Danny Hellman
Danny Hellman

My first taste of the 2006 Burgundy was not pleasant. I seem to recall having sound reasons for ordering the glass of Domaine Billard Hautes-Côte de Beaune at Cork Wine Bar: I was in the mood for a light-bodied red and had noticed that the Billard, at a $12 a pop, was one of the more expensive pours at the place. But the wine was so tart and acidic that I called the bartender over and suggested that perhaps the juice had become oxidized.

That’s when my palate went on trial right there at the bar. The bartender didn’t immediately replace my glass or offer up an alternative; instead she took the bottle and poured a little for Cork co-owner Diane Gross, who was sitting nearby. Gross turned to me and authoritatively announced that the Billard wasn’t off at all; it merely has a lighter body and tarter flavors than other Burgundies. Gross graciously offered to pour me a different wine, but her verdict hung there in the air for me to choke on: I’m a mere rube in her temple of wine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sympathetic to the trials that Gross and her husband and co-owner, Khalid Pitts, must face every day: I suspect they get a regular dose of kvetching from customers who stumble into the popular wine bar and decide to experiment with one of Cork’s finicky French bottles. I understand that they can’t dump every glass of Hautes-Côte de Beaune or Côteaux de Languedoc just because some bozo at the bar was expecting one of those California fruit bombs . Now, I’m no Robert Parker, but I’m also no beer-guzzling Bubba. I’ve drunk enough wines to know la merde from Lafite-Rothschild, and that Billard was shit.

Which is why I decided to call Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, where I spoke to Terry Brown, a former chef who’s now the wine manager at that cramped, delicious little store. Brown wasn’t surprised by my reaction to the Billard, which he calls a “nice but not incredible” producer. The 2006 Burgundy vintage, Brown says, was a good one, but the bottles are still too young to drink. Until they properly mature, in about a year, they will be tight and tart and acidic. In other words, Gross was right: The Billard tastes just as it should—when it’s served too goddamn early.

The whole Cork episode served to remind me why I’m not completely down with the D.C. wine-bar craze, which earlier this year inspired even the Wall Street Journal to reach for purple prose to match its purple teeth. “Washington is suddenly awash in wine bars—and really good ones, too,” wrote Journal wine writers Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher. “We have been following the nationwide trend of wine bars for years now and while Washington may have been late to the party, it has made up for lost time in a hurry.”

Cork, as everyone with access to a food blog already knows, is just one of several wine bars that have opened in the past year or so. There’s also Vinoteca, located just a few blocks from Cork in the same Shaw neighborhood, Proof in Penn Quarter, Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro inside the Westin Reston Heights hotel, Veritas in Dupont Circle, and Veritas’ all-American sister, Enology, on Wisconsin Avenue NW near the National Cathedral. This short list doesn’t even include those operations that were wine bars (Bardeo, Bistrot Lepic, Sonoma, Dino, and others) before wine bars became a subspecies of restaurants to obsessively catalog like tree bugs.

As it’s currently used, the term “wine bar” seems less about providing an accurate description of a business than about describing a lifestyle that people desperately want to adopt. Of the local wine bars I’ve visited, only Veritas and Enology position themselves as bars that predominantly sell wine. The rest are basically restaurants with really killer lists of wines by the glass. Some places, like Proof, barely have a bar at all.

As restaurants, I regularly like wine bars. Cork, under chef Ron Tanaka, serves perhaps the best duck confit in town and a superlative lemonade. I’ve also wolfed down the work of Russell P. Jones at Vinoteca, where the chef prepares the spiciest shrimp-and-grits I’ve ever had, thanks to a generous application of habanero in the ground corn. No, it’s the wine that generally leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Technically, it’s not the wine itself, which is blameless, even that callow little bastard, Billard. It’s the culture of wine at these places—the idea that drinking wine somehow makes you more sophisticated, even if you don’t know squat about grapes—and the price that you must pay to join this faux high society. For example, I was expected to pay $12 (Cork actually charged me $8 for my replacement glass) to be publicly called out as a wine poseur in Gross’ place. Had I paid full price, though, I would have covered at least 60 percent of the cost of that bottle, which runs between $18 and $20 retail, according to Brown at Schneider’s.

The percentages seem to stay the same even as you move up in price. At Vinoteca, for example, a 5-ounce pour of DuNah’s DeeDee chardonnay from California costs you $27, which is nearly 65 percent of the $42 a bottle will set you back from the vineyard’s Web store. I quote these prices and percentages not as examples of sticker shock but to prove a point: You have to have serious bank to get your drink on at wine bars, which is one of the main reasons we even darken their doorways, right? “Wine is an intoxicant, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, although you might never know it on the basis of most of what’s written in wine journals,” wrote Jay McInerney in A Hedonist in the Cellar. “And let’s face it: if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be drawn to it.”

Dead on, McInerney. But in my experiences at local wine bars, I’ve encountered neither happy drunkards nor serious snobs—nor even befuddled amateurs. Mostly, I’ve encountered a button-down culture of polite, educated drinkers who just want a glass or two of wine so they can discuss the history of Soviet aggression or their mother’s parsimonious ways (actual quote: “My mother worries when she has less than $150,000 in her checking account”). These customers, I can only assume, are ciphers in the house of vino, mostly oblivious to, say, the clever way that Enology has built its wine list completely around American producers.

These are wine bars as fashion statements and lifestyle accessories—where the pulsating music and buzzing conversations transform the long history of wine appreciation into little more than a club experience for folks who, in the privacy of their own homes, are happy to suck down Yellowtail. In this sense, I can sympathize with Diane Gross when we battled over that Billard. Cork and the rest of these wine-bar owners have obviously invested a ton of time, thought, and money in their concepts and construction—only to watch their customers use them and abuse them for their own self-interest. To Gross, I’m probably just another one of those obtuse D.C. assholes.

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