(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in August, 2016.)
Having been discovered 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, wine has long since seeped into human history and culture while being the optimal escort for food. Thus it’s no surprise that dining establishments where wine plays the major role — wine bars — have been around long before Copernicus realigned astronomy to a correct axis in the 16th century. In fact, he reportedly favored an Italian wine bar that was built in 1435. Rudyard Kipling wrote his first novel in the London building housing Gordon’s — a famous wine bar launched in 1890 — while the oldest Parisian wine bar, Réserve de Quasimodo, sits quietly in the shadows of gothic Notre Dame cathedral and was a hangout of famous criminal Cartouche in 1715.
Wine bars might have been getting succeeding generations of European patrons a little tipsy for centuries but are a newer concept in America, alas, with famous old taverns in the New World having been more focused on spirits and beer as the beverage of choice. But the South Bay has been making up for lost time in recent years, paralleling a nationwide uptick in such establishments that began in the ’90s. This likely reflects the expanding consumption of wine in general, with millennials joining baby boomers as the most frequent wine buyers these days.
The recent popularity of local wine bars is logical given how ideally suited they are to learning about and consuming wine. Large offerings with by-the-taste or by-the-glass pours as well as intriguing “flights” of a few related wines — say, “massive reds” — is the wine bar standard, accompanied by usually simple, wine-friendly edibles. Contrast this with a highly-marked-up restaurant wine list primarily focused on full bottles of wine or presenting a miniscule, sometimes-pedestrian by-the-glass offering.
It’s telling that virtually every local wine bar proudly announces itself as “unpretentious” or a myriad of synonyms meant to ease widespread worry over their inadequate wine knowledge among the general public — including many eager wine consumers. Given how massive and often complex the wine sphere is and just how much education and exposure are required to glibly reel off bon mots about specific varietals, producers and vintages, the humble wine bar is the ideal antidote. Patrons can consume their favorite liquid while learning much more about the beverage than in other settings. Reinforcing that reality are enjoyable events offered at many establishments that hasten wine knowledge without intimidation.
Another huge attraction of wine bars is cost. Buying glasses of wine versus the bottles that are the restaurant norm isn’t as pricey and the accompanying food is more in the thrifty nibble realm compared to a fancy multi-course meal elsewhere. This also makes wine bars a great option for a quick snack compared to a full dinner. Cheese and charcuterie platters, olives and related items that show off wine flavors are the standard, but quite a few local wine bars have expanded menus that encourage longer sipping sessions.
Given how utterly wonderful it is to savor vitus vinifera wines on a warm summer day with like-minded friends, local wine bars often include al fresco areas where one can quaff appealing wines — or craft beers, or ciders or even non-alcoholic offerings — under a shading umbrella after work, at lunch or as the highlight of an enjoyable, light summer supper. Here’s our guide to South Bay wine bars with patios from north to south where the sipping is supreme.
Vino Locale, Palo Alto
One of the friendliest and thriftiest local wine bars, Vino Locale can’t be beat for al fresco dining, with spacious outdoor areas in both the front and back of the charming Victorian house/wine bar, which is right off Palo Alto’s main dining street. Besides its popular happy hour, Vino Locale serves lunches and dinners and offers live music several nights a week, from acoustical guitar to bluegrass and jazz. Small-production wines are a focus and fans love sipping and supping under the twinkling lights outdoors. Events like a wine education series and “bottles & blues” with discounts on the vino are regularly held. Besides the usual assortment of cheeses, meats, olives and the like, food highlights include bison meatballs, bacon-wrapped dates, seared ahi tuna salad, vegan fusilli alfredo and bigger plates such as beef shortribs, crab-stuffed salmon and rotini pasta.
Pairings on the Patio: Munch on a warm mushroom tart paired with a rich Peter Mathis grenache from Sonoma Valley. Or baked goat cheese and fig jam with a flowery Downhill viognier from Paso Robles.
