AUSTIN, TEXAS: SONG, BBQ, AND... WINE.
When I moved here, I was worried about the wine. I'm not one of the oenorati, but still, some things are obvious: it's hot here; it's a beer town (like many in Texas); and the bigger (money-wise) the state, the worse the potential liquor-distribution corruption. Within weeks, though, my fears were laid to rest, and my curiosity grew--it turns out that there are many wine bars in Austin, with styles to suit different tastes.
I haven't hit them all, yet, because I ran out of money and had to turn to a life of crime after wine bar number nine. There are a few more, and I'll get to them eventually.
For you POWER PLAYERS out there, who LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST, BABY, and DON'T HAVE TIME FOR CHIT-CHAT, here's your ranked version of what follows:
1. Vino Vino
2. Trading Post
4. House Wine
6. Cork and Co.
7. Fion Wine Pub
8. The Grove
Now, for those of you with a moment or two to read the narration, and who know that one size never fits all, and that an awareness of that is what makes Austin so awesome, here's the deal:
You could endlessly enumerate categories for a wine bar, because every wine bar owner has a theory. Flights? Urban-cosmo feel? Killer food? Awesome deals? Bottles at retail prices? The most trendy wines? But a marketing theory is not enough.
I look for a wine bar built on a self-awareness about palate. That is, the human beings in the house who choose the wine fearlessly assert their taste both in the wine list and, in harmony with that taste, in the other features of the joint, from marketing to decor to programming to food. Even if my palate hates the palate of those human beings, then, I'll respect this harmony, because I know somebody--many somebodies!--will enjoy it, be regulars, and promote it. And who knows when one's tastes may change?
Most wine bars will shout to you that the staff is involved in choosing the wines. Or at least--an important distinction--will offer "staff favorites." This is useless, of course, unless you know each staff member's palate, and it's often the case that as far as buying the wines and setting prices, staff have no say.
Far better is a place where the staff are encouraged to tell you what the wines are like, and to experiment with your palate: that is, to pour you lots of samples until you find something you like. This should NOT cost you money. If they charge you for tastes ("3 oz. / 5 oz. / 6 oz"), go somewhere else, I say. Flights are okay, if they are priced right and are interesting. (Even better is when staff members remember who you are and guide you to the new bottles that are in your line; you can tell they'll be able to do this from the way they fact-find with you, and stand back and watch, the first time.)
Without further ado, here's a brief sense of these excellent joints:
8. The Grove
This place is a little corporate inside, but has a nice oak-covered patio. The wine list is good and the flights are well-constructed to please. The food is okay, but I wasn't blown away, and it's in a bourgeois part of town, so you are stuck with people who ought to be at home drinking cases of Cheval Blanc but instead are having social hours with their bosses' friends at The Grove. The service is good, if a little stiff sometimes; there are bottles at near-retail prices for purchase in the joint, which means if you know what you're after and are with a few folks, it's a great deal.
7. Fion Wine Pub
Now we begin to get into Austin weirdness. An Irish Wine Pub? I was just in Ireland, and can report that it's not wine country: the distribution there is mafia-esque, and there's no sun, so they don't grow grapes for fermenting. Fion is in Bee Caves, a bourgeois little town near/in Austin, but well out of the way for tourists. The food is decent, and the beer selection is phenomenal. By the glass or flight, the wine isn't that great. But they've got stellar bottles, for the oenoscenti anyway, at retail prices, and will pop 'em for you. So I say bring a couple of friends and live it up. The service is good and sharp--a bit Irish, really, so be on your toes! One bad thing: they sell some sort of boutique soap there, and the smell of it is really powerful, so in a lot of places near the bar you can't really smell the wine. Boo!
6. Cork and Co.
Cork and Company, unlike the previous two bars, is downtown, in the midst of it all. The service is good, if not warm; the food is good but not great; but the wine list is more coherent and powerful than the previous two places, which raises it in my estimate. Still, it's a tough call--let's put it this way: go to Cork and Co. during happy hour.
Really, the same goes for Uncorked, which is a bit more out of the way, just across the I-35 border in East Austin. It has many things going for it, including a good wine list and friendly service, lots of space and parking. It's in an old house, so it has a nice feel to it, and comfortable seating situations from which to choose. I found the staff there a tad less familiar with the wines, but pretty willing to work with you to figure out what you might like.
4. House Wine
Now we get into the interesting stuff. House Wine is in an old house in one of the hippest parts of town: just off Lamar and Barton Springs. The space is pure Austin eclecticism, as is the crowd. The prices are good. The food is not great, and the staff are beautiful but not particularly helpful. But the palate of the joint is unmistakeable, old world bargains: Spanish first, Italians second, obscure French third, etc. There's live music, which is great, and on certain days they'll hook you up with the stuff they opened the day before for half price by the glass. But: often the wines are too warm and oxygenated, and the staff don't encourage tasting at all. So be firm!
Cru is a chain. This would seem immediately to take it off my list. But they take good care of their wines, and they will let you taste every damn one on the menu if you ask. No you di'-en! Yes, I did, haters. The staff are too professional at the start, but they quickly warm up, especially if you're a local. The locations are corporate, to be sure: one downtown in a key condo-and-hotel area, the other up north in the suburbs. But both have delightful outdoor seating, excellent soundtracks, and quite good food at a reasonable price. And the palate is comparatively consistent: big wines, with strong personalities, served in interesting flights. A few of the staff are real terroirists, which has its advantages once you figure out their tastes, and they'll load you up with free vino to try to win you over if you engage with them. Bravo.
2. Trading Post
Back to the 'burbs. There's a swarm of wine bars in Bee Caves, and this one is my favorite. The interior is classic Austin--looks like a damn Elks Club, with leather chairs and red drapery and dark wood. The food is fantastic; the happy hour is a bargain; the palate of the buyer is unapologetically California (the old world wines they choose are brimming with personality); and it's unpretentious as all get-out. They encourage tasting enthusiastically. They also enthusiastically encourage tasting. I tasted enthusiastically. Is it worth a trip out there? Uh huh.
1. Vino Vino
Ah, Vino Vino. I love you and I hate you. I love you because of the music, the decor, the awesome hip neighborhood (Hyde Park), the ginormous pours (for real: have never seen bigger), the many discoveries I've made there, and the fact that you have only ONE California wine on the list (Conn Valley's Prologue). I hate you because you make me drink so many wines that I think I'm not going to like and then I do. I hate you because you are so much cooler than I am and you are full of people that are too cool for me. I hate you because your food is so damn good, but I can't eat dinner there because I know I will drink too much wine. In other words, I love you. The love-sonnet aside: there is an outdoor area in back, complete with a little gas fireplace, that is one of my favorite places to confab or muse; the palate is balanced and old world, favoring strong fruit and strong earth (whether the wine is white or red); they'll let you taste whatever; they've got retail price bottles that make it a bargain for three or more drinkers. Finally, the music isn't just music: it's local musicians with national reputations, or who are about to have them.
Austin's a cool town, loaded with tech savants, up-and-coming politicians, intellectuals, ripped semi-professional bicyclists, haptic musicians, hot sorority girls, hippies, artists...you name it. It's a world-class city, and a stunning, if surprising, place to have a great glass of wine. I'll update the narrative above, and change the rankings if necessary, since the odds are that half these places won't exist a year from now (whenever now is). If I ever sober up, I'll add more to the list--but start here and you can't go wrong.