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Wine Bars Without the 'Fuss'
By Robert Whitley
May 15, 2007
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I often wonder what makes a good wine bar.

Could it merely be the wine - some combination of outstanding selection and price?

I think not. I base that conclusion on my experience with Bottega del Vino, the Holy Grail of wine bars, located in Verona, Italy. There is no other place quite like Bottega, though owner Severino Barzan tries mightily to replicate his success elsewhere.

Visit the original Bottega in Verona and on any given night scores of customers will be on their feet, literally bellying up to the bar, squinting up at the chalkboard with those 80-some selections by the glass and blocking easy access to those patrons simply trying to navigate from the front door to the restaurant area in the back.

Bottega Verona is first and foremost a place to gather and consume wine. Bottega del Vino in New York, on the other hand, offers a different sort of ambiance. Same great wines by the glass, same d├ęcor, same massive wine list stocked with gems (such as older Barolo or original Super Tuscans) not to be found elsewhere, same rustic Veronese cuisine, though I'm not sure the sauce atop the bigoli is made with horsemeat as it is in Verona.

Bottega New York is first and foremost a restaurant, a place to dine on authentic northern Italian cuisine and order wines from a remarkable list. Hardly anyone stands at the bar and orders glass after glass of eclectic Italian wines while swapping war stories at the end of a long day.

Bottega New York is a grand experience in its own way, but it's not my idea of a wine bar, which seems odd when one considers it was modeled after the greatest wine bar in the world.

Willi's Wine Bar in Paris, which is in the same league as Bottega Verona though not nearly as antica rustica, is another example. Many have attempted to imitate Willi's but few have succeeded, even in a wine savvy city such as Paris.

'I think that a wine bar requires a soul,' said the Brit ex-pat Mark Williamson, who founded Willi's a quarter-century ago. 'It should convey a message and invite discovery through the wines featured on the list, which does not have to be particularly long.

'Secondly, care, thought and excitement should evolve around the featured selections by the glass, which are so much more pertinent when they change often. Range and variety in the selections, featuring wines with personality and character are a must.

'Willi's is simply a little French bistro, owned by a singular subject of her Gracious Majesty, where the importance of wine has been exaggerated and is relatively uninhibited. The food, the style of the place and the unfussy service make it what it is.'

I'm coming to the point of view that originality and character are as much a part of the equation as the wine. Yes, the wines must be first-rate, but that alone won't do it.

My good friend Ed Moore, a longtime San Diego restaurateur, has recently hit upon a concept that seems to be working. He owns Third Corner, a wine shop and bistro in the Ocean Beach district. Ed's clientele is younger and the place rocks into the wee hours of the morning, but it's clear they're there for the wine.

Customers can purchase a bottle of wine in the shop and, for only a few dollars more, pop the cork in the restaurant and enjoy their purchase with tapas and light entrees.

'One night I get behind the bar (Ed owns a number of restaurants, which keeps him busy, so he doesn't go behind the bar often) and this young surfer, maybe 25, comes up to me,' said Moore. 'This young guy has traveled around the world to surf, and he's tasted wines from all over. So he asks me, 'Ed, do you have anything from Priorat (this is a trendy wine region in Spain)?'

'Twenty years ago I never would have gotten a question like that from a young surfer.'

I'm not sure what it is, but I'm certain my friend Ed Moore is on to something. He's struck the right ambiance with the right combination of wine selection and price and his place is now a destination for young people thirsty for a glass of eclectic wine to go with great conversation and a late-night nibble.

Perhaps there is nothing more than that to the answer of what makes a good wine bar. It should be nourishment for the mind as well as the body. All three of the wine bars I've mentioned have that common thread despite other differences. And all three deliver what Mark Williamson of Willi's called 'unfussy' service.

Good wines, good food, good conversation and no fuss equals good wine bar. Works for me!

Contact Robert at rwhitley@winereviewonline.com.