By Veronica Meewes
Photography by Jenna Noel
As condos continually rise to meet our skyline and rush hour seems to start a little earlier each day, we watch as our quaint little city slowly morphs into a bustling metropolis. Yet amidst the background hum, Austinites old and new are forging a brave new cultural landscape—reinventing, readapting and reinterpreting our city to fit a new set of needs and desires. Enter one of Austin’s latest reincarnations: the wine bar.
In 2006, Congress Avenue’s Cork & Co. was Austin’s first establishment to serve light food and wine, exclusively. The place is small and cozy, with limited seating and various board games available for lingering fun. The light-heartedly titled wine flights (e.g. My Mind is a Total Blanc) offer a sampling of three different wines in two-ounce pours for a mini wine tasting at your table, and the assortment of cheese, bread and antipasto plates makes the bar a popular place for bachelorette and birthday parties.
Soon after Cork & Co.’s emergence, Dallas’s Crú opened an Austin location in May 2006, providing a more upscale atmosphere inside and people-watching patio seating nearby on 2nd Street. In those early days of the wine bar renaissance, though, both Cork & Co. and Crú drew a select crowd of older, downtown diners. It seemed that the wine scene was still something reserved for special occasions or oenophiles.
Attitudes were rapidly changing, though. Vino Vino opened its doors to Hyde Park in late 2006, and the mood lighting, vast spaciousness and abundance of tables in various sizes made it equally perfect for date night or a late dinner with friends. Currently, each Monday and Tuesday, local musicians complement the buzz of conversation, and every Sunday, paella—cooked using traditional burners and pans from Spain—is served, starting at 7 p.m. Most of the customers at Vino Vino are regulars, which is unsurprising, considering the friendly neighborhood atmosphere and reasonable prices for Old World wine and high-quality fare. They carry over 300 bottles in all price ranges and glasses from $6–15.
“We really look for pH balance,” says owner Jeff Courington. “We’re looking for an acidity in our wine that goes well with food, and that’s what really sets us apart.”
Vino Vino’s American menu changes seasonally and utilizes an impressive amount of local ingredients. Head chef and native Austinite Esteban Escobar works closely with John Lash of Farm to Table, who connects Austin restaurants and chefs with local farms like Tecolote Farm, Naegelin Family Farm, Animal Farm, Oak Hill Farms and Hands of the Earth Farm, to name a few. “We’ve used everything from pork belly to flat iron steak to lamb leg, all locally raised and grassfed,” says Escobar.
Two recent offerings from Escobar included savory Texas Quail Ranch quail paired with clams and served with local arugula and corona beans, and a flat iron steak from Burgundy Pasture Beef served with local green onions, fennel-potato hash and garlic butter. The panna cotta using Wateroak Farms’s chevre is also popular.
East 7th Street’s Uncorked Tasting Room & Wine Bar surfaced last June in a turn-of-the-century house overlooking downtown. Owner and native Texan Ron Wight relocated to Austin after becoming “completely addicted to wine and the entire culture” in Northern California. A CIA Certified Wine Professional, Wight has traveled extensively, hitting every major wine region and gaining knowledge along the way. His lush wine country photos complement the candlelit décor of Uncorked—intimate enough for a first date, but casual enough to feel homey.
“We are somewhat upscale in appearance,” Wight says, “but not pretentious in any way. Anyone is welcome to come here in shorts and flip-flops. No one will come in here and feel intimidated.”
Currently, Wight is using his IT/finance background to develop a system called the Winedex. “I wanted to help people self-evaluate and compare wines as simply as possible,” he says. When the system is completed, each wine offered at Uncorked will be identified on the menu through a series of icons representing type, body, flavors and sweetness. Wight hopes this will not only inform, but also encourage drinkers to continue exploring wines they wouldn’t normally think of trying.
“When you drink a wine, you begin to wonder…what makes this Spanish tempranillo so different from this Napa cabernet?” Wight says. “It’s the culture, the food, the weather, the history. In my mind, you expand your mind when you explore wine.”
Uncorked’s head chef Patrick Deschner (formally of The Salt Lick and Bess Bistro) offers seasonal specials meant to enhance the wine experience, like local goat cheeses from Blanco’s CKC Farms, truffled mushroom and spinach risotto and Angus beef tenderloin au poivre in a red wine reduction—all best sellers.
One of the most recent bars to join Austin’s burgeoning wine scene is Mulberry—nestled on the street level of the Austin 360 building since last August. Owner Michael Polombo was in finance for 10 years in New York City, then moved to Austin to pursue an MBA—writing the financial plan for Mulberry as part of the process. The bar-level seating is set off by a Calcutta gold marble surface and boxy oak stools custom-made by local design guru Michael Hsu. Visible wine storage is home to thousands of bottles and over 150 labels, with a focus on boutique wines.
Like the establishment itself, Mulberry’s menu is small but dynamic. The pork and beef meatballs are served in a heady broth of white wine and lemon juice, and accompanied by garlic-rubbed toast. The burger balances pancetta, Gruyère, tomato and a fried egg. And a variety of bar snacks are offered, including a daily crostini special as well as raw oysters. But Mulberry is best known for its weekend brunch, featuring treats such as brioche French toast with cardamom syrup, and truffled fritatta with Gruyère. Mimosas and Bellinis are offered in addition to their selection of wines by the glass and hand-picked draft beer.
