In a time that doesn't seem too long ago, Americans approached wine with a sense of dread. Stumbling over French names, listening to the intimidating patter of the sommelier (who had what looked like an ashtray hanging from his neck), smelling the cork, sipping and giving a nod of approval -- the whole ritualized process seemed arcane and utterly pretentious.
Then along came wine bars and, suddenly, wine drinking got a lot more fun. Servers offered quick wine suggestions without making us feel like rubes, and wines by the glass allowed us to try new things without making expensive mistakes, and the wine bar ambiance was just upscale enough to make us feel like civilized human beings out for a relaxed good time -- not cougars and hound dogs on the make. In that spirit, we offer 11 Metro Phoenix wine bars you shouldn't miss.
Nobody pronounces the name right (Kaaz-MEER-ehz), but who cares? The important thing is simply finding this tomb-dark replication of an Old World wine cellar with the speakeasy-style entrance in the back -- because if you're a wine aficionado (and even if you're not), you need to know that The Kazbar (winner of countless Wine Spectator awards) is Arizona's numero uno wine bar, stocked with more than 3,200 labels and a wine list that reads like a James Michener novel. Pretentious, however, it is not. More like chatty and funny and filled with as much erudite wine lore as you can handle. Creaky, velvet-upholstered couches and chairs may look like Grandma's house, but this place gets lively (as in raucous) as the night progresses, thanks in large part to fantastic live entertainment -- including local legends Margo Reed and Dennis Rowland -- every night of the week. If you get hungry, an extensive menu offers charcuterie, a short list of good cheeses, creative flatbreads, and drunken cherry brownie for dessert. So very appropriate.
For as long as most of us can remember, Sportsman's has been the go-to shop for boutique, hard-to-find wines and spirits and a great place to get shopping help from a geeky staff who knows its stuff. But what some of us forget is it's also a terrific wine bar, offering 75 wines by the glass from a list that changes quarterly. Not sure you'll like a particular wine? Ask for a tasting, which is half the pour at half the price. Or maybe you'd like to splurge on a whole bottle (the store stocks more than 2,000), then take it over to the wine bar and drink it without a corkage fee. If you're interested in learning more about wine, Sportsman's offers unscheduled wine tastings (informal and free) from 5 to 7 p.m. midweek. Meanwhile, the huge menu offers great cheeses (Brillat Savarin, Explorateur, and St. Andre, for example) and a slew of other wine-friendly foods, including rabbit cassoulet and Nueske's hot ham and Brie sandwich.
Brian Mahoney, who owned a wine shop in the Scottsdale Seville before he opened Terroir in 2005, describes his classy retail wine shop and bar as a "pub" instead of a "bar" -- partly because he's Irish (you'll find Guinness on the bar menu, too) and partly because he hopes to convey that Terroir is user-friendly, despite what its wine-geeky name might suggest. The wine list, which offers roughly 35 wines by the glass, gets tweaked every four or five days to keep Mahoney's army of regulars alert and interested. They sit at the bar for a Cheers-like chat with friendly bartenders or park themselves (dogs in tow) on Mahoney's charming, lushly landscaped patio. A pretty multi-use room to one side can be used for private parties, business lunches or -- as often happens -- art classes, which surely elevates the artists' moods, if not their technique. Meanwhile, the menu offers nibble plates (cheese, charcuterie, hummus, olives, veggies, fruits and nuts in various combos) plus lavosh and bruschetta. By the way, Mahoney's crew gives a hell of a pour (usually about 9 ounces), so figure out ahead of time how you're going to get home.
Housed in a high-ceilinged historic building in downtown Chandler, Vintage 95 is the coolest kid on the block, busy every day and packed to overflowing weekend nights. What's the draw? The plushly furnished space itself -- part bar, part living room, part dining room -- plus an umbrella-shaded patio and a daily happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.; all night on Wednesdays) that features select $5 wines and $20 bottles. The glass-enclosed wine cellar features more than 200 wineries and 1,000 bottles -- some offered in large or small format. A chalkboard lists a dozen great cheeses and charcuterie items. Aiming to be all things to all people, Vintage is a good place for date night, a quick burger with an inexpensive glass of vino or a full-on expense-account meal with a big bad bottle of something very expensive.
