Bar-goers are increasingly trading their dry martinis for a nice glass of pinot grigio as wine bars are cropping up faster than cabernet vines across the county.
Compared to a traditional bar, they offer a greater variety of wines, along with a menu of perfectly paired light bites. Because the wine bar is still a fairly new concept, proprietors have taken some liberties in their interpretations of it.
“The wine industry is so vast that there is a lot of space to create an experience that’s unique,” noted Ali Rush Carscaden, owner and sommelier of Templeton’s 15 degrees C.
A few wine bars, such as 15 degrees C, are wine shop hybrids where you can taste, buy, and also enjoy a glass of wine with a selection of edibles. Carscaden offers more than 500 local and international wines for sale. She also has eight wines on tap, a few keg wines, and about a dozen more open bottles. Patrons can also buy a full bottle and enjoy it at one of the bistro tables or at the gleaming steel bar. Non-wine drinkers can order beer or sake.
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The atmosphere at 15 degrees C, like its owner, is young and hip.
“We stayed away from the plastic grape clusters,” quipped Carscaden. “We’re trying to bring a younger, modern, European feel to Templeton.”
Another shop-and-sip venue is the Paso Wine Centre. This wine bar has a dual mission: to showcase Paso Robles wines, and to raise money for the nonprofit organization Wine for Water, which provides clean drinking water to needy countries around the world.
Paso Wine Centre employs a dispensing machine that serves up to 48 different wines. It also offers around 100 different wines for sale. Seating areas in the clean, contemporary space allow visitors to linger, but manager Jennifer Bravo acknowledges that it’s not your typical bar scene.
“People like it because a lot of small wineries don’t have tasting rooms,” said Bravo. “Or, they’ll try a wine and, if they like it, they’ll go out to the winery to taste more.”
In contrast, Paso Robles’ Vinoteca is more like your favorite downtown pub, right down to the worn pine floors, brick walls and tin ceiling that are original to the 1890s building. The atmosphere and décor blend artful sophistication with laid-back comfort. It even features live music Friday and Saturday nights.
Vinoteca offers approximately 40 wines by the glass and more by the bottle, most of which are local. It also has four beers on tap and around 20 premium bottled beers.
Each local wine bar has cultivated its own style. Take the newest establishment in Paso Robles, Meritage, which is modern, chic, and decidedly urban.
“We were trying to do something a little different,” said part-owner Stacy Mullins. “We wanted to keep the look really simple and clean.”
The concept is equally innovative. Wineries, mostly from Paso Robles, pour at separate counters. As of February, there were five participating wineries with five more set to come aboard in March.
On the opposite end of the style spectrum is Gather, a wine bar in the Village of Arroyo Grande. Housed in a 1903 mercantile, it is decorated with antiques as well as heirlooms from the family of owner Kari Ziegler. A large brick patio is fragranced by an herb garden during the day and warmed by a roaring fire pit at night. Bluegrass bands add to the folksy feel every Thursday night.
The bar offers more than 30 local wines by the glass, along with several tasting flights.
“I was looking to make a place that’s like an extension of people’s homes,” said Ziegler. “Somewhere that people can feel comfortable.”
Don’t expect to find nachos and burgers on these bar menus. Wine bar fare is light and sophisticated, designed to pair perfectly with the day’s vintages.
Most places will offer a selection of meats and cheese. 15 degrees C has its own cheese counter with around 40 types of artisan cheeses and 20 hormone-free cured meats. It offers patrons semi-custom cheese platters, salads, gourmet sandwiches, and occasional specials such as oysters.
Vinoteca has borrowed a Spanish tradition and offers tapas plates with small portions of savory nibbles such as Serrano ham and manchego, or marinated anchovies with red peppers.
Vinoteca’s general manager Jeffry Wiesinger is a chef by training. He shares his expertise on food and wine pairing on Winemaker Wednesdays, when he selects a tasting flight of three wines from a local winery, which he serves with light food pairings.
Some establishments offer a few hot items, appropriate as a light meal or an appetizer. Meritage, for instance, offers petite servings of delicacies like grass-fed beef tenderloin tataki and rack of lamb with tablouleh salad.
Gather offers gourmet versions of classic comfort foods like mushroom and Italian truffle cheese pizza and decadent cheese fusilli.
But in its trademark laid-back style, it also encourages patrons to bring in food from a nearby restaurant, or even from home.
“I want to remove all the barriers that might keep people from going out and having a great time,” said Ziegler. “I want to give people a reason to gather.”