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Defining a Wine Bar. And What is Not.

Wine, in case you haven't noticed, is pretty trendy these days. With all the reports about predictions of the US soon becoming the largest consumer of wine on the planet and the growing interest of the Millenial generation in wine, it's no wonder there has been a surge of business openings around the country that, in part or in whole, call themselves wine bars.

Sometimes they get creative and call themselves "Enotecas" and some have the dual moniker "Restaurant and Wine Bar," but more and more establishments are popping up with the designation designed, presumably, to appeal to us wine drinking thirty-somethings.

I think this is great -- real evidence that the market is improving for wine -- but at the same time I find myself more and more annoyed by the fact that many of these places aren't really wine bars.

Perhaps you've experienced this, too? You wander into a newly opened "Bistro and Wine Bar" in a favorite neighborhood only to find it is actually just a restaurant (sometimes even lacking the very piece of furniture that "bar" generally refers to) that serves wine by the (often over-full and impossible to swirl) glass? I often find that such establishments, even those that actually have a bar you can sit at, not only bear no resemblance in service or offering to what I think of as a wine bar, their wine selections are often worse than many restaurants their caliber who wouldn't dream of calling themselves wine bars.

So, as a general public service, as well as a way of exercising my own pent up frustration at a world that sometimes doesn't meet my expectations, I offer my definition of what makes for a real wine bar.

In the end, it's not all that complicated. A real wine bar needs to have two key features in my book:

1. The establishment needs to have an extensive list of wines that it offers by the bottle, by the glass AND by the taste, or by the half-glass (usually a 2 ounce pour). This list must change at some interval.

2. The establishment needs to have a place for you to sit while you enjoy your wine, either at something that actually resembles a "bar" or tables, chairs, or sofas of some sort. If this place is a restaurant, too, it must have an area like this that is separate from its regular dining room.

A restaurant that happens to have a list of wines by the glass (no matter how long or how great) is not a wine bar, no matter what they say on the sign outside. A wine shop that has a little tasting area where they sometimes (announced or unannounced) pour wines for customers to taste doesn't qualify either. A bar that also happens to serve wine by the glass? Nope.

Now that we've established the basic criteria, let's talk about what distinguishes the best wine bars from the merely average.

The Wine List
The art of the wine bar wine list is subtle and underappreciated. The best lists include wines from off the beaten track -- wines you would never come across in a supermarket or run-of-the-mill wine store. Length can sometimes be, but is not always a plus. As a wine lover, I appreciate diversity and choice, but there is no inherent value in the sheer number of wines on offer. They must be good. The kind of wine lists I love include all sorts of wines from many different places around the world, and often include older vintage, or library, wines to sample as well.

The Stemware
The best wine bars have proper crystal stemware, and lots of it. It is washed properly, rinsed extensively, and hand polished. When you stick your nose in their empty dry glasses, they smell of nothing, which is exactly the way they should. The glasses should be large, and if the bar is really good, it will offer you the proper shape of glass to fit the wine that you order. The best wine bars will even put a two-ounce tasting pour into the proper style of large glass, rather than force you (as many do) to enjoy that taste out of a smaller "tasting" glass.

The Food
I like a little food with my wine. I don't need my wine bars to be full restaurants, however. If I want a real meal with my wine, I'll go somewhere that will give me one. But I do think most wine bars should offer some sort of nibbles to be enjoyed with your wine, and the better ones will actually take some care in selecting non-supermarket cheeses or fresh artisan breads.

The Service
Service can make a huge difference in the wine bar experience, if only because it's pretty damn disappointing when you have a question about a wine and the person who's serving it to you can't answer the question. The best wine bars, in my opinion, are staffed with folks who are knowledgeable about the wines they serve, and who know how to serve them correctly, from the choice of stemware to the decanting of a special bottle.

The Atmosphere and The Crowd
Ambience is a subjective matter, so I don't presume to have any authority to describe what the "best" atmosphere is for a wine bar, but I'll tell you what I like. I like hip, but low key, and if I have to err in one direction or another, I'll lean towards the relaxed comfy side of the equation rather than the more energetic "scene." My favorite haunts often have couches or lounge style seating and never get too raucous.

That's not too much to ask, is it? If you can't even meet my two criteria, and you aren't prepared to take a shot at the rest, then please. Take those two small words off your marquee.

Comments (30)

Jack wrote:
02.02.07 at 11:36 PM

WHAT IS NOT A WINE BAR: Zin in Healdsburg. They have a normal number of wines by the glass - they just added the "and Wine Bar" in hopes of luring additional customers. But how many who come, expecting a real wine bar, and then get mad? Even their website tries to convince they're a wine bar - and they are soooo not.

tedo wrote:
02.03.07 at 12:51 AM

What IS a wine Bar? I think its one of the best that I have been to...The Tasting Room in Houston. Its now 3 Bar's strong, but you can, buy by the glass, bottle, and case. they have tasting events, and yes an actual BAR! They usually have a great atmosphere as well.
Not advertising, but hey I like the place.

