Paris was on Amalie Roberts’s mind when she designed the cozy wine bar Kir in Portland, OR. “My intention was to create a space where the ambience, food, and wine can transport you to another place altogether,” she says.
As their numbers have swelled across America, the best wine bars distinguish themselves by offering this kind of special atmosphere—alluring, but not too snobby—along with wine lists notable for their breadth or an intriguing regional specialty, such as Spain’s Basque region. They share an emphasis on artisanal, pair-able foods and have sommeliers who know their stuff. Visiting a wine bar like Kir is a way to travel vicariously, while others encourage you to sample the local bounty.
San Francisco’s Hidden Vine, for instance, takes advantage of its location near one of the world’s most celebrated wine-producing regions, highlighting homegrown Cabernets as well as produce from the city’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. That kind of loyalty appeals to Jon Blechman, the manager of New York’s Lelabar.
“We’re not trying to be a slice of Italy, Spain, or France,” says Blechman. “We want to be rooted in the neighborhood, which allows us to be ourselves.” A sleek wraparound counter with bar stools dominates the interior, encouraging casual conversation among West Village residents and others lured here. The small-plates selection is sourced from Murray’s, New York’s most iconic cheese shop.
But a top wine bar doesn’t require such a locavore creed or a proximity to vineyards; it can flourish even in the desert. Take Kazbar in Scottsdale, AZ, which puts a worldly spin on vino, with pages and pages listing nearly 2,000 varieties from more than 35 countries, including Croatia and Lebanon.
L.A.’s Bar Covell, on the other hand, takes a minimalist approach: it doesn’t even have a menu. “You know when you’re told an item is sold out? That doesn’t happen here,” quips Covell’s wine director, Matthew Kaner. He makes a policy of changing the by-the-glass wines daily and the bottle selection three to five times a week, so instead of flipping through a menu, you rely on the servers to share what’s available that given evening—eliminating that chance of disappointment.
Such satisfaction comes at a price, but these wines are made to be savored and are served in an atmosphere where you’ll want to linger. Besides, you’re on vacation—cheers to that!