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We Asked Sommeliers: What Makes a Perfect Wine Bar?

Plus top wine bars to visit from New York City to Milan to Charleston.

No matter which city you’re in, wine bars are probably a dime a dozen. But what sets the good apart from the exceptional? We asked four industry professionals to share their insights as to what makes for an unforgettable experience, and it goes far beyond just what’s in the glass.

A wine list with a strong point of view

Dustin Wilson, co-founder of Verve Wine and Après Cru, a New York-based hospitality investment and operations company focused on delivering top-tier experiences and sustainable growth, believes that a great wine bar must have an interesting selection of wines as a baseline. “Having a clear point of view on their curation is key for me, while making sure that the bar has styles that can make just about anyone happy at the same time,” he says, noting that if clients can learn something or get exposure to a new and interesting bottle or producer along the way, all the better.

Nicole Bull of Dedalus Wine Bar in Burlington agrees, stating that a killer list needn’t be super long, but must be well-curated and have a point of view. Victoria James, partner and executive director of beverage for Gracious Hospitality Management, which includes New York City hot spots like Cote and Coqodaq, believes that a great wine bar’s offerings should boast some cutting-edge edge offerings, but have its roots in the classics.t “Great, you know all the hip new producers, but show me also the OGs!” she exclaims. 

Related: Why Wine Bars Are the Best Place to Eat Dinner Right Now

Cozy ambiance and approachable hospitality

Across the board, industry professionals agree that ambiance and service also play into the overall experience of visiting a wine bar. “Curating culture and creating an atmosphere that allows people to experience and immerse themselves in something unique [is a must],” says Femi Oyediran, co-founder of Charleston-based Graft, stating that a well-designed and organized space, as well as good music, all play into this. Wilson agrees. “To me, a great wine bar is a really welcoming gathering place for people from all walks of life, who come together around wine,” he says.

James says that great service is non-negotiable. “During the pandemic, we realized that we all go out to dine for the company, experience, and vibe,” she explains. “This is a crucial part of any good wine bar; wine people who are chill and not snobby,” Wilson says that having a knowledgeable, talented, and welcoming team is imperative, and that team members must have a strong drive for hospitality and making people feel happy. “The staff is immensely important,” echoes Oyediran. “These people anchor [your] ideas and help make your dreams a reality daily.”

Food that makes sense when paired with wine

Bull believes that food offerings at a great wine bar should pair seamlessly with the wines on the list, whether you’re popping in for a quick bite or ordering everything on the menu and making it a full meal.  “The food should make the wine taste even better and not compete with acidity, sugar, etc,” James adds. 

There are numerous creative ways to make menus interesting and enticing without the benefit of a full kitchen. “Teaming up with food trucks or pop-up kitchens is a great way to get quality food in your space and support another local business,” says Oyediran. 

Related: Our Wine Editor Picks the Bottles for the Wine Bar of His Dreams

Top wine bars, according to the pros

Dedalus (Burlington, VT)

Esters (Santa Monica, CA)

Hart & Cru (Cincinnati, OH)

Tippling House (Charleston, SC)

Obelix (Chicago)

Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels (New York City)

Four Horsemen (New York City)

Parcelle (New York City)

Libertine (New York City)

Bar Vinazo (Brooklyn, New York City)

& Sons Ham Bar (Brooklyn, New York City)

Vin Mon Lapin (Montreal)

Noble Rot (London)

Cantine Isola (Milan)

Le Volpe e l’Uva (Florence)

Loup (Mexico City)

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