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.