Wine bars have well and truly shaken off their outmoded image as hushed preserves of swirling, sniffing (and snobbish) oenophiles. Lists once stacked with blue chips now accurately reflect the diversity of the global wine world. Connoisseurs and casual sippers alike gather at vino-centric establishments for a glass or several, often accompanied by creative fare that aspires beyond the traditional meat and cheese board. Some of these multifunctional drinking destinations even serve—gasp—craft beer. Read on for our picks across the country, from the best wine bars in NYC to San Francisco’s top tippling spots.
Best wine bars in America
Going au naturel hasn’t looked this sexy since Playboy in the ’70s; and not unlike the venerable men’s mag, the natural wine movement has helped usher in a new set of ethical values. Riffing off a Parisian boîte of the 1920s, Henry Rich (Rucola) and Tom Kearney (Farm on Adderley) join forces behind June’s marble bar to convince tipplers that nostalgia tastes as good as it looks. Their wine selection, firmly sourced from the fringe of the non-interventionist movement, wouldn’t haven’t been out of place during the flapper era. Patrons enticed inside by the wood barrel ceiling and dim lights can sample selections spanning both Europe (Spain, Czech Republic) and the U.S. (California, Finger Lakes). Small plates aspire beyond typically mundane wine bar fare to include smoked-trout mousseline and acorn-squash flatbread.
The focus at Bar Covell, a cozy, exceptionally curated wine bar in Los Feliz, is on small production, off-the-beaten-path old-world and new-world selections from around the globe. There’s no printed menu, so your best bet is to head for the “Order Here” sign and let someone behind the bar expertly guide you. A few questions later and you’ll be sampling some options—maybe a funky 2009 Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres Grenache from France, or an obscure variety like the plush, fruit-forward 2010 Rock Wall Wine Company “Tannat” from California. Once the bar fills up (and it does), candles and dim Edison bulbs illuminate a well-dressed neighborhood crowd of wine buffs.
Camerata offers “unusual wines for the sole purpose of them being delicious and not just edgy,” as one industry vet put it, adding that decorated Advanced Sommelier David Keck “is a rising star.” Keck and partner Paul Petronella of adjacent Italian restaurant Paulie’s, have compiled a lengthy, Euro-heavy list reverent of wines “made by people, not companies.” The centerpiece of the modern, industrial space is a U-shaped concrete bar, around which congregate patrons (and the local somm community) in search of small producers and unusual grapes. Charcuterie and cheese are available for snacking; for a heartier meal, walk next door.
“Fealty to the Parisian ideal,” explained Francophile owner David Butler when asked about the inspiration for his 950-square-foot homage to the City of Light’s bar-à-vins traditions. With only 38 seats, Butler doesn’t “monkey around with fussy bullshit like reservations or wine flights”; rather, he believes in the bar as a social mechanism for fostering community. He helms the intimate space four nights a week, guiding patrons through his “all-French, all the time” wine list, inscribed on the chalkboard with Ten Commandments gravity. “Don’t dare ask for Washington wine,” warned a Le Caviste devotee who prefers Butler’s predilection for Cru Beaujolais, served alongside a plate of AOC fromage, instead.
Those who have experienced the gastronomic brilliance of a crisp fino paired with Jamón ibérico, understand why prolific drink provisioner Derek Brown (also of Eat the Rich, et al.) opened a dedicated sherry bar. While the historic drink has gained renewed attention, largely as a darling of sommeliers and wine journalists, this fortified wine “that spans 3,000 years and has a plethora of styles from bone dry to syrupy sweet,” according to Brown, truly is a people’s drink. Mockingbird Hill captures that spirit by promoting accessibility over pretense; knowledgeable bartenders guide patrons through 80 labels, 15 sherry-based cocktails and Spanish bites served in unfussy digs.
In an old Mission District record store that’s been converted into a den fit for Don Draper (down to the hand-curated vintage vinyl soundtrack), tiny 20 Spot is perfectly positioned between restaurant and wine bar. Owner Bodhi Freedom offers a wine list that’s heavy on Pinots and Rieslings, and a menu that manages to create intricate, innovative dishes—king trumpet mushrooms and sunchokes in cheese sauce, pork belly barbecue, potted crab—all without a stove (meat is cooked sous vide). If you only want a glass and a small bite, don’t miss the Della Fattoria bread plate with house-made butter or the deviled eggs with trout roe. Food is served until 11pm—a rarity in San Francisco.
Rarely is the frequently abused buzzword “sustainable” a concept to which a business fully commits. Yet, Coopers Hall, an industrial-chic winery, taproom and restaurant inside a repurposed auto-body shop from the ’50s, only produces its wine in kegs. The zero-bottling model, relying on refillable wine growlers (which come in 750ml), means Coopers Hall isn’t regularly tossing hundreds of empties into recycling bins. In addition to 16 house wines, it offers another 18 guest taps, including West Coast and European vino, which clientele can sample in small, medium or large pours. Local beer and cider are available too.
“We’re a town of beer drinkers,” lamented a wine biz resident, “under the draconian rule of the state liquor monopoly.” While the market doesn’t nurture riskier points of view, it hasn’t stopped the team behind cocktail venue a.bar (and next door a.kitchen) from aspiring to do things differently. Wine director Mariel Wega has built a natural-leaning list around the ethos of “traditional, honest and transparent winemaking practices.” Selections, considerate of style and producer as much as region (gamay from Amador County!), are served in a refreshingly contemporary space. Wine lovers flocked immediately, turning a.bar into a not-so-covert base for playful, anti-liquor-law rabble-rousing.
Corkbuzz; Charlotte, NC
In 2015, master sommelier Laura Maniec, along with business partner Frank Vafier, expanded their smart, stylish NYC wine bar and restaurant concept to Sharon Square in SouthPark. Corkbuzz opened in June, delivering to residents a locally accented European menu paired with a global by-the-glass and bottle list, supplemented with craft beers from both Carolinas. Aspiring wine geeks can sign up for recreational or in-depth classes, the latter meant for those toying with a career move. Recent events have included a large format fried-chicken repast, replete with bubbles (a favorite pairing of Maniec), and a winemaker dinner with Peter Stolpman of acclaimed Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara County.
Branch-offs can often snap under pressure, but NYC’s legendary Le Bernardin sprung a stem as strong as its base with Aldo Sohm Wine. Sitting across the galleria from that vaulted seafood restaurant, Aldo Sohm’s annexed vino hub is far less buttoned-up than its big brother—no reservations or suit jackets required—but the level of detail here proves this apple didn’t fall far from the tree. By-the-glass options give sippers room to try a number of varieties, especially those who take advantage of weekly Coravin vintage flights. Pulling from his homeland, Sohm highlights Austrian grapes, like a snappy Grüner Veltliner he partnered with legendary producer Kracher to create.