A Weekend at the Wine Bars

Popping the cork on three of Cleveland's top wine stops.

Fanciful flights: D'Vine scores points for offering multiple-wine samplers. - Walter  Novak
Fanciful flights: D'Vine scores points for offering multiple-wine samplers.
At its best, a wine bar is a friendly, relaxing spot that offers wine lovers of all stripes a chance to savor old favorites, discover new passions, and have fun doing it. To this end, an interesting, well-organized wine list is essential; wine-savvy staffers are a necessity; and simple, wholesome foods designed to complement the wines are a plus. Trendiness is unnecessary, and snobbery is downright unacceptable; still, the atmosphere should demonstrate a sincere interest in and appreciation of wines and the people who dig them. We kept these criteria in mind when we spent a recent weekend at three area wine bars. Here's how they stacked up.

Earthy, with a bit of acid

Snug and cozy, Market Avenue Wine Bar makes a handsome urban hideaway. The Victorian-style decor is subtle and tastefully understated -- a set of lace curtains here, an ornate chandelier there -- and captures the feel of a venerable European bistro with almost uncanny accuracy. A broad sidewalk patio is popular in good weather; we, however, found ourselves drawn to the candlelit interior, with its irresistibly romantic vibes.

The impressive international wine list, assembled by owner Greg Bodnar and his staff, includes more than 300 wines by the bottle and nearly 80 by the glass. Bottle prices are marked up a mere $8 over retail and range from approximately $20 (for a 1997 Cockatoo Grenache/Shiraz blend) to $270 (for a 1997 Opus One), with plenty of choices under $35. Savvy drinkers will spot dozens of names they recognize, as well as many that are obscure or hard to find, making it deliciously difficult to limit oneself to only one, or even two or three, selections during any single visit.

For all its bounty, though, we wish the menu were more informative. Certainly, with a cellar this extensive, it's unrealistic to expect the menu to describe every bottle. But novice wine drinkers aren't the only ones likely to feel unenlightened when the menu lumps together everything from an Ohio Johannesburg Riesling to an Alsatian Gewürztraminer under the heading "Other White Varietals." And the menu misses another chance to educate and entertain consumers by not offering wine "flights," groupings of three or four small pours related to one another by grape variety, geography, or style.

To eat, there is a concise little collection of hors d'oeuvres, focused on such simple, wine-friendly favorites as warm French bread, sleek pâtés, cheese plates, and melon with an exceptional prosciutto. Portions are ample, presentation is tidy, and the most expensive item -- a generous serving of cold-smoked Alaskan salmon with chopped red onion and capers -- tops out at only $9.

While the ideal wine-bar server would be a fount of helpful information, our server seemed preoccupied. She stopped by rarely, made no suggestions, and appeared totally uninterested in our selections. And the vaguely disturbing sight of her carrying full wine bottles under her arms, on her way to the outdoor tables, was enough to keep us drinking "by the glass" for the remainder of the evening.

Amusing, not hilarious

It doesn't take long to realize that the young hipsters at D'Vine Wine Bar are more interested in making the Warehouse District scene than in exploring the subtle differences between, say, a Blackstone and a Liberty School Cab. Indeed, patrons are as likely to be sipping a martini or a microbrew as a Sauvignon Blanc, and with the weekend noise level approaching the limits of human endurance, even Robert Mondavi would be hard-pressed to impart any winy words of wisdom in this setting.

Still, the wood-brick-and-fieldstone room is welcoming and attractive. Exposed ductwork traces the high ceiling. A series of colorful contemporary oil paintings brighten the wall. And small black tables surrounded by artfully mismatched chairs provide the seating.

While D'Vine's international wine list is smaller and generally pricier than Market Avenue's, it's more user-friendly. Lengthy notes are understandably absent, but brief descriptive phrases (e.g., a grouping of Northern Italian whites is labeled as "crisp, clean, and light-bodied") at least give would-be wine adventurers a starting point. The first page is devoted to 16 different four-glass wine flights, priced from $11 to $19; each flight comes with a small chart for recording notes on appearance, aroma, and taste. And the menu's back cover contains a thumbnail sketch of 16 leading varietals, including flavor characteristics and geographical origins.

To eat, chefs Roberto Rodriguez and Mike Dunlap have put together a large, ambitious tapas menu that roams well beyond cheese and crackers. Oddly, much of the food, such as the jalapeño-spiked Lobster Empanadas, has a pronounced Southwestern accent that seems more suited to beer than wine. Still, a French cheese platter, with fruit, roasted garlic, crackers, and a warm baguette, was good-tasting, and homemade desserts like tiramisu and ricotta cheesecake were sweetly satisfying.

Bright and well-balanced

Owner Greg Bodnar's second wine bar, Corks, opened in downtown Willoughby a little more than a year ago. As with its Ohio City sister, Corks is dim and mellow, with worn wooden floors, a long oak bar, and a pretty, pressed-tin ceiling. Sinatra and the Fab Four provided much of the background music on the night we visited, and the clientele ran the gamut from young, leggy blondes sitting at the bar to older couples enjoying intimate tête-à-têtes within the shadows.

The hors d'oeuvre selection is the same as Market Avenue's, with a focus on unfussy standards. A large filet of smoked Atlantic trout, served with garlicky cream-cheese spread and crackers, was delicious with a glass of French Vouvray; a colorful salad of juicy Roma tomato, baby mozzarella, and fresh basil was great with hunks of warm bread and a fruit-forward Californian Zin.

While the wine menu is slightly smaller than that of Market Avenue, it's still a big one, with lots of interesting, fairly priced, and out-of-the-ordinary selections. (If only the clunky stemware did them justice!) And although we still wish the menu provided more direction, a pleasant, knowledgeable staffer, who took note of what we liked and brought samples of similar wines for our consideration, assisted us this night, making our visit almost perfection.

The last drop

Of the three spots, Corks comes closest to our ideal, with an exciting wine selection, relaxed atmosphere, classic noshes, and staffers who clearly shared our interests. Market Avenue Wine Bar would have been Corks' equal, if only our server had shown more interest in us. And D'Vine gets credit for its helpful, informative menu and its wine flights; however, the trendy tapas seemed to compete with, rather than complement, many of the wines, and the noise and bustle were so distracting that lingering here was out of the question.

Connoisseurs should also note that all three bars permit smoking throughout, a practice that interferes with wine's aroma and taste. And we can't help but be concerned about the large number of wines available by the glass at each location. Even with "gassing" to prevent oxidation, no wine improves after being opened, and some deteriorate quite rapidly. Thus, guests who order by the glass should be on the lookout for "off" flavors and odors, and be ready to bring such problems to their server's attention. And purists who want to be sure their wines are in prime condition might consider purchasing full bottles only.