For a treat off the beaten wine path of downtown, head west to The Grove Wine Bar and Kitchen. Though open since December of 2007, it’s taken the Central Austin crowd a little longer to discover this tucked-away, Westlake jewel.
The interior is elegant yet casual, designed largely in earth tones and wood, with vivid modern paintings brightening the walls. The dining area is sunlit and spacious, with windows looking out onto the patio’s main attraction: a grove of live oaks that gracefully bend and twist around diners. A larger-than-life outdoor fan lifts air through the branches, creating luxurious breezes that make a sunset happy hour here one of Austin’s best-kept secrets.
The Grove features a selection of bruschetta, pastas, salads and pizzas—what owner and restaurateur Reed Clemons (Bitter End Bistro & Brewery, Reed’s Jazz & Supper Club, Reata Restaurant, Mezzaluna, Granite Cafe and Capitol Brasserie) calls “fun, wine-friendly food.”
The wood-fired pizzas are light but satisfying—create your own pie or choose from their specialties like the Chicken Little (grilled chicken, garlic béchamel, caramelized onions, Gorgonzola and rosemary) or the Sausage Gone Wild (Italian fennel sausage, wild mushrooms, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, tomato sauce and mozzarella). The popular bruschetta board allows diners to pick three of nine toppings to top crusty bread and is accompanied by a bowl of olives.
The Grove’s prices are surprisingly affordable. Glasses of wine start at $5 with an impressive 50 to choose from. There are also 10 wine flights and over 200 bottles available, ranging in price from a $20 bottle of pinot grigio to a $107 bottle of chardonnay. Retail bottles of wine are also available, with a discount if you’ve dined in-house. In fact, The Grove is just one of several wine bars blurring the line between retail wine merchant and restaurant. Selections tend to focus on smaller producers and feature more unique bottles than found in the grocery store.
In 2007, Cissi’s Market opened on South Congress and quickly gained popularity as a gourmet market. Just last November, it morphed into a spacious, bona fide wine bar with large windows and an airy, modern interior. Owner Victoria Lynden preserved the boutique-market feel by keeping a mini version in the back—offering Sweetish Hill Bakery bread, bulk spices, deli sandwiches, organic chocolate, eco-friendly kitchen products and a small selection of prepared foods.
The menu at Cissi’s features sandwiches and small plates perfect for a mid-shopping snack. A must-try appetizer is the Pecorino Toscano-stuffed, grilled medjool dates with house-cured bacon and Marcona almonds (Cissi’s boasts not only house-cured bacon and salmon, but house-roasted beef and turkey). And for a mere $4, you can snack on a jewel-toned beet salad or gaufrettes: delicate, hand-cut French potato chips sprinkled with Gruyère.
There are 16 wines by the glass at Cissi’s, and bottles span $16 to $90. Or choose from the impressive beer selection or the handful of house-made sparkling elixirs paired with a stunning dessert crafted by Pastry Chef Faith Chen. Even sweeter, Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. is retail happy hour, knocking $10 off select bottles from the wine wall.
Max’s Wine Dive—yet another restaurant offering retail sales—has been pleasing Houston crowds since 2001, and in early May, an Austin location opened in an old warehouse on San Jacinto. Though more of a swanky sports bar than a dive, Max’s offers Southern comfort foods with a pronounced twist: many dishes are made using local produce and artisan breads. Chef Steve Super, a former professional musician who’s toured with the likes of Dolly Parton and Brooks & Dunn, whips up high-end dishes like fried green tomatoes with scallops, wild-harvested alligator tail, venison chili and truffle cream mac and cheese.
“We call it a dive bar but it’s definitely a classy dive with a jukebox and it’s very boisterous—not your parent’s wine bar!” explains partner Jonathan Horowitz. “It’s a little more edgy than most.”
Named one of the “Hot 10” wine bars by Bon Appétit magazine, Max’s appeals to Austin’s downtown crowds with a late-night menu and an unusual “reverse happy hour,” when select plates and glasses of wine are half-price for the last two hours of business. If you’re looking to sample a variety of Max’s dishes on a budget, Sunday’s all-day brunch runs until 9 p.m. and includes bottomless mimosas.
“Our mantra is ‘the best possible quality at the best possible price,’” says Horowitz. “You may be paying $18 for the Kobe beef burger, but that is a quality burger!”
Max’s offers wine bottles to go at lower, retail prices as well. “Our focus on retail wine sales has been immensely popular,” Horowitz says. “We have a really aggressive pricing program, with some of the lowest prices on phenomenal wines from around the world.”
Judging from the buzz the new wave of wine bars is creating, it’s clear that wine is no longer about strict pairings with certain elevated foods, nor is it coded in a secret language reserved for sommeliers. According to the Paris-based International Organisation of Vine and Wine, global consumption of wine totaled 6.4 billion gallons last year and, for the first time ever, the United States topped the charts, surpassing even Italy.
Even the forefathers are evolving to greet the movement: Cork & Co. now offers a daily happy hour featuring $5 glasses, and Crú added lunch and Sunday brunch to their menu, as well as half-price bottles of champagne on Thursdays.
Austin wine merchants are striving to bring wine back to the people, to make it a common part of dinner and meeting with friends and to offer prices that are reasonable in spite of the struggling economy. What better way to toast our ever-growing city?