In Weenie Veritas Why wine-lovers should avoid wine bars

Danny Hellman

My first taste of the 2006 Burgundy was not pleasant. I seem to recall having sound reasons for ordering the glass of Domaine Billard Hautes-Côte de Beaune at Cork Wine Bar: I was in the mood for a light-bodied red and had noticed that the Billard, at a $12 a pop, was one of the more expensive pours at the place. But the wine was so tart and acidic that I called the bartender over and suggested that perhaps the juice had become oxidized.

That’s when my palate went on trial right there at the bar. The bartender didn’t immediately replace my glass or offer up an alternative; instead she took the bottle and poured a little for Cork co-owner Diane Gross, who was sitting nearby. Gross turned to me and authoritatively announced that the Billard wasn’t off at all; it merely has a lighter body and tarter flavors than other Burgundies. Gross graciously offered to pour me a different wine, but her verdict hung there in the air for me to choke on: I’m a mere rube in her temple of wine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sympathetic to the trials that Gross and her husband and co-owner, Khalid Pitts, must face every day: I suspect they get a regular dose of kvetching from customers who stumble into the popular wine bar and decide to experiment with one of Cork’s finicky French bottles. I understand that they can’t dump every glass of Hautes-Côte de Beaune or Côteaux de Languedoc just because some bozo at the bar was expecting one of those California fruit bombs . Now, I’m no Robert Parker, but I’m also no beer-guzzling Bubba. I’ve drunk enough wines to know la merde from Lafite-Rothschild, and that Billard was shit.

Which is why I decided to call Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, where I spoke to Terry Brown, a former chef who’s now the wine manager at that cramped, delicious little store. Brown wasn’t surprised by my reaction to the Billard, which he calls a “nice but not incredible” producer. The 2006 Burgundy vintage, Brown says, was a good one, but the bottles are still too young to drink. Until they properly mature, in about a year, they will be tight and tart and acidic. In other words, Gross was right: The Billard tastes just as it should—when it’s served too goddamn early.

The whole Cork episode served to remind me why I’m not completely down with the D.C. wine-bar craze, which earlier this year inspired even the Wall Street Journal to reach for purple prose to match its purple teeth. “Washington is suddenly awash in wine bars—and really good ones, too,” wrote Journal wine writers Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher. “We have been following the nationwide trend of wine bars for years now and while Washington may have been late to the party, it has made up for lost time in a hurry.”

Cork, as everyone with access to a food blog already knows, is just one of several wine bars that have opened in the past year or so. There’s also Vinoteca, located just a few blocks from Cork in the same Shaw neighborhood, Proof in Penn Quarter, Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro inside the Westin Reston Heights hotel, Veritas in Dupont Circle, and Veritas’ all-American sister, Enology, on Wisconsin Avenue NW near the National Cathedral. This short list doesn’t even include those operations that were wine bars (Bardeo, Bistrot Lepic, Sonoma, Dino, and others) before wine bars became a subspecies of restaurants to obsessively catalog like tree bugs.

As it’s currently used, the term “wine bar” seems less about providing an accurate description of a business than about describing a lifestyle that people desperately want to adopt. Of the local wine bars I’ve visited, only Veritas and Enology position themselves as bars that predominantly sell wine. The rest are basically restaurants with really killer lists of wines by the glass. Some places, like Proof, barely have a bar at all.

As restaurants, I regularly like wine bars. Cork, under chef Ron Tanaka, serves perhaps the best duck confit in town and a superlative lemonade. I’ve also wolfed down the work of Russell P. Jones at Vinoteca, where the chef prepares the spiciest shrimp-and-grits I’ve ever had, thanks to a generous application of habanero in the ground corn. No, it’s the wine that generally leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Technically, it’s not the wine itself, which is blameless, even that callow little bastard, Billard. It’s the culture of wine at these places—the idea that drinking wine somehow makes you more sophisticated, even if you don’t know squat about grapes—and the price that you must pay to join this faux high society. For example, I was expected to pay $12 (Cork actually charged me $8 for my replacement glass) to be publicly called out as a wine poseur in Gross’ place. Had I paid full price, though, I would have covered at least 60 percent of the cost of that bottle, which runs between $18 and $20 retail, according to Brown at Schneider’s.

