I'm going to go out on a rant and basically say, that compared to the Bar a Vins, Enotecas and Tapas bars I've been to around the world, most wine bars in the USA pale in comparison. I could go one step farther and say that by the glass programs have also a weakness as I've seen more in the miss than hit category. Part of the blame goes to American's fascination with beer. All you have to do is look at a wine bar's beer options and you can see the craft beer brewing brigade has done a far better job at getting people to learn and experiment in bars with the new flavor on the block more than the wine world has done. And there's more profit in them suds so why not.
Here are some of my observations after visiting wine bars in a few cities since getting back in September from four months in Europe visiting some of the best in Prague, Vienna, London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Montpellier, Marseille and Porto:
- The by the bottle list often has killer wines to pick from. The by the glass list, not so many. You feel like they want you to buy a bottle.
- The by the glass list is usually full of unknown, more negociant grade at best wines being sold to meet a price point.
- When there are wines from known producers they are often either too young or from off years
- Too often the person pouring wine is more of a bartender, pouring person, than a wine lover.
- The wine buyer would rather engage with people who don't know wine or are often hitting on women vs. having an engaging conversation about wine ala Tim Johnston of Juveniles or Mark Williamson of Willi's for example in Paris or John at Wine Library in Sydney.
- Wine industry pros aren't hanging out that much, even on Monday's or Tuesdays, prime days to sell in wine. When they do, they are not engaging with the customers just the buyers.
- A taste may be given but usually it has to be asked for. Profit per bottle seems to be the way most are run.
- Many wines I know of from the same regions being offered are usually passed over, would sell for the same price. This implies wine reps are not doing their job to promote the entry level wines from named producers, or the buyers are looking for significant profit after glass one is sold, not glass two. Often those better wines find their way to the larger retailers who have a tasting experience room to sell new wines.
- Pichets are the exception not the rule. House wines of character rarely exist in US wine bars.
- Food is often meal size, not taste size. Conversation is often between guests who come together not between those hanging in the wine bar, so they often lack the Cheer's conviviality.
- Not enough use a Cruvinet to keep wine fresh. Often wines, red and white, are sitting out at counter temperature or in a wine fridge. This minimizes the number of wines on offer and often leads to a stale wine being poured to someone.
- The Coravin system is rarely used. This eliminates the potential of high priced, more aged wines from being on offer. The wine bars and restaurants that use them need to be more inventive and not simply show usual suspects of Napa Cab, high end Chards, Bordeaux and Burgundy, but sell Rieslings, Rhones and more to expose people to new wines.
- Wine flights when done lack education. Either the person pouring lacks full knowledge or there's no wine information to share that exposes the patron to the wine, the winery, the region, etc.
- Water is often not offered. You have to ask for it. And, instead of using a filtering system, many want to sell you bottled.
Now, all wine bars in the U.S. don't suck. For example, in Seattle, Bar Ferdinand is a standout of a place to to. The staff is super friendly, engaging and the wines are stellar. In NYC, Terroir is a stunning example of a wine bar done right. In Portland Bar Avignon is a killer and while I've yet to visit the Tasting Room of Del Mar, but knowing the team behind it and perusing the list, has me expecting nothing but the best of everything.