5 Wine Bars Worth Traveling For, According to a Sommelier
Caleb Ganzer, wine director at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, shares his favorite spots around the world.
“Wine vacations” have been popular for years, and for good reason. If there's one thing that Travel + Leisure editors agree on, it's that wining and dining like a local is one of the easiest ways to deepen your travel experience.
“What I love about traveling for wine is getting to experience something that is so deeply connected to a place,” senior editor Lila Battis told me. “You get a full sensory experience of a thing that could only exist in this specific part of the world at this specific moment in time.”
For senior editor Sarah Bruning, wine provided a way to understand her honeymoon destination from a new angle. “After deciding on South Africa, one of the big reasons we wanted to do a wine tour in Franschhoek was the opportunity to see some funky stuff we couldn't get anywhere else,” she said. “There are small producers that specialize in a particular style — Pinotage, for example, which isn't used much in other countries. It's an interesting lens for experiencing the region and their traditions.”
Visiting growing regions and touring vineyards can make for an excellent trip — but what better way to experience the metaphorical terroir of a place than grabbing a glass where the locals go? Whether it's an old-school enoteca, a winery tasting room, or a teeny-tiny restaurant with a cult-favorite wine list, going where residents actually enjoy wine together can provide context for how people eat, drink, and be merry in their corner of the world.
For recommendations on the best places to drink wine around the world, we turned to Caleb Ganzer, wine director at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York City. The 2017 Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year makes it his job to know about the latest, greatest wine regions and producers — traveling frequently, hosting pop-ups, and curating a Francophile wine list that still reaches from Mexico to Bulgaria to Brazil to the Canary Islands.
In between, he also has time to scope out the work of fellow somms. We asked him where to find the wine vibes worth traveling for.
Hellbound — Adelaide, South Australia
“Sydney and Melbourne get most of the press in Oz,” said Ganzer, “but it's worth visiting Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, the state that produces the bulk of the wines down under.” He recommends sampling the goods at Hellbound, a year-old subterranean space on Rundle Street. Ganzer notes that owner Mark Reginato “gets first dibs on some 'unicorn' bottles” thanks to his importing connections and distribution businesses; together with winemaker Louis Schofield, he curates a wine list that includes “local gems as well as European classics.”
Bufalina — Austin, Texas
While this spot is beloved by locals for its seasonal Neapolitan pizzas, Ganzer points out that it was also “one of the early trailblazers in Austin for high-quality, natural-leaning wines.” Bufalina has possibly the most interesting wine list of any pizza place in the country — owner Steven Dilley was also a 2017 F&W Sommelier of the Year — and, according to Ganzer, “a friendly and knowledgeable staff.” His recommendations for pizza pairings: “Start with a bottle of Champagne, finish with Beaujolais.”
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar — San Francisco
Ganzer loves Absinthe in Hayes Valley for its “killer French-slash-New-Olreans neighborhood bistro vibes.” A menu of bistro classics (croques monsieur, French onion soup, steak tartare) and salty snacks (soft pretzels, bloody Mary oyster shooters) provides a solid canvas for sommelier Gretchen Buck's extensive wine list. You may be tempted by the dozen or so absinthe cocktails or the many Champagnes available by the half-bottle, but Ganzer says to “take a deep dive into Burgundy. The ages of these bottles go way back, and the prices appear to be stuck in time.”
Ganbara — San Sebastián, Spain
“Not only is Ganbara probably the best pintxo spot in the area,” said Ganzer, “but they also have a fondness for Champagne, Jura, and Burgundy on their small (but curated) off-menu bottle list.” Owner José Ignacio Martínez — “who can usually be found in the kitchen, tucking slices of jamón ibérico into mini-croissants before popping them into the oven” — is a wine lover, stocking a wide variety from Rioja, Priorat, and Ribera del Duero, as well as France and beyond. “He's always happy to share a glass, and the imported gems on the menu pair surprisingly well with his local fare.”
MAST — Vienna
Ganzer loves this wine bar, a project by “a couple of former fancy somms,” Matthias Pitra and Steve Breitzke. Their pedigree shows through at MAST — says Ganzer, this weinbistro has an “incredibly deep and geeky wine list, plus the best stems in a land of great glassware.” (He's a fan of Mark/Thomas.) Small plates from chef Martin Schmid (black pudding, chanterelle pasta, Bergkäse with potatoes and chives) pair perfectly with “classic and modern Austrian wines, plus huge collection of Jura and other curiosities.”