The percentages seem to stay the same even as you move up in price. At Vinoteca, for example, a 5-ounce pour of DuNah’s DeeDee chardonnay from California costs you $27, which is nearly 65 percent of the $42 a bottle will set you back from the vineyard’s Web store. I quote these prices and percentages not as examples of sticker shock but to prove a point: You have to have serious bank to get your drink on at wine bars, which is one of the main reasons we even darken their doorways, right? “Wine is an intoxicant, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, although you might never know it on the basis of most of what’s written in wine journals,” wrote Jay McInerney in A Hedonist in the Cellar. “And let’s face it: if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be drawn to it.”

Dead on, McInerney. But in my experiences at local wine bars, I’ve encountered neither happy drunkards nor serious snobs—nor even befuddled amateurs. Mostly, I’ve encountered a button-down culture of polite, educated drinkers who just want a glass or two of wine so they can discuss the history of Soviet aggression or their mother’s parsimonious ways (actual quote: “My mother worries when she has less than $150,000 in her checking account”). These customers, I can only assume, are ciphers in the house of vino, mostly oblivious to, say, the clever way that Enology has built its wine list completely around American producers.

These are wine bars as fashion statements and lifestyle accessories—where the pulsating music and buzzing conversations transform the long history of wine appreciation into little more than a club experience for folks who, in the privacy of their own homes, are happy to suck down Yellowtail. In this sense, I can sympathize with Diane Gross when we battled over that Billard. Cork and the rest of these wine-bar owners have obviously invested a ton of time, thought, and money in their concepts and construction—only to watch their customers use them and abuse them for their own self-interest. To Gross, I’m probably just another one of those obtuse D.C. assholes.

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Our Readers Say

“Wine is an intoxicant, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, although you might never know it on the basis of most of what’s written in wine journals,” wrote Jay McInerney in A Hedonist in the Cellar. “And let’s face it: if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be drawn to it.”

Exactly right. As a reformed "wine sampler" myself, I can tell you that this somellier fraud of glass sniffing really is all about getting nicely shitfaced.
Proof has never position itself as a wine bar, everyone just believed it to be so. It is a wine-centric restaurant. They are mainly dedicated to food.On the front page it says "Food is the focus. Wine is the passion."
Cork Wine Bar is a miserable experience. Who wants to decidedly spend over $10 for a glass of wine, when the snotty, bored, and clearly unhappy bartenders (and owner??) can hardly be called upon to refill your glass? The two times i was there, it was a chore to get the attention of one of the two bartenders working the small bar. They couldn't even offer up a greeting, much less take the initiative to talk about any of the wines they were pouring or i was ordering. Additionally, they charge $4 for a small bowl of nuts, and more for olives. If they followed the european model, chips, olives, or nuts would be gratis, and people would enjoy there time there a little more.
I'll stick with 3-Buck Chuck Cabernet. Seriously, it's utterly fantastic. But I'll drink it at home.

My wife and I on occasion go to some very nice restaurants. But we never order wine. It's insanely overpriced, and I hate ridiculous discussions with waiters. (It's bad enough when they insist on rattling off the specials.)

BTW, a great way to get waiters to lay off you about ordering booze is to just say "We don't drink." Then they figure you're Mormon or Baptist or recovering from alcoholism--instead of just frugal.
If you want a non-pretentious place to have an affordable glass of wine and a snack try http://www.cheesetique.com/ in Del Ray. I loved it, and I have been on a tour of all the DC wine bars this summer.

Another interesting one is EVO bistro in McLean which has the enomatic wine card system, that is a fun way to try little tastes.

I think the reason wine bars are a fit in D.C. and the surrounding area is because they offer a more laid back surrounding than a "club" or sportsbar. Sometimes you just want to catch up with friends over a quick drink and "hear" a conversation.
"Now, I’m no Robert Parker, but I’m also no beer-guzzling Bubba."

Statements like that reduce the beer-drinking populace to the knuckleheads that AB and the rest of the big brewers out there pretend that we are. (Good) beer is a complex drink, possibly more so than wine (I wouldn't say that as I'm no oenophile and make no claims to knowing wine) Iif need be, I'd be glad to pull some beers out of my (excuse for a) cellar and share them with you.
I was introduced to wine bars while visiting a friend in Cleveland. We went to three. They are all so laid-back and chill. The people were enjoying themselves, sharing favorites and getting TRASHED. The waiters were down-to-earth. They didn’t catch an attitude when I asked if there was the difference between Riesling and gewürztraminer (?). They seemed happy to introduce me this new experience. So when I came back and found out DC had wine bars, I was so excited. I wanted to take my friends to one here. So, I went to three of the wine bars mentioned in this article to see if my friends would enjoy themselves. All of the wine bars I went were boring and snobbish. The atmosphere was even pretentious and anti-social in all of these-not conducive to getting trashed on good wine. I still can’t believe the price difference. I never thought I’d see the day Cleveland had something on DC but this was it. I won’t be going any wine bars in this area. I can throw a cheaper, more inclusive wine-tasting party in my backyard.
Coupla thoughts -- in defense of Tim (and he needs no one to defend him), I know he loves great beer, so the Bubba comment probably was poetic license. I have never known Tim, in general, to diss anyone for any food or drink about which they are passionate and knowledgeable.

