At a Raft of New Bars, the Wine Comes First
WASHINGTON -- As a gaggle of 20- and 30-somethings crowded into Bistrot Lepic's wine bar on a recent Tuesday night, jockeying for a chance to sample free glasses of wine from France's Alsace-Lorraine and Languedoc regions, owner Bruno Fortin recalled how four years ago he and his partner were unsure whether the bar would succeed.
"I wanted a place where we could go have fun, smoke -- when smoking was allowed," he said. "We did it for ourselves. Then it became popular."
"Popular" might be an understatement. In Washington and other cities across the nation, wine bars are opening at an astonishing rate. Although far from achieving the per-block saturation rate of, say, Starbucks, wine bars are enjoying an urban boomlet that has surprised even some of their proprietors.
"I didn't realize the need in the market was so huge until (we) opened," says Mark Maynard, manager of Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, launched in Washington in August 2005.
On the other side of the country, Kevin Erickson -- chef and owner of Seattle's Bricco della Regina Anna -- says he was shocked recently to learn there were at least a dozen wine bars in the Seattle area. Erickson began thinking about starting one with friends in 1997, when they were students at the University of Washington-Seattle. Bricco finally opened for business on New Year's Eve in 2005.
"We started getting into wine because girls are getting into wine. We figured, what better than a wine bar?" he said. "For me, I think the market's saturated, if anything."
As with many food and drink trends born on the West Coast, Washington, D.C., has been slower to catch on. Jens Strecker, who owns Seattle's Portalis wine bar and shop, says it made perfect sense that the establishments sprang up first in wine-producing regions and that other cities are following suit. Piero Selvaggio's new V-vin wine bar in Santa Monica, Calif., has been luring crowds since October, and New Yorkers are awaiting the opening of Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud in Manhattan.
Wine bars' moment clearly has arrived in the nation's capital: The wine-focused Proof opened in July, Veritas followed in September, Vinoteca opened last month, and at least three others -- Cork, Enology, and a wine bar section of Sova -- are set to open in the first half of next year.
"This is really becoming a wine town," says Veritas's general manager, Mick McGuire, who oversaw wine at D.C.'s Charlie Palmer Steak, Sonoma and Mendocino restaurants before switching to his current post. "No, we're not New York, and we're never going to be New York. But are we up there with a Philadelphia? Yeah, if not more so."
A number of factors account for wine bars' growing popularity. Wine consumption has risen steadily in the United States over the past 15 years as wine production has expanded beyond Europe to Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries, increasing the range of wine offerings while lowering the price.
Americans drank an average of nearly 2.4 gallons of wine in 2006, compared with 1.85 gallons in 1991, according to the Wine Institute, a California-based trade association. Every state in the country now boasts at least one wine producer, providing American consumers with more domestic choices as well. And while it's difficult to calculate the impact of the Oscar-winning 2004 movie "Sideways," the indie film clearly encouraged American wine drinkers to think beyond chardonnay and merlot.
The small-plates trend in restaurants has created an atmosphere more conducive to wine bars. Cyril Frechier, Northwest U.S. sales representative for the D.C.-based wine importer Robert Kacher Selections, says restaurant patrons increasingly are seeking out drinks that complement tapas and other small portions.
"This kind of food works very well with wine as opposed to cocktails," Frechier said as he conducted a tasting at Portalis, one of Seattle's first wine bars. …