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Wine Bar Blues
By Robert Whitley
Jul 8, 2014
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It can be said with a degree of certainty that the evolution of the modern wine bar has been a net positive for anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine and is even remotely discriminating.

The days of sitting down in a bar or restaurant and ordering a generic glass of “Chablis” are pretty much over. Those were the days, some may remember, when just about any white wine, regardless of the grape or origin, could be labeled “chablis” on a list of wines by the glass without raising an eyebrow.

Chablis, of course, is a white wine made from the chardonnay grape and produced only in the tiny Burgundian village of Chablis and the vineyards that surround it. That you seldom see this misleading application of the term amounts to great progress.

But that was merely one of the early skirmishes in the battle to compel restaurants and bars to properly identify what they are serving.

The war is anything but won. For example, I was recently offered a complimentary glass of “Champagne” at a fairly upscale restaurant. Of course, I said bring it on. The server poured a glass of Prosecco. To be clear, I am quite fond of Prosecco, the sparkling wine from the Veneto region in northern Italy, but it is decidedly not Champagne. The bubbles are the only resemblance to Champagne.

The problem, as I see it, is the rapid expansion of the term “wine bar” to cover any restaurant or bar that happens to serve wine. The folks who own these establishments are merely trying to tag along on the true “wine bar” phenomenon and make a buck.

Nothing wrong with the profit motive, but using the term “wine bar” implies that the establishment has thought carefully about the wines it serves and is making an effort to keep them interesting and inviting.

That is often not the case. But even when the wine list is chock full of bottles virtually any wine enthusiast would love to explore, the delivery is frequently off the mark. Servers are poorly trained. They may have heard of the Napa Valley but couldn’t find it on a map. Burgundy is a color. Bottles are opened and poured without offering the customer a chance to taste and approve of the wine. Server ignorance reigns.

The people who should be most upset about this are those who own and operate true wine bars with sincere wine programs, and standards of professionalism that compel them to only put well-trained staff on the floor to serve the customer.

Consumers should be aware that a sign that proclaims “wine bar” guarantees nothing. My advice for anyone trying a self-described “wine bar” for the first time is to sit down, ask questions and draw your own conclusions. If the answers don’t pass the most basic level of competence, walk.

You owe it to yourself to demand better from those who would entice you with the promise of an interesting wine experience only to serve up the modern equivalent of generic “Chablis.”