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Bar review: At Cuvée 103, eat drink and get schooled in wine

Cuvée 103 Bistro

It's always a bit of an adventure when I visit wine bars. Give me the most extensive beer or whiskey menu you've got and I'll navigate it like a seasoned pro. Wine? I might need a little help.

I'm aware that I probably look more lost than the average customer when selecting wines. It's not because I know nothing about the stuff, it's that I'm generally searching through an online database to find wines that have been clarified without the use of animal-based fining agents in addition to reading the menu. It's really no trouble, it just takes a minute or two, which can be awkward when a bartender is lurking nearby, wondering why I'm on my phone instead of ordering something.

Cuvée 103 Bistro bartender and resident expert, Certified Specialist of Wine Jacqui Man, noticed that I was hard at work perusing the wine list and offered to help. Normally, I'd just ask for another second to make my pick, but this time I simply mentioned what I was up to.

Surprisingly, she quickly produced a large binder and started combing through producer-supplied tech sheets in the improbable task of finding a wine that provided information about its fining agents in the details.

Moments later, I was enjoying a bottle of 2013 Bordeaux from Château Lamothe de Haux: a blend (or cuvée) of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle grapes, produced in a 19th century vineyard with grapes planted back in 1982. The wine is fined with bentonite clay, a vegan-friendly fining agent. Who knew these tech sheets could be so informative?

Here's the important part, though: I learned a heck of a lot about this particular wine, as well as the style, and not just because I read the tech sheet. Jacqui was eager to explain what makes this wine significantly different from, say, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, as well as why its short fermentation in stainless steel without additional aging in oak barrels — I told her to go full-technical on me — produced a wine that was crisp and mildly fruity, but not tart. It was an enjoyable and educational wine experience.

I've said it before, but one major thing that sets great wine bars apart from good ones is a knowledgeable staff. Cuvée 103 has that part under control. The other factor is environment, and Cuvée 103 nails that, too.

A bar and bistro serving an extensive selection of wines, craft and imported beers, and gourmet dishes — the latter courtesy of Chef Michael Carr, previously executive chef at the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa — is a tall order for a small, strip mall unit straddling the line between Safety Harbor and Clearwater. Cuvée 103 Bistro is smartly designed and decorated to maximize its space, creating a sleek, intimate setting perfect for the fare it offers.

The color scheme is red and white (either a clever pick or a happy coincidence, given the focus on wine), with black ceiling tiles and cool, cutaway globe lights providing light to the bar. The majority of the interior is dining space, with a small area near the front for live music on the weekends.

It's cool, chilled out, and a great setting for a meal or even just a glass or two. And if you want to boost your wine knowledge in the process, you'll likely find an opportunity to do so here. That's a two-out-of-two in the things I look for in a wine bar. Your list may be different, but I'd suspect Cuvée 103 would do well in any case — it's the real deal.

— Contact Justin Grant at jg@saintbeat.com. Follow @WordsWithJG

Cuvée 103 Bistro

2454 N McMullen-Booth Road #103, Clearwater. (727) 726-0350 cuvee103.com

The vibe: A small, stylish wine bar with an extensive selection, gourmet restaurant fare, and live music.

Food: Appetizers and salads, $7–$14; entrées, $15–$32.

Booze: Beer and wine. Beer, $4.50–$12; wine, $5–$32 by the glass and $23–$112 by the bottle.

Specialty: The huge wine list can be intimidating if you're not sure exactly what you're in the mood for, so don't be afraid to ask. The staff really knows their stuff and will be glad to guide you in the right direction. There are over 50 wines available by the glass — many of those on draft, ensuring a fresh pour every time — and the bottle selection numbers in the low hundreds. I asked bartender Jacqui Man what her sleeper pick was, and she produced a bottle of Alvear Pedro Ximinez Solera 1927, a highly-rated sherry that you probably won't find at just any old wine bar. As a result of the solera process, there are trace amounts of the original 1927 vintage lingering in there somewhere. Quite a romantic thought.

Hours: Tuesday, 5 p.m.–10 p.m.; Wednesday–Thursday, 5 p.m.–11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.–midnight; Sunday–Monday, closed.

Bar review: At Cuvée 103, eat drink and get schooled in wine 12/16/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2015 3:27pm]
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