Doug wrote:
02.03.07 at 9:08 AM

What IS a wines bar: new in Solvang open for two weeks named "Tastes of the Valleys". Besides flights and great a bottle selection, last night they had five or six of the bigger/younger wines decanted allowing them to open-up thru the evening. A small-cozy den with seating by a fireplace, the bar and private tables... very nice.

Ruth wrote:
02.03.07 at 9:26 AM

Doug, thanks for the tip, Alder and I drive by Solvang once or twice a year on our way to L.A. so we'll have to stop at Tastes of the Valleys next time.

Brian Miller wrote:
02.03.07 at 1:09 PM

What do you all think of the "WineStyles" chain of wine shops/bars? Are they more of the wine shop with a tasting room class? They are doing the tenant improvements now on a WineStyles three blocks from my townhouse, so....

I've heard they offer pretty limited wine selections. But, still-there is nothing even close to a wine bar in Vacaville right now.

On the other side: I really like tiny, cozy, crowded Tuca's Wine Bar in Davis. They offer a full menu and cram, somehow, a nice wine high end shop in the space. But, they also offer tasting flights with quite intriguing wines by the taste and by the class. The owner, Pru, is really passionate about wine. Great place!

Vino Girl wrote:
02.03.07 at 2:06 PM

Right on the money - this is one of my biggest wine pet peeves and I could not have said it any better myself. You would think that a city as sophisticated as New York would excel at the wine bar concept but the examples are, sadly, few and far between. I still think you have to go to Florence or Rome to find an authentic wine bar. That said, In Vino, Vino Vino, Bin 71 and Il Posto Accanto are a few good examples of true wine bars in NYC.

Oh, and if you think you are a wine bar because you can line up 4 glasses of plonk and call it a "flight" -- think again!

Brian Miller wrote:
02.03.07 at 4:13 PM

Hey Vino Girl-You mean that vertical of Hearty Burgundy on the menu was not a sign of a classy wine bar? :)

Erika wrote:
02.03.07 at 5:07 PM

I work at a WineStyles in Rockford IL. I do not call it a 'wine bar'. The one I work at is a wine and gift shop. We have something open everyday, and have weekly or monthly events, but by no means is it a 'buy a glass and sit down and drink it place'. We do have very different not so trendy or over produced wines, and our store has around 200 to choose from. Not to plug the store, but you asked :) And again, they are locally owned franchises, so they're all different.

Brian Miller wrote:
02.03.07 at 8:26 PM

Thanks, Erika. I'm not complaining at all-we need a nice wine shop in my town's sleepy, moribund downtown. Especially as all the commercial energy in Vacaville is now centered on a glorified collection of tacky pastel strip malls by the freeway. (Oh gopody! These strip malls are on the site of a defunct hokey theme park and freeway restaurant. What a glorious tradition we have!)

I hope they have some interesting Italian wines!

Alfredo Echeverría wrote:
02.04.07 at 4:20 AM

Great description of a real wine bar!And in Costa Rica there is one and unique called "Tintos & Blancos". More than 250 option by the bottle and 35 by the glass with a serving of 150 mil. per glass in 18 oz size glass, a menu with tapas (classic and contemporary recipes)a real bar with 16 stools, live music,a restaurant menu with more than 25 options. A wine shop and a meeting dining room with a medieval table for 24.

Melanie wrote:
02.04.07 at 5:16 AM

Reading this article makes me wish I knew enough to open my own wine bar! Just reading about what a wine bar really should be, and my imagination is filling my mind with these lovely images! :)

jon o wrote:
02.04.07 at 10:02 AM

right on alder. Next time you're in San Diego, stop by Wine Steals on University Ave in Hillcrest, it's your kind of place -



Jack wrote:
02.04.07 at 10:11 AM

You know you're at a real wine bar...

...when you have 17 wine glasses on the table (between the two of you)...

...ah, I still have fond memories of the SoHo Kitchen & Bar in NYC. 1997 Bryant was probably the best wine I had there. But I loved the Burgundy reds flight and the Riesling flight.

jade wrote:
02.04.07 at 10:17 PM

Ahhhh - noone has really mentioned it yet, but to me knowledgable service is very important for a wine bar. If I ask my server or bartender for white Burgundy or white Bordeaux, I don't want to get a confused look in return.

Maureen wrote:
02.05.07 at 6:41 AM

Thank you!!! Finally, someone else gets it.

Stephanie wrote:
02.05.07 at 10:50 AM

Hallelujah! Finally someone wrote about this topic.

02.05.07 at 12:53 PM

I'd love to know what a couple of your favorite wine bars are... a name? or two? Pretty please?

02.05.07 at 12:57 PM

I'd love to know what a couple of your favorite wine bars are... a name? or two? Pretty please?