Second, so far I endorse Tim's premise: Wine bars in DC may be stocked with great wine, but there's a huge gap between what's in their cellar and having a really enjoyable wine experience. My wife Angela and I went to a wine bar near Dupont and found the waiter to be only barely knowledgeable about what he was offering in the flights (and even less knowledgeable about the cheese). With body language and training that spoke of sports bar and not of wine bar, the waiter really didn't make us happy about paying premium prices for wines.

And the lesson is this: If wine bars were to really get it right (trained staff, welcoming attitude, passion for the product and experience), people would be wiling to pay a lot for that Merlot, or GSM, or Guigal or Mariposa. Sure, we like to get a buzz on with wine, but it's one of the most sensual, engaging beverages around. Wine bars will succeed wildly by remembering that.
Dyan;

I agree with you wholeheartedly about beer (at least microbrews, Belgians, and a whole host of bottles beyond AB). My intention was not to dis beer drinkers, among whom I gladly count myself, but to conjure up that very stereotype that you allude to, the bros who down their suds without a thought about its quality (and who consider wine to be too effeminate for their macho lifestyle). Most of the beer drinkers I know do not fall into this category, but the stereotype exists for a reason, I think.

Paul, thanks for your eloquent defense of my words. Next beer's on me, my friend. Or better yet, let's pop open this 2007 Sancerre rose that Carrie just bought me--before the weather gets too cold.

-Tim
Ok...

I have worked at several of the wines bars in question over the past 5 years. If you have been in there, you have probably seen me. I am also one of the bartenders in these bars who loves what he does. Given this, there are several things, both in the article and in the responses that have followed, that I could harp on or pick fights about. However, I will instead offer a different view.

First of all, one must understand something about the resturaunt business. It does not make money. None of these places do. If you don't believe me, read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. What profit is made the business used for paying our salary (usually something close to $2 an hour), the salaries of the bussers and the kitchen staff (usually a little higher, but not by much), the ditributors, and every little thing they need to in order to keep the doors open (lights are usually a pretty good thing to have). Factor all of that in, and the mark up that you are paying for in these places is actually used for something good, not into paying for the owners brand new BMW. In fact, most owners see about as much of the money from their resturaunts as the people who dine there. So, we have perspective number one.

Secondly, be glad you don't live in NYC. The same glass of wine that you are paying $8 for in a bar here will set you back somewhere between $12 and $15 there. I think that's enough said on that point.

Lastly, and for me most importantly, before we can bash wine bars, we first need to understand one of their main purposes (besides to get people drunk). Wine bars (or at least the ones I have worked in) pride themselves on being there to educate people that come in and enjoy their product. Sure, some of the people that are hired know as much about wine as a Golden Retriever. It;s one of the down sides of the service industry. However, some people know what they are talking about, and a some of us really know our stuff. So, before you write off all wine bars completely, walk into one of your choice, sit at the bar, and ask for your friendly bartender to recommend something for you. They might just help you find your new favorite thing to drink.
Thank you, friendly bartender, for voicing a lot of my thoughts from an experienced angle. One of the first wine tastings I went to in Sonoma last year, the prententious atmosphere was clausterphobic - guests swirled wine with grand fervor, made loud robust smell/inhalation noises, followed by philosophical response for all to hear that made you wish for company from the grunting nerve-popping weightlifter at your gym.

Our tasting guide came over and said "this is a reserve wine and one our best...I recommend it, but the key to wine-tasting is 'its your tongue and your tongue only.'"
So a winebar owner can educate and a journalist can disagree. Two different tongues, two paths of experience. No need to w'h'ine about it...sounds like they did offer to pour you something else that your tongue would like.
Cork is emblamatic of the problems of the "new"14th street. They cater to people with more money than sense, and they know it. Cork doesn't need to provide good service, 75% of their customers wouldn't recognize it if they experienced it.
Maybe I'm just bitter, but Sparky's was a true institution and seeing the location turn from a peaceful neighborhood coffee spot--with the best chai in town-- to rip-off wine bar says all you need to know about the once great area.

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