaments.

Wine director Curt Burns places particular emphasis on his flight program; there are 24 different samplers available, covering all of the selections on the wine list except the six sparkling wines. Each flight focuses on a region or varietal. For example, the Alsace flight offers four servings, including an Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois 1998 and Albert Mann Gewürztraminer 1998, for $9.25.

129 South St., Boston
Telephone (617) 542-5108
Open Monday to Saturday
Wine selections 225 wines by the bottle; 50 to 60 wines by the glass from $4.50 to $14

French for the muscles used to make you smile, Les Zygomates serves wines by the glass in 6-ounce servings and also offers each one as a 2-ounce taste. Most selections come from France, but co-owner Lorenzo Savona also tries to offer a range of wines from other parts of the world.

The modest decor is intended to echo that of French bistros. "We didn't have a lot of money when we opened," says Savona. "But the chef, Ian, and I had both lived in France and loved the black-and-white tiles and conventional dark wood of the bistros."

Savona also likes to pair his wines with jazz: Local musicians play at Les Zygomates every night.

1 Rockefeller Plaza, New York
Telephone (212) 262-7700
Open Monday to Saturday; brunch, Sunday
Wine selections 1,000 wines by the bottle; 130 wines by the glass from $5 to $49

Wine director Nikos Antonakeas has achieved what he feels is the epitome of what a wine bar should be: "Upscale, with casual comfort, no effort and no dress code." The sleek dining room features an undulating bar, and in warm weather, many customers enjoy sitting outside to take in the view of Rockefeller Center.

On Monday nights, chef Michael Haimowitz prepares a special wine tasting menu, consisting of three courses paired with five glasses of wine, for $50.

100 S.W. Seventh St., Dundee, Ore.
Telephone (503) 554-1500
Open Daily
Wine selections 50 to 70 wines by the bottle; 16 to 20 wines by the glass from $3 to $15

Opened by Ponzi Vineyards and located just across the street from Argyle winery, Ponzi Wine Bar has a modern look, with Douglas fir wine bins and a smooth concrete floor. Each Ponzi Vineyard bottling is also available in a 2-ounce taste for $1.

Each of the wine bar's three flights of five wines revolves around Oregon Pinot Noir. One includes "rare gems," such as the Brick House Willamette Valley Les Dijonnais 1998 and Torii Mor Balcombe Vineyard 1998, for $30.

"Obviously we focus a lot on Pinot Noir because that is the big grape in the state," says manager Tim Healy. "But we also offer harder to find [Oregon] wines like Tempranillos, Cabs, Merlots and Zins."

63 Gansevoort St., New York
Telephone (212) 367-8440
Open Monday to Saturday, evenings only
Wine selections 200 wines by the bottle; 35 wines by the glass from $5 to $17

Rhône's sleek, modern look features cement walls, space-age chairs, tables made from 200-year-old black-walnut trees and a zinc-framed bar.

Chef Payson Dennis serves the cuisine of the Rhône region. For the winter, he is offering dishes such as potato-encrusted sea bass with oxtail ragout.

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