Drinks

The South’s Best Wine Bars

Uncork a bottle (or two) at one of these inviting new spots

photo: Rush Jagoe

A peek inside N7 wine bar in New Orleans.

Every six weeks,  June Rodil unsheathes her stash of colored pencils and gets to work creating a fresh wine menu for the Austin, Texas, bistro June’s All Day. Rodil is one of fewer than thirty women in the country to earn the title of master sommelier (she recently announced she’ll be helping to open three new Houston restaurants and assisting with their wine programs). Her wine lists, painstakingly researched, represent some of the best bottles on the market. At June’s, they’re also bedecked in doodles and cartoons. “No, it’s not some tome,” she says. “The menu is literally colored pieces of construction paper stapled together.” Rodil’s “wine zines” seem to ask: Why should wine be stuffy or intimidating? 

photo: Jody Horton

Master sommelier June Rodil of June’s All Day.

As drinkers become more interested in small producers, obscure styles, and even preindustrial production methods, a new generation of Southern wine bars is thriving. At these bars, zines, quips, and conversations replace the “tomes”; no one is afraid of botching a wine’s pronunciation; and you never know what you might discover.


Ampersand Wine
Opelika, Alabama

Nelson Marsh likens his bar’s interior to “your crazy rich aunt’s living room.” More notable than the tufted velvet sofas and statement wallpaper, though, is the wine list, which hovers near a staggering 450 options. Except there isn’t a list—bartenders lead guests to that Alsatian Gewürztraminer or Piemonte dolcetto by asking what they like to drink and pouring off sips along the way. Marsh fell in love with wine while studying in Italy, and he aims to bring the same warmth and enthusiasm he found among winemakers there to his tiny hometown—and chip away at wine’s lingering elitist reputation in the States. “The person behind the bar’s whole reason for being there is to democratize wine,” he says, adding, “We’ll treat you like a damn person when you walk through the door.”

Summer Pour: Heidi Schrock Rosé Biscaya, a dry Austrian rosé partially made in acacia barrels, a traditional method once again on the rise.

 

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The Dabney Cellar
Washington, D.C.

Inside this snug new subterranean offshoot of the Michelin-starred Dabney restaurant, guests sip Chianti Classico and grand cru Champagne. Flickering candlelight fills the dark, brick-lined space, its entrance barely visible from the street, and a chalkboard wall lists the night’s oyster selections. Beverage director Alex Zink, who oversees the entire Dabney program, describes himself as a classicist with an abiding love for European wines. To that end, he keeps the Cellar’s list to a relatively tidy thirty to forty wines by the glass that he feels exemplify a particular grape, region, or style—and pair well with the nightly snacks from mid-Atlantic purveyors, such as raw-milk cheeses from Meadow Creek Dairy and country ham from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse.

Summer Pour: Bisson 2017 Bianchetta Genovese, an Italian white made from a grape variety found only in the Liguria region. Its citrus notes make it a perfect complement for shellfish, Zink says.

 

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The coziest spot to spend your Friday evening. // 📷. @andrewcebulka

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District Wine Bar
Asheville, North Carolina

The giant mechanical dinosaur skeleton lording over the front door is your first clue that District is a different kind of wine bar. For one thing, the owners, Lauri and Barrett Nichols, opened it in a beer town—they’re next door to Wedge Brewing Co., and the behemoth New Belgium brewery sits just across the French Broad River. They also manage to get ahold of some of the most off-the-beaten-path juice on the market. “We have to beg hard to get it here,” Lauri says. District’s list of sixty wines by the glass changes near daily and includes orange wines, pét-nats (naturally sparkling wines), and rare “unicorn” wines, such as a pinot noir produced entirely without electricity, served in a space that feels like a hip taproom. A garage door rolls up in the summer to let the mountain breezes in. And the dino? It’s a remnant from when the building served as the studio for Asheville’s heralded metal sculptor John Payne, known for his “kinetosaurs.”

Summer Pour: Amplify Wines Carignane, a “paper-thin” red from California that Barrett Nichols says he’s been saving. “I know once the summer hits, it’s going to be refreshing.”


June’s All Day
Austin, Texas

June Rodil describes this Austin hangout as the love child of a French bistro and the Peach Pit from the nineties teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210, with pink walls, checkerboard tile, and an old Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner. “It’s got that kind of retro diner quality,” she says. As for the “French” part, locals congregate in the sunlit dining room over salt cod croquettes and steak au poivre. And no matter the hour, “there’s definitely a lot of wine being consumed.” Through her homemade wine zines, Rodil delights drinkers with surprises such as a bright, briny white (Encruzado) from a red-dominated region of Portugal, and a Malbec blend (Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve) from a remote region of France. That Trojan horse of discovery, hidden among more familiar choices, “gives people the comfort of taking the leap without feeling super nervous about it.”

Summer Pour: The third vintage of Rodil’s private-label sparkling rosé, with notes of wild strawberries and tart cherries. “I think of it as the adult version of strawberry lemonade,” she says.

photo: Jody Horton

Rosé at June’s All Day in Austin, Texas.


Light Years
Houston, Texas

Naysayers doubted that a spot specializing in natural wines—generally defined as wine made without any chemical additives or intervention during farming or fermenting—would thrive in Houston. “But a lot of people underestimate guests, in the same way a lot of Southern cities are underestimated,” says co-owner Steve Buechner, who opened the airy Light Years last year inside a cozy 1928 bungalow that had most recently housed a doggie day care. Rather than printing a list, here too the staff chats with everyone and generously pours samples from the bar’s three hundred bottles. Buechner gravitates to lesser-known regions and has even stocked wines from Vermont and Texas because land there is affordable enough for young winemakers to experiment. “That represents, to me, not having to work within the paradigm,” Buechner says. “It’s an opportunity for people who may not have a ton of money to get things going and make cool stuff.”

