W.C. Fields didn't live long enough to see the modern incarnation of the wine bar, but he had some great thoughts on grapes and grub.
"I cook with wine," he said. "Sometimes I even add it to the food." My favorite Fieldism: "Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch."
I'm with Fields. I don't care for hard alcohol, but good wine is a joy anytime -- mimosas for breakfast, spritzers for lunch, a crisp white alongside dinner. I've got no nose-in-the-air attitude about it. High cost doesn't necessarily mean high quality as far as my palate's concerned, and some of the most interesting bottles come from offbeat, little-known, reasonably priced labels. My new favorite at the moment, in fact, is a blend of four white grapes from South Africa. It's called Goats do Roam, and it's priced at just $9.
I found my Goat beverage at a wine cafe, a fabulous concept that's finally emerged in the Valley. These cafes have been big forever in California, and in the past few years, several have taken root here. It's about time. What's not to love about intimate bistros that invite us to sit and relax, gently guided by experts, and revel in an interesting vintage we likely never would have discovered on our own? I'm thinking of how much I enjoy local spots like Postino, Kazimierz World Wine Bar, AZ Wine, Sportsman's Fine Wines and Spirits, Epicurean Wine Services, My Wine Cellar-Lucy's Place, or Duck & Decanter. What professionals these folks are, with intriguing wine choices numbering in the triple (sometimes even quadruple) digits.
The thing is, as much as I adore the vino, I need food. I quickly become comatose if not constantly snacking while I'm sipping. Without something to nibble on, I can be face down on the bar after a single glass. At places like Postino, I gorge on gourmet bruschetta, artisan cheeses, flatbread pizzas, imported meats, smoked salmon, even fondue. These are more than just wine shops, they're hors d'oeuvre heaven.
That should explain why I'm so annoyed with two new wine bars: Wine Concepts, a shop and cafe that opened recently in north Phoenix, and Vinoteca, a new boutique and gourmet food market in Tempe. They've got the grapes -- limited selections, yes, but enough to keep me curious. The food is a different story.
Chic, cosmopolitan repasts? Hardly. Given these two impostors, I would be better off stopping at Safeway and grabbing a bottle of wine and a deli tray. I go to Wine Concepts and leave feeling entirely ripped off. I go to Vinoteca and come home with a growling stomach.
Wine Concepts is the venture of Mark Stern, former owner of Paradise Valley Vineyards in Willcox. I assume Stern knows his wines -- he likes to throw around words like malolactic fermentation -- though I have to say that Arizona grapes are more often known for their geographical novelty than their nuance. Personally, I don't care for the local stuff. It's pretty dull, and I'll pass up a taste even when it's free at tastings.
Whatever. I'm here for dinner, and I'm not happy. I expect a certain funky poshness from wine bars, yet the ambiance at Wine Concepts is all rummage sale. Even without all the cheesy Halloween paraphernalia (a sign promising wine "so good it's scary"), it's a crazy clutter of Mexican dive and sports bar, complete with TVs playing Monday night football. A rack of wine bottles lines one wall; the rest of the place is done up in Día de los Muertos doodads, Southwestern Indian art prints, stiff metal chairs with those outdated forged iron smiling suns as backs, and the seen-better-days crusher, steamer, press and wine barrels left over from Stern's former winery.
My buddy and I start with seats at the bar, but quickly abandon the plan. We can't get comfortable. The chairs are so bulky and heavy they're difficult to drag across the Spanish tile floor. The bar is so high I'm resting my chest on it, and there's that irritating hmmmzzz of the refrigeration cases. We move to the one soft spot in the cafe, a pair of couches in the corner, and kick back with glasses of crisp, fruity Bridgeview Blue Moon Riesling.
I'm feeling better about the place. But then the food arrives. It's taken about 20 minutes to prepare, and I wonder why. How much work is involved in opening boxes and jars? I'm honestly embarrassed to be showing my buddy this antipasto platter, a Wal-Mart-esque presentation of grocery-store-style salami, pepperoni, crumbled feta, Kalamata and green-pimiento olives, provolone, water crackers and ordinary Colby Jack, which has no business ever being on an antipasto.
Bruschetta is a staple of any self-respecting wine bar. The best in the Valley is found at Postino. The worst is found at Wine Concepts, where mass-produced bread is cut into bits, toasted, slicked with olive oil and layered with ingredients like chewy low-grade prosciutto and mushy sliced apple. I want homemade mozzarella, fresh white beans, home-marinated artichokes, and garden-fresh basil -- not the prefab junk I get here.
I don't even let my companion taste my turkey sandwich -- I'm too shocked that I've spent $8 on something I could have picked up at any cafeteria for $1.95. The meat is fine, but there's just one slice of it, along with iceberg, provolone and what I swear is Miracle Whip on boring sourdough speared with cocktail toothpicks. It's too depressing even to discuss the chocolate torte, a luscious-looking but completely commercial mousse concoction.
To top off this nightmare, Wine Concepts has a corkage fee of $8 (the upscale Atlas in Scottsdale only charges $7), and on Wednesdays, hosts a "singles mingle" night so we can find someone to "like, love or lust." High class.
At Vinoteca, it's actually worse. I'm led in with a glam-proposal of "fresh baked breads, panini sandwiches, and a European deli." This I get from a prominent A-frame sign parked on busy Mill Avenue.
Yet once inside, I find nothing. The shop is run by the owners of Caffe Boa next door, and apparently, that's where the proprietors are keeping their attention. And their food. There are no sandwiches anymore, my perky cashier tells me. No bread. There are a few cakes and some cheeses, but no tables at which to eat. She can sign me up for a wine tasting, the cashier says -- it's tomorrow night, on the patio of Boa, and she'll e-mail me immediately.
Weeks later, I'm still waiting.
I love my wine. I love my food. I wish the weasels at Wine Concepts and Vinoteca felt the same.