Hitting the Bars (Wine Bars, That Is)

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It’s official: Wine bars are hot. The Sacramento region is lapping them up, and you can expect the trend to catch on throughout the country. Just ask the many market researchers pounding our pavements: They’ll tell you that as Sacramento goes, so goes the nation.

In Italy, a wine bar is called an enoteca, a casual place where you can meet friends for a glass of wine and small plates of simple foods. In Spain, it’s a bar de vinos y tapas (wine and tapas bar); in France, it’s bar à vin (wine bar); and the Germans, with an unexpected entry into the Cute Word Olympics, steal the gold with weinlokal, as in think globally, drink lokally. At all of these, the snacks are similar: cured meats, cheeses, olives and breads, each costing only two or three euros.

Here in the Grande Tomate, I’m thrilled to give a few new wine bars my business. So one recent Friday night, my husband, Jordan, and I hop on our tandem mountain bike and pedal our way through midtown to check them out. Our goal: to order a drink and a bite at each stop.

We first roll up to The Grand (1600 L St.). I assume the name is tongue-in-cheek, for this tiny pocket in the corner of a parking garage has capacity for about 10 people max and a modest yet eclectic wine list. What it does have is the considerable presence of Aziz Bellarbi-Salah, the barely legal-age son of Aioli Bodega Española owner Reda Bellarbi. His youth and swagger are both endearing and annoying as he presides over the place, recommending wines from a spare menu. We ask about a couple of French wines and are brought full glasses without being told that half-pours are an option. The food is snagged from Aioli, and there’s little room for it behind the tiny bar, let alone on the tiny tables. We’re not a restaurant, you know, says Bellarbi-Salah as we dare to order a second dish of salami.

Fair enough. So we cruise over to L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen (1801 L St.), where we trust the food is a fully vested partner to the wine list. We know Chef Ame Harrington from The Kitchen and her inspirational winemaker dinners at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. The bar is already standing room only; there’s a girls night out at a large table. And isn’t that restaurateur Mason Wong on the divan, lounging in his competitor’s lair? I’ll bet Wong, owner of Mason’s and The Park Ultra Lounge down the street, notices some similarities in dcor: Both L and Mason’s are outfitted in dark wood and modern fixtures, as if furnished from a West Elm catalogue.

We are seated at a teensy table near the kitchen, which affords us a perfect view of the wine room. Jordan starts off with a glass of Champagne, the Delamotte Le Mesnil-sur-Oger NV ($14), served very cold in a stemless flute. I try the Morgadío Albariño Rias Baixas 2006 ($9) and order the seared scallops, which are sweet and served with potatoes cooked in cream. Jordan gets the gnudi, not knowing that the bowl will contain dumpling nuggets and enoki mushrooms; he just likes the name.

Our thirst and hunger are just piqued as we move on to 58 Degrees & Holding Co. (1217 18th St.), a wine bar and wine shop. Wine lovers fill the patio tables, bar stools and sofas. The staff is clearly stressed, and there are two spectacular crashes of wine glasses, met by cheers all around. Who are these people? I love them, even if they aren’t here for the stellar list and bottle shop. But some, indeed, are here for the wine. I’m dumbfounded when I overhear a guy in his mid-30s wearing a faded red T-shirt chat across the barstools to a new friend about white Bordeaux. Honey, I gasp, these are my people.

My manly man orders a glass of Bieler Père et Fils Sabine Ros from Provence. Even for a 2005, the orangy wine tastes over the hill, and we wonder if the bottle was simply open too long. J sends it back and gets Wild Rock Vin Gris Ros 2006 from Central Otago, New Zealand. This zippy pinkie cuts through the fat of our charcuterie plate nicely. I get a 3-ounce taste of the Core Santa Barbara Grenache Saroyan Vineyard 2005, which I intend to savor with my hanger steak. But here, as at L Wine Lounge, it takes much, much longer for these small plates to arrive than it does to eat them. During the 40-minute wait, I move from the jammy Grenache to what proves to be my wine of the night, a 2001 Gigondas from Domaine Ccile Chassagne.

After paying our bill, we take a few moments to fondle bottles in the adjacent shop. The selection here is tops, and my wish list swells as I scan the aisle of Rieslings. But my sweet tooth kicks in and I suggest we revisit Chef Ame’s menu at L.

This time, we sit upstairs. I choose a glass of Chateau de Jau Muscat de Rivesaltes Roussillon 2005 to go with my lavender shortbread and suggest for J the La Tour Vieille Vendanges Banyuls 2004, a late-harvest Grenache to match his chocolate-chip ice cream sandwich. The pairings are sound, yet upon tasting the wines, we immediately trade glasses: He likes the peachy Muscat and I’m intrigued by the earthy tea and pepper in the Banyuls. Perhaps the candles are a little too scented, but the mellow light is romantic as we survey the still-bustling bar. Jordan muses that, until this year, this site had been a vacant lot since he was a kid. We’re thrilled that this trio of wine bars has joined our urban playground.

Elaine’s Pick of the Month

Domaine Ccile Chassagne Gigondas 2001

($23)&emdash;At 58 Degrees & Holding Co., restaurant manager and sommelier Jeff Back intimated that the deft hand of the female winemaker created a wine with a lighter style. While his woman-winemaker theory is questionable (ask Helen Turley about her high-octane Zins), the grace and style of this wine was powerfully clear to me. Is a 200-pound panther a lightweight because it silently springs from limb to limb?

Wine Trivia Contest

What is the Sacramento area’s oldest wine bar?
a) Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar; b) Tucos Wine Market & Cafe; c) Carpe Vino; d) Vino Volo

E-mail your answer to wine@sacmag.com by Aug. 15. The winner will receive a copy of A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country by Rick Kushman and Hank Beal. Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.

In June, we asked: What historic winery has the oldest tasting room in the Sierra foothills? a) Boeger; b) Montevina; c) Madroña; d) Ironstone. The correct answer: Boeger. No one correctly answered this question.