Of all the wine joints in all the towns in all the world…which one do you walk into? I know mine – a chic little lounge in downtown Chicago devoted entirely to champagne. It’s packed with trendy, off-the-clock urbanites popping bottles worth that day’s work. One thing’s for sure – wine bars ain’t cheap. With markups up to 500% above retail value, it’s hard to understand why these pops never stop – and why more and more of these wine bars are springing up all over the country. Whether you live in downtown Awesomeville or small town Suburbia, chances are you’ve been a part of this thriving trend. And if you haven’t…well, there’s a whole new world (and old world) of wine to discover.
So there are dive bars, biker bars, sports bars…where did the idea of a classy wine bar come from? I’d imagine virtually every European country would try to take credit, but if I had to narrow it down to one – no! I can’t…how about two? – it’d be a tie between France, Italy, and Spain (okay, three!). Why these three? Because I’ve seen them for myself. France and Italy boast magnificent street side cafes that are as common as Starbucks in New York City. Airy and bright on the outside, sophisticated and dimly-lit on the inside, they attract the caffeine crowd simultaneously with the happy hour herds. Their menus typically include a selection of coffees, teas, wines, beers and small plates (entrées in French, aperitivi in Italian) to fit any taste and hunger level. These cafes are meeting and socializing spots; not beer-pongin’, shot-throwin’, “why don’t we get drunk and screw” locales (sorry, Jimmy). In Spain, wines and Sangria are meant to be enjoyed and paired with tapas for an altogether titillating light dining experience. American wine bars have adopted similar customs: they tend to serve typical wine-pairing fare like cheeses, antipasti, and desserts. This concept opens customers to the art of wine tasting, of distinguishing flavors, and understanding pairings.
While wine tastings these days are increasing in trend, part of that distinction comes with a price. Kind of a tit-for-tat: you can try as many different wines by the glass as you want, but for the same mark-ups as a snazzy restaurant. Yet, with thousands of different varietals from dozens of countries to explore, many do take the wine bar philosophy of “taste before you buy.” After all, it’s at a wine bar that you can enjoy unique, imported, specially selected wines that you’ve never heard of, instead of the same old brands you see at every other chain restaurant. And these bars are anything but chains. Most pride themselves with modern décor, soft, sophisticated lighting, loungy music, and comfortable sofas. The idea is to indulge your senses as well as your palate, while broadening wine knowledge and – hell, if I can’t mention it here, where else? – feeling a little hoity-toity for the night.
What started out as an experiment in the ‘80s has now become the modish haunt of downtowns and city centers. Laid-back and sexy, the wine bar phenomenon is one that’s growing with no end in sight. In a day and age where wine is now affordably accessible to the masses, there’s no reason to stay home with a Two-Buck Chuck when you can try a Chilean Merlot, Australian Shiraz, and a bona fide French champagne all in one place. Bad economy, you say? Pssh. That never stopped the Greeks. Or the Romans. Or the Great Depressionists. Don’t let $8 stop you from discovering your new favorite wine at the hottest bar in town – the wine bar.