Summer Pours: Darker rosés such as Domaine Léonine Que Pasa, from the Roussillon region of France. “They offer more character and verve than your typical light Provençal wine,” Buechner says, “and drink equally well poolside or with barbecue.”

photo: Lauren Marek

Bottles to go at Light Years in Houston.


N7
New Orleans, Louisiana

Open the wooden gate to this Bywater gem and you’ll step into what feels like a secret garden—or a Jean Renoir set. Regulars linger outside at tables beneath Spanish moss or at the eight-seat bar, over escargot tempura and bottles of Corsican red. Aaron Walker, who opened the bar and restaurant in late 2015 with his wife, Yuki Yamaguchi, the executive chef, studied history as an undergrad in France and returns there every year to research. His list at N7 includes hallowed French labels (Jamet Côte Rôtie, Auguste Clape) alongside obscure wines from grapes such as Mondeuse and Gringet. Nearly all the wines are natural, and Walker instills in his staff an appreciation for the stories behind them. “There is some thinking that wine should just be about the drinking, like something to do when you’re playing checkers,” he says. “But wine is more than that, I believe.”

Summer Pours: Allocations from Jura, a tiny region along the border of France and Switzerland that is known for its sherry-esque vin jaune, or “yellow wine.”

photo: Rush Jagoe

N7’s warm glow.


Stems & Skins
North Charleston, South Carolina

“Fresh and freaky ferments” is Stems & Skins’ tagline and the rallying cry of its wine list, which prizes vintages that are playful rather than just prestigious. “We use the term ‘guzzle-able’ a lot,” says Matt Tunstall, who formerly ran the wine program at the lauded Husk restaurant in Charleston before opening this North Charleston bar with his wife, Angie, in 2016. Bottles such as Alexander Koppitsch’s Homok, a natural white table wine from Austria, exemplify their approach: “You could put two straws in it and suck it down in twenty minutes,” Tunstall says. “The wines here are fun and festive. That’s the culture I want to spread.” Late last year, the bar brought on chef Greg Marks to expand its culinary offerings, adding heartier dishes such as bucatini in ham broth to go along with its Mediterranean-style snacks and signature tinned-seafood selection.

Summer Pours: “I’ve got a big bug about Alsatian wines,” Tunstall says. “They do amazing with our food.”

photo: Jacqueline Stofsick

A spread at Stems & Skins.


Wine Bar George
Lake Buena Vista, Florida

The real magic of Disney might be the fact that as of last year, you can find world-class wines at Mickey’s doorstep. Every one of the 150 selections at master sommelier and Florida native George Miliotes’s Disney Springs bar is available by the bottle, glass, or ounce, which means that a once-in-a-lifetime taste of Château Margaux (bottles of which retail for four figures or more) might not be so out of reach. “I want people to try things they wouldn’t get to try other times,” Miliotes says. That might include Digby sparkling wine from Sussex, England, a region whose climate, he says, is now similar to that of Champagne, France, in the 1960s. “But we’re not all about being serious,” Miliotes adds. “If it’s eighty-five degrees, and you want to try Freaujolais [frozen Beaujolais], you can do that, too.”

Summer Pours: “I love dry Riesling,” Miliotes says. “There’s a lot of fun to be had in summertime with lighter, crisper drinking.” Also: Freaujolais! 

 

 

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👋🏻 Hello weekend! See you for brunch or dinner soon? 🍽🍷🍾 📸 @tastecooksip

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Vino to Go

Five outstanding neighborhood shops where you can find new favorites

Bacchanal Wine
New Orleans, LA

The centuries-old brick building that Bacchanal has called home since 2002 houses hundreds of wines. You can buy a bottle and be on your way—but with live jazz and an ongoing-party patio scene, what’s your hurry?

 

Graft
Charleston, SC

Sommeliers Femi Oyediran and Miles White opened Graft last year to, above all, have a good time sharing their wine knowledge, not to mention their love of music—Oyediran is also a DJ and plays the saxophone. The result is a shop with vinyl on the record player, tables for hanging out, and two hundred (mostly midpriced) bottles to discover.

photo: Margaret Houston

Co-owner Femi Oyediran at Graft in Charleston, South Carolina.

 

In Vino Veritas
Keswick, VA

The shelves at Erin Scala’s shop, just outside Charlottesville, encompass a world of wine. But Scala, a Virginia native who previously managed the wine lists for Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurants, found plenty to be proud of when she returned home, devoting a wall to notable Virginia bottles, such as Ankida Ridge’s flagship pinot noir.

 

3 Parks Wine Shop
Atlanta, GA

Sarah Pierre’s résumé includes stints at the Atlanta fine-dining stalwarts Bacchanalia and Floataway Cafe, but her jewel box of a bottle shop takes a more casual tack. Think eclectic and largely affordable selections from small family estates, and rosé by the growler.

 

Woodland Wine Merchant
Nashville, TN

In a city that loves its whiskey, Will Motley has used his East Nashville shop as a way to share his sharp, adventurous grape palate with curious drinkers since 2007.  Don’t miss Loire rosé in party-friendly forty-ounce twist-
top bottles.


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