Details: 431 Kipling St., (650) 328-0450; http://www.vinolocale.co
Calave Wine Bar, Palo Alto
This newer wine bar is located in a spot that was once a brewery in the city’s “second downtown” to the south, which was the rowdy, pre-Prohibition burg of Mayfield before being annexed. The owners still aim to deliver a lively, friendly atmosphere but with oodles of comfort, as seen in plush couches, a wrap-around bar with hanging wine glasses and a whole assortment of PB & J snacks, among others. There are a few tables outdoors in front that take advantage of the recently refurbished sidewalks. Besides the usual, the food here includes enticing offerings like deviled eggs with dill and mustard, truffled popcorn and seriously addictive chocolates that some people enjoy with a big red. The worldwide wine list and upscale food have made happy hour here a popular affair.
Pairings on the Patio: Sample cabrese skewers (cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls) with an aromatic torrontes from Argentina or steak and white cheddar panini escorting a juicy sangiovese/merlot from Beauregard Vineyards in Santa Cruz.
Details: 299 California Ave., (650) 521-0443; http://www.calave.com
Savvy Cellar Wine Bar, Mountain View
“Savvy” is the key here, with highly rated wine education classes and a slew of informative events taught by sommeliers, winemakers and certified wine pros. A monthly trivia night tests what patrons have learned. Located in what was once the train depot, Savvy Cellar is small inside but has an expansive patio where train whistles are the audio entertainment. Some Caltrain commuters stop off for a convenient glass on the way home. The nibble assortment isn’t huge but well chosen and features breads, pastries and handmade chocolates from nearby posh Alexander’s Patisserie. Given that this wine bar is also a retail shop (not unusual for local wine bars), the wine assortment is large so it’s easy to bring home new discoveries for dinner chez nous.
Pairings on the Patio: Munch on prosciutto-wrapped figs and chorizo with a flight of international reds or artichoke-jalapeno dip with a little kick that won’t overpower a big Napa cab from Corison.
Details: 750 West Evelyn Ave. (at Castro), (650) 969-3958; http://www.savvycellar.com
Vino Vino (Sunnyvale and San Jose)
Both located in food-focused neighborhoods, these sister establishments each have a different look except for rustic brick walls behind the bars. The Sunnyvale location is a tad bigger inside but both have outdoor patios that beckon in summer weather — as do the happy hour deals. In addition to a baker’s dozen wines “on tap,” these wine bars offer 30 or so from the bottle with a focus on Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley vintages. The flat-screen tvs behind the bar let patrons keep up on the latest sports while the concept here is fun rather than serious wine education. The munchies are a hit with patrons, particularly the upscale paninis, which come with a little salad on the side. Vino Vino even has a dessert panini featuring Nutella but more enticing are salted caramel pot de crème with a hit of Scotch and a serious chocolate truffle cake.
Pairings on the Patio: Try smoked salmon panini with pesto and pepperoncini paired with a rich Carneros chardonnay from Reata or a flavorful salad with blue cheese and walnuts that matches a local, super-fruity tempranillo from Quinta Cruz.
Details: 199 South Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale, (408) 675-VINO; and 87 North San Pedro St., #105, San Jose, (408) 703-2333; http://www.vinovinosj.com
Vintage Wine Bar, San Jose (Santana Row)
Summer sipping is better surrounded by great decor and plentiful people watching, which makes this wine bar — run by a chichi wine merchant on the Row — a home run with guests. It’s quite gorgeous, fronted by stonework from an old French church, and located snack dab in the middle of the Row with its strolling visitors. The patio with its low wall and happy lights is both friendly and romantic. Meanwhile, the edibles are somewhat limited but well chosen and the sipping features about 25 by-the-glass choices culled from the wine shop’s wide assortment. The wine flights here are plentiful and fun, like “pinot paradise,” some international “white crispies” (dry yummies great in summer) and some different-varietal reds, all in sets of three. Those wanting more can “upgrade your flight” with an extra wine.
