by anna rabhan
A few years ago, I sojourned in Napa Valley soaking in that region’s wine culture. Then, this May, I spent a week in Paris sampling the offerings of that wine-lover’s mecca. You might be as surprised as I was to learn that there are just as many interpretations of what a wine bar is in those quintessential wine paradises as there are wine bars themselves. You might be equally surprised to learn that Jacksonville has a similarly wide variety of wine bar interpretations.
Enjoy that new bar smell at 2692 Post Street. The interior sets the tone at Walkers with exposed brick, ducts and minimalist decor. Even the wine bottles are displayed as if simply stuck into the wall. The ubiquitous candles warm the place up and the atmosphere is very social. Owner Scott (Walker) McAlister keeps things simple with three tapas selections. “We didn’t want to categorize ourselves as a wine bar,” says McAlister, “for the main reason that we’re creating more of a casual, hip-type experience rather than something more traditional and conservative. But I think people have caught on to that and just like calling it a wine bar.” McAlister does plan to expand to 100-plus, constantly changing wine choices and, since glasses start at $5, this is a place you could definitely frequent. A few beer and champagne choices and a specialty cocktail menu are also available. Walkers definitely has a bar atmosphere with live music Thursday through Saturday and Tuesday salsa night. McAlister bartends on the weekends, but this is a nightspot so come to socialize with the people rather than with your glass. www.facebook.com/pages/Jacksonville-FL/Walkers/86032852510
If you don’t favor the nightclub concept, cross the river to The Grotto. Owner Mitch Woodlief says that what was originally a gourmet wine shop “kind of just evolved. [The previous owner] was just serving cheese plates.” The tapas menu is now substantial and sophisticated enough to make a meal of it. The Grotto offers a large wine-by-the-glass selection plus over 300 bottles to enjoy on the premises or retail. You can design your own flight, and they offer half-bottle pricing. There is a modest selection of beer, port, sherry and bubbly, and the wine list is evenly balanced between American, New and Old World wines. The menu is divided simply into red, white and dessert selections. On Thursdays from 6-8 pm, enjoy their tasting for $5 or join their sommelier every other Sunday for a tutored, themed tasting of six wines for $10. www.grottowine.com
You can find a mid-priced mix of those two places at The Grape. The wine list consists of numbered categories based on the “weight” of the wine (e.g. light-bodied). For beginners who wants to know what they’re getting, it’s not a bad idea. They offer wine by the taste, glass, flight and bottle and advertise that you can always taste a wine before you buy a glass. The by-the-glass menu is balanced between Old and New World and American wines and includes just as many sweet and sparkling wines as wines of any other category. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the food as well. The Caprese salad could be the best I’ve ever had. The Grape offers a wine-tasting and trivia event on Monday nights from 5- 7:30 pm for $14. If that’s not your scene, they also have a monthly themed tasting of “four courses of new menu items, expertly paired with four wines” for $35. The service is fast and friendly, there is outdoor seating and live music and, if you fall in love with one of the wines you taste there, you can buy a bottle in the retail shop. www.thegrape.com
Prepare to be pampered with the full-restaurant wine experience at Ocean 60. In the wine bar, patrons can enjoy glasses and bottles from “an extensive wine list featuring classic wine selections and also boutique wines” along with conversation about the wines with a staff member on Fridays and Saturdays. There is also live music in the martini room on weekends. Ocean 60 offers a $15 wine tasting on Mondays from 6-8 p.m., during which they showcase two whites and two reds with impressively generous pours. These are accompanied by appetizers designed to pair with the featured wines. The tasting is very informative. Distributor’s representative Rory Muldoon brought a viniculture map of California and discussed the characteristics of the appellations and of the featured wines. The wine list presents a good percentage of by-the-glass selections organized by varietals and featured wines. It is heavy on the American wines, although restaurant manager Jeff Joiner says the restaurant changes its wine, food and martini menus seasonally seeking to offer the freshest fare available. At Ocean 60, expect personal attention. Ten-year chef Jim Gruebel visited his customers. Staff member Kenny took the time to explain the two sides of the martini menu and even talked with me about Pedro Ximenez sherry, an excellent dessert wine offering. While somewhat more expensive, the experience at Ocean 60 is top notch. www.ocean60.com/about.htm
Another location offering a full menu is Blue Bamboo. The restaurant’s wine lounge is an intimate wine-bottle-lined room and a quiet place to enjoy a glass. It is available for special-event booking. The restaurant offers half-glasses, white flights, red flights or, a special feature of this Asian fusion spot, a rice wine flight. With six artisan sakes to choose from, you’ll want to consider carefully! The full wine menu is heavy on the American and Old World wines, and a pleasant surprise is the dessert wine Tokaji, which you won’t find elsewhere. The dishes are a creative blend of Asian and Western cuisine with a hint of Florida. The portions are generous and the service attentive. Blue Bamboo offers a $5 tasting of four wines, free if you stay for dinner, on the first Thursday of the month from 5:30-7:30 pm. Reservations are necessary for the $38 cooking class offered one Saturday a month, which is followed by lunch and a glass of wine. A once-a-month dinner of five wines paired with five courses will begin on September 15. Chef/owner Dennis Chan says that what’s special about that experience is rather than pairing wine with food, “We make the food to pair with the wine.” Blue Bamboo is marginally less expensive than Ocean 60 and it is likely here, too, that Chef Chan will come by for a chat. www.bluebamboojacksonville.com/
So, Jacksonville wine lovers, revel in the River City’s wine bar diversity. Get out there and get tasting!
Other Jacksonville wine bars
Island Girl Wine & Cigar Bar (Neptune Beach and Gate Parkway) www.islandgirljax.com
The Cellars at Three Layers (Springfield) www.threelayersacoffeehouse.com
Wine Cellar (Downtown Jacksonville) www.winecellarjax.com
Wine Bar (Jacksonville Beach) www.thewinebar.us.com
The Tasting Room (St. Augustine) www.tastetapas.com
useful wine vocabulary
Sommelier – A wine expert and/or the person in charge of wine at the establishment. There are certified and master sommeliers or, due to the person’s experience and position, they may be referred to as “the sommelier.”
Flight – An opportunity for the customer to choose several tasting or half-glass portions of different wines (usually three or four).
Tapas – Small plates of food meant to accompany wine. Some examples of American bistro-style tapas include a selection of cheeses, stuffed mushrooms or bruschetta.
Corkage Fee – If you would like to bring your own wine along for a special occasion, most establishments charge a fee. This may also apply to bottles purchased at the establishment for immediate consumption. Check beforehand regarding policies and fees.
Old and New World – “Old World” generally refers to Europe. “New World” refers to the “young upstart” countries in wine making, including the U.S., Australia and Chile.
Varietal – The grape variety (e.g. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.)
Appellation – A geographic wine region (e.g. Bordeaux)
Nose – The way a wine smells. This is sometimes referred to as its “bouquet.” You may hear the experienced use terms such as “chocolate” or “freshly cut grass” or even “cat’s pee”! Don’t be shy, though, for the wine’s bouquet is genuinely in the nose of the inhaler.
Tannin – Helps with the “weight” or “body” of a wine. It’s what causes that dry feeling in your mouth.
Acidity – What gives the wine its “crispness.” This is what tasters are talking about when they use words such as “sharp” or “flabby.”
savor the vino
by anna rabhan