It's interesting how bars with a specific focus have evolved and diverged from one another within American bar culture. Classic cocktail bars generally have a different feel from bars focusing on craft beer, and wine bars often are even more distinct and removed from what we envision when we go to the bar.
When I stepped into the Wine Studio, a "mini bistro and wine bar" in Tampa's Palma Ceia neighborhood, I felt more as if I had walked into someone's home than into a typical watering hole. While a small bar was positioned immediately inside the entrance, it was matched in size by a living room-esque lounge area, complete with sofa, comfy-looking chairs and a long coffee table.
From an outsider's perspective (I'm admittedly a beer and whisky guy), I suppose it could be wine culture in general. Wine is a refined, civilized drink; to many, the appreciation and enjoyment of wine is a wholly worthwhile pastime. And the Wine Studio certainly seemed like a place where one could indulge in such appreciation.
The small, L-shaped bar at the front is decorated with mason jars filled with paintbrushes and silverware — two of the major motifs at the Wine Studio. Opposite is the aforementioned living room. The quarters are relatively close, but it has an open feel. Beyond the front room is another, larger lounge, this one separated into several adjoining alcoves, each with more homelike décor and furniture. On one wall, classic films are projected, and there's an assortment of board games (including a wine-based version of Monopoly, naturally). There's lots of seating, but the whole place is so tiny that it's hard not to end up getting involved in someone else's conversation.
That might be the point, actually. During my visit, everyone was friendly and conversational, from the helpful and attentive bartender to the small group of people sitting at the other end of the bar. Wine has a way of making everyone get along nicely.
The sign out front promises that this is a wine bar "with a twist," and after taking a look around the place, I'm pretty sure I've figured it out. As the name implies, this is a space devoted not only to wine, but art as well. There's quite an array of paintings and sculptures from a rotating selection of local artists, as well as a large collection of works from painter/sculptor Steven Dickey, a regular. You may recognize him from a few of his works around town, such as the statue of a man reading a newspaper in Centro Ybor.
Of course, without some good wine, this wouldn't be much more than an upscale home gallery, and the Wine Studio does indeed have many good wines — around 70 in all. If you don't feel like committing to an entire bottle, most wines are available by the glass; if you don't know where to start, you can even order 3-ounce flight portions to sample. A concise but varied food menu is also available.
Naturally, I also eyed the beer selection and was happy to see quite a few above-average options, with pales and IPAs, Belgian Trappist ales, schwarzbier, and hard cider covering the majority of the bases. To finish everything off, there's dessert and coffee.
While the Wine Studio seems like a great, intimate spot for a date or casual night out, it's also popular with groups. A private room in the back (with its own bar) is reserved for this, and amazingly, there's no charge to book it.
It's no beer bar, and it's not a cocktail joint either, but the Wine Studio does the whole wine thing exceptionally well. It's a welcoming and comfortable spot to sip on some wine (or even a beer), and it's certainly a nice change of pace from the usual bar scene.