Pairings on the Patio: How about triple-cream brie and honey served with bread pairing a plummy Skyfall merlot or a Vosges chocolate bar (how European!) munched along with a glass of heady Fonseca port?
Details: 368 Santana Row, Suite 1040, (408) 985-9463; http://www.vintagewinemerchants.com/wine-bar.
Cielo Wine Bar, San Jose (Santana Row)
Considered a hidden gem by insiders, this classy, spacious outdoor wine bar on the top of Hotel Valencia has hands-down the best views around, overlooking Silicon Valley and showing off breathtaking sunsets. Only open during the warmer time of year (May-September), this romantic spot features comfy seating and fire pits in case the evening cools. About 20 wines skewing toward the higher-end, well-known spectrum (Sonoma Cutrer, Mondavi, Simi) are available along with 11 tempting nibbles prepped in the hotel’s fancy-schmancy restaurant a few floors down. These small bites include upscale choices like Kobe beef sliders, a caesar wrap, garlic-herb fries with spicy ketchup and chicken wings with mole. There’s no happy hour or wine flights or classes here, just a soothing, gorgeous setting in which to sip and savor.
Pairings on the Patio: Cornmeal-crusted oysters go nicely with a rich Kendall Jackson chardonnay while a massive sirloin burger on brioche bun cozies up to a Coppola “Director’s Cut” cabernet.
Details: 355 Santana Row (top of Hotel Valencia), (408) 551-0010; http://www.hotelvalencia-santanarow.com/cielo.htm
CooperVino Wine Bar, Cupertino
A tad tricky to find and located across the street from to-be-redeveloped Vallco mall, this friendly wine bar combines interesting selections, live music and some low-key wine education for those so interested. Spacious and well designed with wood accents and floors, CooperVino has a small patio in front as well. The most pleasing spot is in the “barrel room,” where groups gather and where events (wine-pairing dinners and classes) are held. Middle-of-the-road paninis are available along with quite a few appealing salads, while there’s also a line-up of heartier dishes such as grilled eggplant and polenta with smoked mozzarella. Well-chosen wines include a few hard-to-find gems among 30 by-the-glass choices. Live jazz is played frequently, although the noise can be a bit much for those concentrating on what’s in their glass.
Pairings on the Patio: Match truffled mac & cheese with a lush Sea Smoke pinot noir or try pulled-pork sliders with a full-flavored Brunello di Montalcino from Argiano.
Details: 19700 Vallco Parkway #130, (408) 642-1057; www.coopervino.com
Little Wine Counter, Campbell (Pruneyard)
A wine-focused venue from those behind now-closed Little Chef Counter in San Pedro Square, this new operation hasn’t altered its cooking style from the indulgent dishes like poutine and pork belly that the earlier spot was known for, now delivering rich snacks such as truffled mac and cheese with bacon, duck rillette and black peppercorn cheesecake. And this is just how patrons like it. With 30 international wines, there are choices for everyone, while the food gets some of the higher marks among local wine bars. A hit are the “chef’s bites” that are a tasty pot-luck item like popped corn cooked in duck fat. Lunch and brunch are building a strong following, while the popularity of the small patio is reason enough to grab a table early.
Pairings on the Patio: Match endive pear salad with candied walnuts and goat cheese with a fruity Provençal rose or heavy-duty steak tartare featuring quail egg and garlic confit with a full-bodied La Storia merlot.
Details: 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Suite 560 (Pruneyard), (408) 429-8526; http://www.littlewinecounter.com.
Tessora’s Barra di Vino, Campbell
Food gets extra attention at this lively wine bar in the city’s popular downtown, with Tessora’s even serving homemade ice cream. Despite this establishment’s Italian name, the wines offered are from all over the world and pulled together into some intriguing flights like “cigar-box reds” and “citrus & stonefruit whites.” Brunch is becoming a big hit but the daily menu is large enough that anyone could assemble a pleasing repast, from a snack to a filling dinner. Included are lots of nibbles, soups and salads, flatbreads, “bistro plates” and enticing desserts. Tessora’s also hosts quite a few events like trivia nights, winemaker dinners and more. Musical groups perform frequently inside and on the patio, with some guests complaining about the decibels while others are happy to rock out.
