Connecticut Wine Bars: Grape Expectations

Sipping wine and enjoying the night at Cava in New Canaan.

Sipping wine and enjoying the night at Cava in New Canaan.

Courtesy of Cava Wine Bar

Barcelona started it all 17 years ago in South Norwalk. They gave us a fun and relaxed environment in which to order little-known Spanish wines by the glass and down them with tapas. Since then, they’ve expanded through the state and Eastern seaboard, and other wine bars have opened all over Connecticut. Customers love the concept, especially in an economic climate where they may want to go out but not spend too much. Here are some of the most successful iterations of the genre around the state.

New Canaan, 203/966-6946,
When this brick-and-stone-walled, subterranean wine bar and restaurant opened on Forest Street in New Canaan 10 years ago, it offered a place where restaurateurs Vicente and Kleber Siguenza could share their love of wine. Customers loved it. Today, 40 sidewalk seats add a relaxed European air to the town’s restaurant row. The Siguenzas now have three other wine bars in Fairfield County—55 Degrees in Fairfield, Scena in Darien and Harvest in Greenwich (their newest “farm to fork” wine bar concept). Central to all is location: downtown, walking distance from the train station. Each offers 30 or so wines by the glass ($9 to $19) from Europe, California, South America and New Zealand. The Siguenza family has seen the food-and-wine scene blossom over the last decade. “Our customers are definitely more sophisticated,” says Elizabeth Siguenza, “People love to come in and talk about wine.”

1249 Wine Bar
Waterbury, 203/756-1249,
Enjoying the good life, and learning more about it is what 1249 Wine Bar in Waterbury is all about. Contemporary, casual, yet upscale, this wine bar in a new building on the site of the old 1249 restaurant offers what co-owner Nelson Veiga calls “the perfect symmetry” between food and wine. “Wine enhances food. It brings out more flavor and character,” says Veiga, who holds a Maitre Sommelier diplome from  the Union de la Sommellerie Française. “The acidic quality cleanses the palate, and the next forkful of food is more flavorful.” 1249 offers about 60 wines by the glass. Two-ounce flights have caught on. What to have with the duck confit salad? Chris, your waiter, is trained to help you decide among light reds such as pinot noir, nebbiolo, barbera d’asti or malbec.

Sarah’s Wine Bar
Ridgefield, 203/438-8282,
When the economy grew “challenging,”as they say in refined Ridgefield, Sarah Bouissou opened Sarah’s Wine Bar (SWB) up the stairs from Bernard’s, the high-end, highly rated French restaurant where her husband wears the toque. “I wanted a place that was casual but nice,” says Bouissou, “where you could just have a good glass of wine with a tray of charcuterie or a full dinner.” Sarah’s niche is its $25 bottle list. “You can find some wonderful ones in that price range,” she says. The list changes often, and includes bottles you might never find again. “Bernard is buying closeout wines, things you can’t reorder,” she says. The feeling at Sarah’s is warm and cozy, with a fireplace blazing in winter and patio dining in summer. The work of local artists hangs on the walls, and there’s live music Wednesday through Sunday. Bouissou envisions it as a “place about conversation.” Though she did recently give in to customers’ requests for a TV, “it’s by the bar, so most people can’t see it,” she says. “And we keep the sound off.”

Cave à Vin
New Haven, 203/777-6206,
Following wine trails through Europe and the United States led Linda Fitzpatrick to open her own bar in New Haven. She discovered her inspiration at a “comfy, cozy wine bar called Cork” in Denver Village, Colo. Her own comfy, cozy wine bar, Cave à Vin, is a “true” wine bar, she says. It doesn’t serve distilled spirits, and it’s not a restaurant. “We serve cheese, dips, soups, panini,” Fitzpatrick says. “Food is not the main thing.” The ever-evolving wine list is. Beneath headings like “Fruity and Floral,” “Fresh and Crisp,” “Elegant and Rich,” Rustic and Earthy,” the descriptions are illuminating—and fun to read. Who wouldn’t want to try a “spunky, vibrant and outspoken wine with vibrant acidity and freshness”? That’s No. 144, Greco di Tufo from Campania, Italy, an antique wine first produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.  

Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant
Multiple locations,
An eclectic list focused on the broad geographic span of “Latin” wines is what you’ll find at the Barcelona wine bars, which have six locations in Connecticut, and have expanded to Boston, Atlanta and, next year, Washington, D.C. Most are from small producers, and are “artisan and terroir-driven,” according to Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director. Thomas, who holds certificates from the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine Academy of Spain, contracts directly with producers, which allows her to “get premium wines at really nice prices.” These “Gretchen’s Selections” are offered by the glass and bottle. The well-trained staff is adept at making customers comfortable trying regions and grape varietals they might not be familiar with. There are 40 to 50 wines offered by the glass, with about 20 of those from Spain. About a year ago Rosser Capital invested in the group—so keep an eye out for more Barcelonas on your travels. Rosser has previously partnered with California Pizza Kitchen, McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants and Au Bon Pain, among others.  

Ballou’s Wine Bar
Branford and Guilford, 203/453-0319,
After closing the family restaurant they’d run for 25 years, Steve Kaye and Deb Ballou traveled to Europe. As they sipped wine in charming little wine bars, they started to envision a place that would appeal to the empty nesters they knew back home. A place that would be affordable, that wouldn’t intimidate people with unpronounceable names. And so Ballou’s was opened in Guilford in 2009, and proved such a hit the couple opened a second one in Branford last year. You can order any of the 100 wines by the glass, and the menu has a recommendation to go with each dish on the big, please-everyone menu. The gluten-free crowd can indulge in spaghetti squash with the sauce of their choice—and are offered two pairing suggestions, No. 218, Legado del Conde Albariño, or No. 319, Vina Zaco Tempranillo. Prices range from $7 to $11 per glass. Many guests prefer flights of three 3-ounce glasses. Coming soon: a line of wine-based cocktails.

Vinted Wine Bar & Kitchen
West Hartford, 860/206-4648,
Technology keeps opened bottles fresh for 60 days at Vinted. The WineStation refrigerated dispensing system by Napa Technology  replaces oxygen, which would spoil the wine,  with argon gas, says Gary Evangelista, sommelier and general manager. The intimate, dark-wood 58-seat wine bar/restaurant in Blue Back Square offers 68 wines by the glass, many from California. WineStation allows Vinted to offer glasses and tastings of wines that might otherwise be out of customers’ price range by the bottle— and would not be cost-effective for a wine bar to serve by the glass. But what’s got everyone really talking is Vinted’s food. “We call it quality, contemporary American tapas,” says Evangelista. Co-owner and chef Michael Presnal’s small plates give clever twists to New American grounded in classic French cuisine, wine-friendly treats like pork belly, foie gras and bone marrow. The place has gotten rave reviews from online and traditional media. At happy hour (4 to 7 p.m.) wines are $5.

Connecticut Wine Bars: Grape Expectations

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