I love a good wine. The look, the smell, the taste — every aspect is appealing to me. The problem is, I'm not sure I'd be able to pick out a "good" wine in a blind tasting; my palate is simply not experienced enough to tell the difference between a highly praised vintage from a respected estate and a $7 special at Sweetbay.
To be honest, maybe there's not much of a difference between the two anyway. All of my friends who know about wine tell me that the real connoisseurs tend to gravitate toward cheap wines that are well-made, and I can relate to that. I've always tried to ignore the hype with beers and spirits, basing my opinion on the products themselves.
Still, it helps to have someone who knows the score to point you in the right direction. There are so many wines out there that it's tough to know where to begin. A neophyte like myself might tear through dozens of bottles before finding something special; a little direction can be helpful.
If I'm in the mood to try some wine but don't feel like going in completely blind, I'll usually try a wine bar. Recently, I stopped by Cru Cellars in South Tampa to see what they were pouring and what I could learn in the process.
Cru Cellars is primarily a retail shop that features a wide selection of different wines and related products, but in the back is a laid-back, modern wine bar, where guests can sample some of the wines for sale up front while snacking on light fare from the adjoining kitchen.
I arrived relatively late — around 9 p.m. on a Thursday, which is only an hour before the posted closing time. From the dimmed light of the retail portion, I was afraid that I'd cut it too close, but as soon as I turned the corner into the back bar, I could see that this wasn't the case. The bar was packed with groups eating dinner, couples on dates, girls night out — nearly all enjoying a tall glass of wine.
The bar area is small, primarily comprised of a rectangular bar made of smooth, natural wood, with seats and a few small high-tops surrounding it. An old door nailed to the wall next to the bar serves as a chalkboard for the day's specials. A separate, private room decorated with nothing but a massive table capable of seating maybe a dozen people is through a threshold at the other end.
Outside of the main bar area is a walled-in patio featuring lounge furniture, lots of foliage, outdoor heaters, and another private, curtained-off section at the end. The outdoor patio lies in the breezeway between two buildings, and it feels so private and secluded that it's hard to imagine that it's less than a block off of a main road. The whole thing is very hip and minimalist.
I started with Owen Roe's Sinister Hand, a red wine blend that the bartender described to me as a "big, big, bold wine." Sounded right up my alley. Indeed, it was exactly what I had in mind, with rich, dark fruit notes, a hint of pepper, and a dry finish. My girlfriend ordered a Pinkus Hefeweizen, one of a small but high-quality variety of beers on the menu. Next I tried St. Innocent's Villages Cuveé, a pinot noir that was much fruitier and lighter than the Sinister Hand. My bartender was enthusiastic about this one, proclaiming it his favorite pinot noir on the list. Could I tell these apart from a bottle of the cheap stuff? I'm not entirely sure, but I'll be damned if they didn't taste great.
The wine was all served at the proper cellar temperature — mid-50s for reds and mid-40s for whites — and the glasses were not only spotlessly clean but also meticulously wiped with a clean cloth. This attention to detail is something you don't see every day, and it ensures that you'll get a quality glass of wine, free of dust and oils that can spoil or interfere with a wine's characteristics.
Overall, Cru Cellars hits the right notes. A beginner would find it easy to explore without feeling out of place, while a connoisseur will be able to find something new and interesting to try. Whether you're looking to join the wine of the month club or you want to get a flight to find out what best suits your tastes, you'll find it here.