Pairings on the Patio: Munch on pulled-chicken sliders with blue cheese paired with a spicy Alicats Winery syrah or Asian pork tacos amped up with fire-roasted scallions matching a jammy old-vine zinfandel from Michael Martella.
Details: 234 E. Campbell Ave., (408) 626-7711; http://www.tessoras.com
Claudine’s Wine Experience, Saratoga
This cute little wine bar has lots of charm and a friendly vibe, with female guests, in particular, abundant. Quite pretty with its stained glass, ornate bar and attractive decor, Claudine’s isn’t big inside but the adjacent covered patio is larger, featuring super-comfy couches and other seating. The wine assortment is pleasingly varied, including “wine-tinis” like a “lychee martini” that substitutes pinot gris for the booze, while there are also some appealing wine flights. Besides a selection of the usual cheese/meat accompaniments, food includes a few salads and interesting wraps and a couple of rich desserts. Happy interactions are encouraged through events like open mic night, “paint night” in which guests unleash their inner Picasso, and “drink all you can” Wednesdays in which unlimited bubbly is just $15. If that doesn’t promote socializing, nothing will.
Pairings on the Patio: Nibble on a chicken caesar salad with a strawberry-scented French sparkling wine or try an Italian wrap full of different meats with a spicy, full-flavored Crozes Hermitage from Jaboulet.
Details: 20490 Saratoga- Los Gatos Rd., (408) 647-8002; http://www.claudineswine.com
Rootstock Wine Bar, Los Gatos and Cupertino
Quite a good-looking wine bar right on the main drag in Los Gatos, Rootstock is adding a sister location in downtown Cupertino. The helpful, friendly vibe and plentitude of interesting wines have produced pleased patrons, who enjoy Rootstock’s focus on the wonderful wines of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley. Some notable examples include Testarossa, Kathryn Kennedy, Comartin, Ridge and Mount Eden. The small patio is comfy while the interior is handsomely decorated and extremely comfortable. Nibbles include meat and cheese-focused small plates, two salads, popular flatbreads and sandwiches. Adding to Rootstock’s popularity are “half-price Tuesdays,” more deals during happy hour and monthly winemaker-led tastings.
Pairings on the Patio: Match a lush burrata salad featuring strawberries, pears and wild arugula with a rich Testarossa chardonnay or pair a “Highway 9” flatbread piled with sopressata, tomato, cheeses and garlic with a complex Mount Eden cabernet.
Details: 217 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 354-7668; 19389 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino; http://www.rootstockwinebar.com
Bubbles Wine Bar, Morgan Hill
It’s hard not to crack a smile while enticing sparkling wines tickle your tongue, although Bubbles offers lots more than just the bubbly. But in the champagne department, try an international flight to honor this establishment’s name and check out the cool vault that now houses a wine room; Bubbles used to be a bank. The wines include lots of California favorites while the food selection is larger than most, including spreads, various appetizers, salads, flatbreads, crostinis and appealing desserts. Besides a simple interior with hard wooden chairs, there’s a small patio in front. This wine bar puts on lots of events to draw in customers, like happy hours with $5-a-glass wines, ladies nights, men’s nights with discounted draft beer, “flights & flatbreads” and more. Some wines with retail prices are available to sip in house or take home by the bottle.
Pairings on the Patio: Sample an ahi tower with mango and avocado with a grassy MacMurray sauvignon blanc or pulled-pork sliders with a fruity Rombauer zinfandel.
Details: 17105 Monterey St., (408) 779-8800; http://www.bubblesmorganhill.com