Two years ago, Greg Sears and Jason McEntee traded in their advertising jobs to launch a wine bar.
When the partners opened Bodega Wine Bar in Pasadena, the wine-tasting lounges were a rarity around town, even though the European-grown phenomenon had already swept through New York, San Francisco and other large U.S. cities.
Now wine bars are a vital part of the L.A. epicurean scene, where hot spots include AOC in West Hollywood, Cobras & Matadors in Los Feliz, Primitivo Wine Bistro in Venice and Wine Bar & Bistro 112 in Pasadena.
“We get so packed on weekends that it’s standing room only,” said Sears, who is scouting locations for his next bar. “We never thought it would be that crowded. We tapped into something people have really responded to.”
At Bodega, patrons swirl glasses of Pinot Noir, sniff the latest German Riesling or sip a new South American vintage. Young people in their 20s and 30s crowd the 2,000-square-foot industrial-looking space to socialize and sample more than 30 varieties, all priced at $7 a glass.
Wine bars first hit the United States in the mid-1980s, in the form of largely exclusive establishments catering to aficionados. The genre took a short hiatus during the 1990s as restaurateurs responded to new fads favoring microbreweries, martini bars and cigar lounges serving cognac.
But despite changing tastes, wine has had staying power.
A Scarborough Research report from March 2003 found that 39 percent of Americans 21 and older had purchased wine the previous three months. It also found that wine drinkers are more affluent 33 percent have household incomes of $75,000 or more and better educated than the average American.
“Wine in general is very popular for the same reasons it always has been,” said James Koren, who teaches wine tasting classes and hosts a Friday night wine bar at the Wine House, a wine and gourmet-food store in West Los Angeles. “The more you know about wine, the more fun it is, and wine bars can often be the beginning of a real lifelong pursuit.”
By the glass
Some of the bars are wine-only establishments, while others are smaller extensions of existing restaurants. Generally, they feature an extensive wine list, with selections by the glass as well as by the bottle, a more sophisticated ambiance than traditional bars with subtle lighting and music, a sommelier or wine-savvy serving staff, and a menu of small-plate dishes.
Gone is the stodgy notion of wine tasting epitomized by German winestubes wine restaurants dating as far back as the 15th century. Now, the American traditions of Happy Hour and value pricing are part of the blend. At two-year-old AOC, the frenetic bar with its enormous cruvinet (wine tap) is the center of action, dispensing more than 50 varietals that can be ordered by the bottle, carafe, glass or even half-glass.
Co-owner and sommelier Caroline Styne said AOC is an offshoot of the popular Lucques restaurant on Melrose Avenue, which had developed a near-cult following of customers who lined up at the bar to casually dine on an assortment of appetizers and wine. At AOC, the average diner can sample two glasses of wine and two dishes for about $30, though wine can cost as much as $19 a glass.
“These days people really appreciate a more casual atmosphere,” Styne said. “I love eating out but I don’t want to sit in an uptight kind of place. I want to be comfortable without the dining experience becoming a whole production.”
Renewed interest in the grape has meant more competition for customers among wine bar owners.
“The ones that will do it right will stay open,” Sears said. “By staying away from the fancy bottles of wine for $100, we are ensured that people can afford a glass of wine. We like to keep our menu broad and simple.”
At the Wine House, some version of a weekly wine bar has been held for nearly 20 years. “We’ve always considered wine tasting a very important part of our marketing,” Koren said. “I hope wine bars are here to stay.”
The attractive economics of wine bars could also help prolong their shelf life. Wine is typically marked up about three times when sold in a bar, and unlike restaurants that rely on perishable goods, it can be stored for months or even years.
“With wine all you have to do is pop open a bottle and serve,” Sears said. “That’s why these bars can make more money than restaurants. If your place is crowded and you run it right, you’ll see a good profit margin.”