U.S. wine bars always have been about experimentation and adventure. In a land where the native wine culture still is relatively new, and where people lack confidence in everything from how to properly hold a wine glass to how to pronounce wine names, wine bars have taken on the task of educating and de-mystifying a complex topic while satisfying customers. With the popularity of wine growing, however, wine bars are growing more ambitious: offering opportunities to try many different sips, bites and flights, going high-tech with the education and selection process, expanding the menuing of wine-friendly foods and wine-and-food paired menus and serving up one-stop venues for wine discovery, socializing, unwinding and retail purchase.
Wine bars in the U.S. are built upon the foundation of approachability—of wines, food and servers. “No pretension” often is the catch-phrase. “Learning about new wines should be fun and take place with a glass in one hand, not necessarily in a classroom,” says Emily Streib Marcil, president of The Grape, an Atlanta-based wine bar with seven locations in the Southeast. Staff that are well-versed about wine yet approachable is an area where many wine bars are leading the way.
Here is a sampling of some of the bars that are currently covering new ground.
U.S. airports around the country
Located in 10 different U.S airports—from Seattle to New York—San Francisco-based Vino Volo is aiming to reinvent the way wine is discovered and enjoyed. It has the added burden of serving people on the move and dealing with the stress of travel, but that’s not something that fazes Carla Wytmar, director of development and marketing for the chain. “Everyone at Vino Volo shares a passion for two things: discovering great wines and making people happy. Our approach combines these elements into an incredible travel experience for each guest.”
The concept provides a restful setting in the midst of a chaotic environment. At the Seattle location, for instance, soothing music plays and comfortable furniture is arranged in configurations for parties of one, two or more. The short, focused wine lists are organized into tasting flights of two or three glasses each, ranging from $7 for three “World Value Reds” to $21 for two “Sommelier Series” wines. Some recent examples of wines on the latter flight include a 2005 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages, 2004 Château Lascombes Margaux and 2003 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino.
Vino Volo has a patent on its “tasting framework,” which uses guest cheat sheet tasting notes that suggest flavor descriptors for each wine as well as pinpoint producer, region, varietal and vintage. Accompanying bites include bowls of olives, Marcona almonds, cheese plates, a Mac and Cheese doused with truffle oil, plus tacos and sandwiches. Wytmar says Vino Volo doesn’t usually have the luxury of a long evening to seduce its customers, but that, too, is not a problem. “We get our guests in and out in 10 to 15 minutes if they have a plane to catch but want to enjoy of flight of wines and a bite to eat prior to boarding.”
The marriage of wine bar and retail shop at Atlanta-based, eight-unit The Grape helps guests try before they buy—or buy after they’ve discovered something they love. The Grape offers an international array of more than 60 wines by the glass, which range from $7 to $18, and upwards of 150 wines by the bottle, which range from $27 to $190, in a stylish atmosphere with access to staff “who are knowledgeable but still approachable and fun,” according to Emily Streib Marcil. A customized guest experience is emphasized by allowing diners to try wines they’re unfamiliar with by the glass, half-glass, flight or bottle, and by offering samples of any wine, which helps satisfy guests at all levels of wine appreciation whether they want to become aficionados or simply sit down to enjoy good wine and company.
The Grape also prides itself on staff that can tell you everything from technical aspects of the wine to “insider” winemaker and winery stories. The Grape’s wine vendor partners and master sommelier work together to provide staff with information about the wines and the wineries through daily staff trainings. “It’s important we spend time learning about the winery and the winemaker’s vision in producing great wines,” adds Marcil.
To lure in customers looking for value, a monthly wine special focused around a particular region or varietal is offered, with featured wines, typically four, available by the half-glass, full glass or in a tasting flight. Recently Los Vascos from Chile’s Casablanca Valley was featured and offered as part of a flight for $16. Paired full-course menus, inspired by the featured wines and developed by a chef and sommelier team, also are popular at about $35.
“The best Grape experience is when you try a few different wines and a few small plates. It makes trying new things fun,” says Marcil, who adds that The Grape uses a custom built, in-house nitrogen system for preserving wines. The Grape’s cuisine is “small plate gourmet” and changes seasonally. Small plates include roasted garlic hummus, $6, and lamb chops, $20 for five, among others.
New York City’s Clo wine bar is nestled dramatically on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center and boasts a stunning view of Central Park. Opened in the summer of 2008, the bar also offers an innovative, high-tech, multi-layered experience that helps guests taste their way through different wine regions. It showcases a large wine list safely preserved with its custom “eno-tasting system” dispensing technology—an Italian Enomatic wine preservation system with custom software to work with the technology at Clo, along with custom grills to enhance the cooling capacity of the unique units.