Hidden away between two hulking office buildings in the Promenade, Uncorked -- which accurately bills itself as "the unpretentious wine bar" -- is something of a miracle, successfully operating for over seven years with zero visibility. Owner and all-around grunt Ali Amundson, a wine wonk who knows how to keep it simple, is the biggest reason for this sweet place's success. For starters, she's created a cozy, chandelier-lit space that makes women feel comfortable and you'll see lots of women here, curled up on couches and chatting over a glass of wine. There's a patio, too, flanked by light-strung palo verde trees, which lend a touch of romance despite the otherwise Big Biz vibe. Amundson, a big believer in the educational value of flights, offers a slew of them, along with 40 to 50 wines by the glass from a list that changes frequently to keep things fresh for her many regulars. She's the kind of person who remembers your palate or, if she doesn't know you, asks questions and makes suggestions accordingly. She also offers other incentives, including half-price appetizers during happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday) and Wine Down Deals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Wine aside, I would come for the savory Parmigiano Reggiano cheesecake any day of the week.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you already know about Postino Arcadia (arguably Phoenix's most popular wine bar, circa 2001) and Postino Central (its equally jam-packed little sister, circa 2009). Now there's a third Postino in Gilbert, open a year ago and, like its older sibs, going gangbusters. And why not? The crew at Upward Projects have hit on a winning formula: historic spaces made hip but comfy (each with a fantastic outdoor component), approachable wines, and everybody's favorite bruschetta, which could be the bread-y foundation on which this empire was built. Here, you'll find 25 to 30 mostly boutique wines by the glass and over 60 bottles. Don't miss Monday's and Tuesday's Board and a Bottle for $20, but get there plenty early. The offer starts at 8 p.m. and by 8:30 there's a wait, which is almost worthwhile for the people-watching.
You don't have to be a wine lover -- or even a drinker -- to enjoy this pretty downtown Scottsdale wine bar, which offers restaurant seating, an extensive food menu, and a tucked-away, sailcloth-shaded patio. But if you do have grape expectations (not to mention a fondness for bargains), know this: 5th and Wine boasts an extensive global list and features $5 glasses of select wines plus "Yanni's Picks" (premium wines by the glass for $8, $32 for the bottle) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Happy hour (a different deal entirely) runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, but you can make them overlap if you're smart enough. Oh, and there's live music 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, so if you'd prefer a little peace and quiet, hit it for lunch or just laze through the afternoon on a couch.
Like the original Postino, Timo was a fire station in another life, and it still has the garage doors to prove it, which are opened up onto Central Avenue in good weather. But as great-looking as the interior of this sleek, contemporary wine bar may be, it's damn hard to choose indoors over out when you see its tree-shaded patio. Somebody had time, money, and good taste when they put this charming little retreat together. The global wine list includes 13 whites and 15 reds by the glass, all priced at $5 during happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; all day on Sunday). You'll also find cool food and wine deals such as Date Night Mondays (flatbread and a bottle, $19) and Italian Night Sundays (baked lasagna for two and a bottle, $22).
Love and marriage, horse and carriage, wine and cheese. Okay, maybe it doesn't rhyme, but you get the idea, and so does owner Ken Cheuvront, who carries more cheese than any other wine bar in town. What's more, his cheese menu (categorized by blues, goat, cow, and sheep) suggests the perfect wine for each one, taking the pairing guesswork out of it for the customer. His global wine list offers roughly 16 wines by the glass and nearly 100 bottles, as well as flights that may be accompanied by (you guessed it) cheese. By the way, the bar feels cramped here, so the best seats are along the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Avenue or out on the covered patio, which is relaxing and fun in a watch-the-world-go-by sort of way.
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When the Sportsman's location on Beardsley closed, Betty's Nosh moved in, picking up the torch for West Valley wine drinkers. Yes, technically, the place is a full-blown restaurant offering three squares plus brunch, but owner Phil Denaro Sr., who has a thing for mushrooms (and a mushroom bar to indulge his fancy), has also installed an impressive wine wall, featuring about 40 global bottles (and a handful of AZ wines), all offered by the glass. There's also a Reserve list for serious wine drinkers who don't mind shelling out $100 to $200 a bottle for something really yummy. On the other end of the spectrum, by-the-glass prices are $2 off during happy hour, plus regular free wine tastings are held every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
If you've got the time to schlep to Fountain Hills or you're lucky enough to live there, you can grab a table on Grapeables' patio and watch the show as the Fountain Hills Fountain (one of the tallest in the world) spouts water 300 feet into the air for 15 minutes at the top of every hour. Inside, wine lovers find their entertainment checking out 200-plus retail bottles on the rack, or simply sitting and sipping from a by-the-glass list that changes every other week but typically features five or six reds and the same number of whites. The food menu offers the usual wine bar nibbles (olives, hummus, antipasti, fruit, and cheese) as well as pizzas and everybody's favorite: baked Brie with cranberries. You'll also find live music on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, plus happy hour (and discounted wine prices) from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.