Alder wrote:
02.05.07 at 12:58 PM

Jennifer, keep reading Vinography over the next couple of weeks ;-)

Joel wrote:
02.05.07 at 1:25 PM

Brian has it right with Pru's Passion. It takes passion on the part of owners and staff to put on a wine bar of such quality. And patrons willing to pay for it.

As customers we can help educate and elevate the mediocracy that jump on a trend or we can go somewhere else. It is the people that do not return that owners need to hear from.

Northeast Twin Cities: Ursula's in White Bear Lake. Five-Six bar stools, ten tables, eclectic menu, changing wine list and passionate staff and owner.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
02.05.07 at 2:02 PM

If you are in Portland here are a couple: Noble Rot, though it won 'Restaurant of the Year' its first year I still think it fits the 'wine bar' theme. Lots of flights, always changing and alot to choose from. Oregon Wines on Broadway, a downtown shop and wine bar featuring Oregon and Washington wines ( almost ) exclusively. Up to 30 wines by the taste or glass. You can travel the entire Willamette Valley from your bar stool.

Arthur wrote:
02.05.07 at 2:34 PM

I agree with Jack. The food at Zin is nice but it is a straight up restaurant. Servers are nice, informed and informative but I saw nothing meeting the criteria Alder sets forth.

As for WineStyles: they tend to have a lot of variation since each owner has the choice of what they stock. The one by my house has become somewhat of a wine equvalent of the Regal Beagle with a regular crowd. They pour tastings about 3-4 days a week.

victoria wrote:
02.05.07 at 3:08 PM

If you ever find your way up to Sacramento there is a great place called "58 Degrees and Holdings Co." They have wine shop and a great wine bar featuring aroung 55 wines poured by the glass (6 oz) or as a tasting (3 oz), and of course you can by it by the bottle. They have a nice light menue as well if you want something to nibble on while you sip and taste.
This is a true winebar. Cheers!

Alex wrote:
02.06.07 at 8:59 AM

What do you think of the wine bar Nectar down on Steiner Street in the Marina? From the few times I have been there, I have really enjoyed it. What is your take on the place?

Alder wrote:
02.06.07 at 1:50 PM


Short answer: it is a nice place with a good list, but most of the time it is a total "scene." If you can wait, I'll be reviewing it in the coming weeks.

Chris wrote:
02.06.07 at 6:41 PM

Living in San Francisco, a city with no shortage of wine bars (real and fake), without a doubt the best one is Hidden Vine. From the cozy atmosphere to the great and ever-changing wine list, to the fantastic owners, it doesn't get any better than Hidden Vine.

Brian Miller wrote:
02.06.07 at 10:40 PM

Victoria-I really like 58 Degrees. I went to a fantastic Cab tasting there a couple of months ago that was very impressive in the range of options. Emphasis on California, and no French, but Australian, and a quite intriguingly odd Chilean Cab that the staff all loved because it is so unique.

Tammy wrote:
02.07.07 at 9:08 AM

Great article. It needed to be said. I live in Seattle and used to have to drive to Portland to find "real" wine bars such as Noble Rot. Now, I've got a great one by my home, "Bricco della Regina Anna". Lots of wine (glass enclosed wine cellar takes up half of this small space), cheese from around the world and all of the food comes from a convection oven (no hood- helps keep it from becoming a "restaurant"). Biggest peeve in Seattle is a "wine bar" that opened recently that has 20 tables and a "bar" area with exactly two stools. Sounds like a restaurant to me...

Erin Muellner wrote:
11.08.08 at 5:02 PM

I disagree about wine bars offering "by the taste, or by the half-glass (usually a 2 ounce pour)". Alcohol is alcohol and 99% of customers will take advantage of this non-confident approach so-called "wine tastings", period. Never mind dealing with a**hole pretentious wine geeks and amateur wine sommelier at the same time. Wine costs money (or did you forget that?). If you allowed customers to do wine "tastings", you're giving away about 2 bottles away per night. I asked many owners about your concept of what constitutes a real wine bar (according to your article, "real" wine bar) and 100% of them said, "I'd prefer not to, we are selling alcohol, we have to pay for not only wines-but the rent, everything that goes into running the store, gas/electricity, credit card machine usage/tax, etc. etc. etc, and it shows that we lack confidence in selling our wines, it's insulting 'cause we purchased the wines in the first place." Go open your own place and you'll see what I mean. The rest of your article made sense though.

Alder wrote:
11.08.08 at 5:16 PM


I've read your comment and I'm struggling a little to understand what you're talking about. I think you're disagreeing with me because you're making the assumption that when I say that wine bars need to offer wines by the "taste" that I mean they should give free tastes. That is most certainly NOT what I am saying. I am merely talking about the fact that so called "real" wine bars need to offer customers the option of purchasing smaller pours than a full glass.

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