Customers sample 4-ounce pours ranging from $8 (a 2008 Librandi Ciro from Calabria) to $48 (a 2005 Opus One) while perched at a communal table featuring a multi-user, multi-touch projection menu that allows them to explore wines through categories such as grape, region, price and tasting notes.
At Clo, the act of learning and selecting wines is presented as an active adventure for the guest. After deciding on the $13 2007 Neumeister Gelber Muskateller “Klassik,” for instance, a relative of the muscat family and indigenous to Austria, a guest will be directed to the bottle’s location, where they can dispense their pour with a prepaid bar card. Amiable servers are on hand to orient guests to the technology, answer questions about the wines, supply fresh glasses and serve cheeses ($15 for three choices), charcuterie ($6 to $9 per selection) or chocolates ($2 apiece).
Andrew Bradbury, Clo’s creator, says the interactive technology is not meant to replace the personal touch. Rather, “it supplements personal interaction and adds layers to the experience that other wine bars cannot offer.”
Purple Café and Wine Bar
Diners might think the most dazzling part of this downtown Seattle eatery is the two-and-a-half-story wine tower bordered by a winding staircase, but far more dazzling are the off-the-grid wine selections and numerous small plates on offer, many of which come with a wine pairing suggestion. Purple’s approach to pleasing customers is based on uncovering uncommon wine choices, oddball red and white categories that pack plenty of interest and rouse curiosity, says wine manager Chris Horn. Examples include a 2005 Sapera from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a 2007 Karl Fritsch Zweigelt from Austria and a 2005 Esporão Reserve Reguengos from Portugal, a blend of three white indigenous grapes. It’s an added bonus at Purple that these unknown wines often compare in quality to much costlier, better-known producers.
Complementing the wine selection is the bar’s tasting menu, which allows guests to taste some 20 items, each three to four bites and $3 to $5 apiece, ready to pair with half glasses of wine. Standouts include gorgonzola-stuffed dates with pine nuts and Dungeness crab salad with avocado and lemon aïoli. Purple also offers a cheese menu that includes three or more cheeses with three-ounce wine pairings and add-ons like quince paste, Marcona almonds and marinated olives, each an additional $2.
Desserts follow a similar trajectory, with several small “Sweet Bites” that menu from $2 to $4 each and include such temptations as the house-made chocolates and ricotta raspberry crème brûlée with one and half ounce pairings of dessert wines or their $4 Port.
Promotions include “½ off Wine Days,” where guests who spend $25 on food on a Sunday or Monday get a 50 percent discount on a list of white, red and sparkling options. There are new three-course menus at $25 and $35 with optional wine pairings for an additional $15, too. Purple Café and Wine Bar also is reaching out to the young crowd through Twitter and Facebook; it fields questions and critiques, and announces wine dinners, tastings, new menu items and wine releases via the popular social networks.
Purple also has two other Seattle-area locations, one in Kirkland and the other in Woodinville.
As wine bars pop up around the country—on the ground floors of luxury residences, at airports and ferry terminals, in city alleyways and on grand boulevards—they continue to evolve with new approaches to selection and presentation. They strive through technology, wine savvy and the timeless basics of customer satisfaction to offer education, flexibility and the comforts of a good wine and a well-matched bite.
If you’ve ever pulled out of the Paris Gare de Lyon train station headed for Burgundy, you might experience a déjà vu when entering RN74, San Francisco’s newest wine bar. Sommelier and co-owner with the Mina Group, Rajat Parr, dreamed up and designed the space to replicate the experience of traveling to his favorite wine country destination.
With a wine bar adjacent to a restaurant, Parr has the opportunity to offer a variety of options: small plates and a glass at the bar or comfortable conversation areas in the wine bar, multi-course meals in the leather booths of the restaurant or late-night dining options such as free-range chicken croquettes, $16, all of which come with wine pairing recommendations.
RN74’s main approach to selection, price and presentation is value and “keeping things simple while offering a great variety,” notes Parr. He says the “more casual and social environment” of wine bars is a major draw for any wine bar. All of RN74’s wines by the glass are offered at half price for a 2.5-ounce pour, there is a market list of 100 wines under $100, and a last bottle board, displayed on a European train board, offers wines priced just above cost. The restaurant and wine bar serve a modern French-American menu with wines by the glass that range from $7 to $20, and wine list bottles range from $21 for a 2007 Wattle Creek Sauvignon Blanc to $12,800 for a 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru. The wine bar menu consists of smaller plates and more casual bites than the restaurant menu, and it includes offerings such as six East Coast oysters on the half shell for $16 and charcuterie plates for $11.