What separates a good wine bar from a great one? More than you'd think. It's an elusive mix at best: Easy-to-pinpoint characteristics can surely make you love a place at first glance, but it's the more subtle, nuanced elements that will ultimately bring you back. Here's how the best are gettin' it done.
1. Glassware:Think this size doesn't matter? Think again. I didn't believe this myself until I tasted the same exact pinot noir from the wrong glass (result: sour, antiseptic flavor) followed by the right one (glorious, round mouthfeel and pitch-perfect cherry taste). This ain't a fluke: Every wine has different flavor profiles, which you taste everywhere from the tip of your tongue to the very back of your throat. Consequently, the shape of a wine glass alters the spot where the wine you just sipped hits the aforementioned tastebuds. A serious wine bar will offer lead crystal stems and at a minimum, one for whites and another for reds.
2. Atmosphere: True, defining the atmosphere of a truly kick-ass wine bar is a bit nebulous, as much a symphony of what it should not be as what it should. Lighting should be subtle, but bright enough to clearly evaluate each wine's color. The music should be loud enough to hear and enjoy over the din of conversation, while not drowning out the delightful "clink" of glasses raised in a toast. You should never feel uptight, uncomfortable, or worst of all, unwelcome.
3: The wine list: While the presence of a great list might seem like a given, you'd be shocked at how few wine bars really get this one right. The wine list of champions is as thoughtfully curated as an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum - meticulously selected and always representing. What's not cool is a book that may as well be a love letter to the producers of Silver Oak or dedicated to wines ranked 90 points and above by someone with the initials 'Robert' and 'Parker.' The list should let you pick wines from around the world, represent a slew of vintages and include familiar as well as foreign labels.
4. Regular tasting/training events: At its heart, the mission of a top-notch wine bar should be to educate its patrons, or at a minimum, create a dialogue for them. The best way to do this is to offer frequent tasting and/or training events, designed to highlight emerging industry talent or offer a primer on port. Special shout-outs for the wine bars featuring winemaker-led tastings - the only thing better than tasting a fantastic wine is tasting it with the man or woman responsible for bringing it to life.
5. Selection of pour sizes: When you're out to dinner somewhere, ordering a glass of wine means that you're likely to get a four to six ounce pour of whatever you ordered. The beauty of a winning wine bar lies in its ability to give you the chance to experiment with an assortment of wines (hence the term wine "tasting") without having to commit to a quarter-bottle of wine in a single go.
6. Half-bottles:This is a bit of a corollary to number five, but with a twist. Pretty much every wine bar sells their juice by the bottle, but the dearth of half-bottles available on most lists is literally the bane of wine lovers worldwide. Half-bottles make so much sense. There's the whole aspect of freshness - no need to worry about being stuck with a glass of something that's already been open for two days. Then there's the food pairing conundrum - what do you do when you've ordered the lamb chops and your companion the lobster? These 375-milliliter gems are just the thing. Serious wine bars understand the appeal of the half-bottle, and soon, so will you.
7. Well-trained, passionate staff: Wine bar staff must excel at more than just the basic platitudes. This means no drips when pouring, knowing the proper serving temperature for white, red, still, and sparkling wines, and speaking of bubbly, for the love of Kermit Lynch please no popping of Champagne corks. A sommelier or two is a must; the servers should be positively giddy about wine and full of suggestions to make your experience grand.
8. Large, diverse by the glass selection: Another seemingly obvious element of a great wine bar, but that didn't stop me from checking out a neighborhood spot just the other day and discovering exactly ONE French red wine available by the glass. It's fine if French wine isn't your bag, but to virtually ignore the country that's widely regarded as producing more quality wine than anywhere else in the world seems a bit of folly. A serious wine bar has a minimum of 25 wines available by the glass, and takes you from dry to sweet, and from Champagne to Port.
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9. The right food: Because I was a chef before a sommelier, I was trained from day one of my wine education about the importance of pairing wine with food to truly elevate the experience from the mundane to the extraordinary. That's not to say that a wine bar needs to have a Michelin star to be any good; in fact, quite the opposite. A great wine bar doesn't even need to have an oven; just fantastic finger-food, some salty, some crunchy, some sweet. It's also critical that the snacks serve as the complement to the wine, not the other way around. Simple plates of meats, cheeses, nuts and olives are the perfect foil to emphasize and highlight the variety of flavors coming out of your glass.
10. Flights: A wine bar without flights is like fat-free ice cream: It just doesn't make any sense. Flights are integral to an idyllic wine bar experience, for they offer you the opportunity to do side-by-side tastings - the very best way to differentiate the qualities of one wine from another. Sommeliers have lots of fun putting together fanciful flights, but they're more than just a good time: They also make excellent props for teaching the basics of wine evaluation.
Here's a short list of some of my favorite Denver wine bars:
Cellar Wine Bar, 2556 15th Street Caveau Wine Bar, 450 East 17th Avenue Sketch, 101 North Broadway Lala's Wine Bar & Pizzeria, 410 East Seventh Avenue Wine Loft, 1527 Wazee Street and 7600 Landmark Way, Greenwood Village