Screwtop: Just what Clarendon ordered
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, Feb. 12, 2010
The buzz: How badly did Clarendon need a boutique wine shop and wine bar? Judging by the crowds waiting to sip pinot noir and tuck into plates of charcuterie at the two-month-old Screwtop Wine Bar and Cheese Shop, very badly indeed.
Stop by on a Friday night and there's not a seat to be found at the long, wide bar counter, and every one of the seven tables lining the wall is filled. Since there's no room to stand between the bar and tables -- it's not allowed, anyway -- customers are perched in the entryway holding glasses of wine and scanning the room hopefully for any sign of movement. (All seats are first come, first served, and there's no waiting list.)
Others are sipping while browsing the racks in the adjacent retail space, filled with bottles from small, well-regarded producers, including France's La Bastide Saint-Dominique, Oregon's O'Reilly's Winery and the Pines 1852, Virginia's Thibaut-Janisson, or peering into the cheese case. Two large communal tables in the store are filled with an office group and a birthday party.
The staff tries its best to manage the crowd, but it's a small space, and without a hostess to handle new arrivals, eagle-eyed parties can snag tables ahead of those who've been waiting for half an hour. (Ahem.) I'd be tempted to write this off as a weekend occurrence, except two weekday happy-hour visits have found a similarly crowded house, with few seats to be found until close to 9 p.m.
Screwtop is "just what the neighborhood needed," says Pat Garrett, a consultant who lives down the street. "So many of the places in Clarendon are bars. This is a little more spacious and convivial.""It's small, but it's a low-key neighborhood spot. It definitely fits in," says Matt Adinolfi, who likes that Screwtop draws a slightly older crowd. "It's nice to have something in Clarendon you'd see in a D.C. neighborhood," adds Adinolfi's wife, Shailee, an international development consultant.
The scene: Screwtop is the brainchild of Wendy Buckley, a former director of programming at AOL who quit her job to open the wine bar. Before opening Screwtop, though, Buckley made sure she knew the business, first working for a wine distributor and then learning about cheese at the boutique Cheestique. The experience shows in her store, which stocks wines from independent wineries -- "I like the passion that they put into it," Buckley says -- and cheeses and meats from around the world.
At one end of the bar, Ben and Karen Pilewski are enjoying dinner and sampling wine flights. "I really enjoy that it is set up as a traditional French wine bar, and unabashedly so," says Ben, an IT contractor.
The Pilewskis heard about Screwtop from a friend, and after sampling the dates and wines on their first visit, they were hooked. "It's very good for the price point, and the wine selection is excellent," Ben says. "There is a far broader flair to the wine here [than at nearby places]."
In your glass: About 40 wines at a time are available by the glass, along with a pair of themed flights (think "Winter Whites" or "Que Syrah Syrah"). Two beers are served on draft, with a half-dozen other featured choices in bottles. Buckley wants to rotate the menu about every six weeks. "I get a limited amount of bottles," she explains. But trying new things "is what's fun about wine bars. You don't drink the same old thing."
Translation: If you try something you like, purchase a bottle or two on your way out. (The store's stock mirrors the bar's.)
On your plate: Screwtop's other strength is its cheese and charcuterie selection, which you can browse in a display case on your way in. The usual cheeses (Drunken Goat, pungent Grayson) are complemented by some unusual offerings, like a gouda with a subtle wasabi flavor.
For snacking, it doesn't get better than the grilled cheese sliders -- a creamy mix of Gouda, belletoile and Parmesan between two slices of panini-grilled bread with a cup of rich tomato bisque for dipping. The fantastic bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Stilton are not to be missed.
Price points: Wines by the glass can vary greatly, from $7 to $15, depending on the producer and style. (Be prepared for some sticker shock on the way out when you realize the wine you've been enjoying for $13 a glass costs just $24.99 a bottle to go.) Bottled wines hover in the $20-$25 range, though there are a good number under $20.
A generous portion of three meats and cheeses costs $16 or $29 for six. Sandwiches and salads are around $10.
Need to know: If you arrive when the place is packed, don't try to get a glass of wine at the bar. Ask for a menu and place your order at the store's cash register.
Groups larger than five can call ahead and reserve one of the communal tables, though they'll need to provide a credit card as a guarantee.
Nice to know: Screwtop runs a wine-and-cheese club that offers two bottles of wine and a paired cheese or charcuterie for $39.99 a month. (The retail price of the two bottles is at least $40, Buckley says.) There is a "pickup party" for members on the first Tuesday of the month, with free snacks, wine tasting and socializing.