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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Wine Bars

What's that you say, you want more totally awesome articles before their publish dates? You indeed are a cruel mistress.

Bars for Booze, Wineries for Wine

Sideways transported the epicenter of the California wine scene southward, from the famed Napa Valley region to Santa Barbara County—a warmer climate producing simpler, and less expensive wines. The movie also gave undeserved shame to Merlot and Oscar snubs to film’s entire cast, and entrenched the image of wine snobs as aloof, introverted dorks who lacked interpersonal skills. Yet Paul Giamatti’s ability to score Virginia Madsen—a woman wildly beyond his social status and physique would warrant—begs the question, can wine expertise help you nab a woman of superior appearance and social standing? While the new crop of San Diego wine bars offer little more than intimidation and expense even for seasoned wine drinkers, the romantic and inebriating pleasures of wine can be found in a more affordable and alluring setting—the wineries of San Diego.
The romantic allure of wine is unmatched by other culinary and libationary indulgences. Restaurants have always capitalized on wine’s elitism—a proper beer brewed by Trapist monks may be as labor intensive and expensive to produce as a glass Pinot Noir, yet it is vino which stocks the cellars of the world’s finest restaurants, regularly fetching thousands of dollars a bottle at auction. Wine bars have cropped up throughout San Diego to meet the demand of the young set looking to trade in their pints of PBR for a more refined method of getting sloshed, one more fitting of their newly established bank accounts since they moved away from the frat house and out of the mail room.
Only a few San Diego wine bars seem to be poised for long term survival. Integrating expensive wine with expensive cuisine is the road to financial success for restaurants, who can offset the large, initial capital investment to creating a wine cellar with the sale of $20 calamari. Indeed, general wisdom states wine sales increase the check, rather than make the meal as profitable. The economics of a wine bar must then be the same as any watering hole—be profitable by booze alone. Three years ago Bull and Bear seemed primed to capitalize on this younger professional set, offering high priced wines on La Jolla’s fashionable main drag, Prospect Street. The tiny kitchen offered an extensive menu, and a wine list that was as long as it was expensive. If any wine bar should have made it, Bull and Bear’s location and atmosphere certainly positioned it to attract the target customer base. After six months of watching the cantina’s lack of ocean views (blocked by the two and three story restaurants across the street) and inflated prices turn Bull and Bear into yet another LJ money pit, the owners packed up one night and hit the road. Three years later, the restaurant is surviving as a neighborhood pub, with 16 wines by the glass—most from California and priced around six to eight dollars—and a simplified menu producing La Jolla’s best burgers.
Yet none of the wine bars visited seemed to be encouraging patrons to belt ‘em back. Just Wine, located in Hillcrest, offered the best combination of selection and price, with over 100 wines by the glass ranging from four to fifteen dollars. The joint wasn’t exactly hoppin’, and few if any customers were venturing far beyond Just Wine’s half priced bottles or a few glasses of wine. It’s tough to scalp a lush in a wine bar—neither broken hearted souls looking to drown their sorrow nor guys on a night out packed Just Wine. The atmosphere was pedagogical—the friendly and knowledgeable staff worked to educate customers on what they were drinking and how to best enjoy it—yet even on a sparse Tuesday night it seemed most either faked their way through the ordering process or chose blindly from the list. The occasional man-dates were the heaviest drinkers, yet even they opted for the cheaper bottles.
The wine drinker with money to burn will always have plenty of options, often complete with ocean views and attentive sommeliers. The best option for viniculture novices is still to head to the source—the wineries of San Diego county and the surrounding area. Most area wineries offer tasting rooms open daily, including the two closest to San Diego, Bernardo Winery of San Diego and Orfila Vineyards of Escondido. Bernardo, located in Rancho Bernardo and offering free tastings daily from 10-6, opened in 1889 and today produces operates numerous kitschy shops on the grounds surprisingly not encroached by the high priced real estate developments common to the ritzy area. Producing bottles for private labeling as well as purchase on the grounds, the winery offers an affordable and significantly more pleasurable alternative to the local wine bars. A trip to any of the local tasting rooms offers an instant—and cheap—education in wine necessary to traverse the massive menus of the commercial tasting rooms and upscale restaurants.