By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 19, 2007
Don't look now, but we're heading for a wine bar revolution. In recent years, more restaurants have upped the stakes with their wine programs, but wine lovers know too well that although places such as Proof and Sonoma offer great selections by the glass, their bars are small and the target audience is diners, not groups who'd rather pass an evening chatting over a bottle of pinot noir or two. That is about to change.
The coming months should bring Vinoteca near 11th and U streets NW; Cork near 14th and S streets NW; Sova on H Street NE; and Enology in the old Zebra Lounge space on Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park.
Leading the pack, though, is Florida Avenue NW's Veritas Wine Bar, a cozy, dimly lit den that seems custom-made for date night. Stop in after dinner, and the mood is set: Votive-size electric candles reflect from tables onto the walls, a mixture of exposed brick and rich burgundy; a soft, white glow comes from under the long bar; and ambient light streams in through the plate-glass windows.
The focus is behind the bar, where 60 wines are poured from state-of-the-art storage systems and four more champagnes and sparking wines sit on ice. The textbook-thick menu holds details about the various selections: by the glass, either alone or arranged into almost two dozen flights of three, and by the bottle.
Seems like the perfect place for a romantic evening: tasting from each other's flights, splitting a platter of cheese. Certainly a step up from a nightcap at most other Dupont Circle bars.
You just have to visit at the right time. At fewer than 700 square feet, Veritas is smaller than many one-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood and holds only 50 people. It quickly becomes standing room only on Friday and Saturday nights, which pretty much rules out ordering flights or snacks. Get there early or hope you get lucky.
Owner Adam Manson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, says he spent about 3 1/2 months tasting wines before opening. (He previously managed Sonoma, which stocks more than 200.) In picking the 180 selections available by the bottle at Veritas, "I wanted major representation from the United States and highlights from other countries: six to eight from France, six to eight from Italy," Manson says. "Whatever I tasted and I liked, I put on the list."
When it came to choosing by the glass, his choices were more focused. "I wanted a certain number of pinot noirs and cabernets," he says. "For example, I wanted to find a variety of cabernets, from Napa, Sonoma, the central coast, maybe Washington." The broad spectrum, sorted by grape and style, is easily accessible for neophytes but also offers interesting treats for wine snobs.
Five dozen choices can be daunting, so Manson spent time crafting 22 flights (15 based on reds, seven focused on whites) based on varietals or geographic areas. "With the Pacific Pinot Noir flight, you're going up the coast from Sonoma to Oregon, and they're all completely different from each other," he explains, "so you can see the difference in one grape." On the other hand, the Oceania flight offers an Australian grenache and a pinot noir, and a New Zealand shiraz. Although the names of the styles may be familiar, he says, "if you put them up against American grapes, they're all different than what people are used to."
The flights range from $13 to $25 for three half-glasses, and they hide a number of nice surprises. I really enjoyed the Patz & Hall Pinot Noir from my Pacific Pinot Noir flight; it's wonderfully spicy with hints of strawberries and vanilla. Ordered on its own, the Patz & Hall is $18 a glass, just a few bucks less than the whole flight.
The bar has been in business for a month, but the wine list has gone through several changes, starting with the prices. Grumbling about a lack of inexpensive selections brought price cuts across the board. "Everyone was complaining that it was too expensive," Manson says, chalking it up to a learning experience. "[When building the list,] I just happened to like wines that were $18 to $25 wholesale."
Still, Manson says pricier glasses have a place on the menu, especially for customers who want to expand their wine knowledge. "Would people pay $150 for a bottle of wine? Maybe, maybe not. But they want to have a glass. Everyone is wondering, 'Is it really that good?' " Veritas lacks a full kitchen, so sustenance comes from a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. The menu suggests cheeses to accompany each wine flight.
Thus far, the biggest complaint about Veritas isn't the prices, but the noise. Fill it with people having a good time, and sound rebounds off the low ceiling, the tile floors, the bricks and the glass. A friend I went with one night said she wasn't bothered by the cacophony -- until she realized she could follow the conversation of a couple at the other end of the bar as easily as if they were sitting next to us. Another friend countered that the noise made Veritas an even better date spot: To make sure your companion hears you, you have to scoot your chairs close together and lean in to talk. (How subtle!)
Veritas Wine Bar 2031 Florida Ave. NW; 202-265-6270 Vibe: A hip neighborhood wine bar that offers the largest by-the-glass selection in Washington in a setting that's made for date night. Veritas Wine Bar 2031 Florida Ave. NW; 202-265-6270 Vibe: A hip neighborhood wine bar that offers the largest by-the-glass selection in Washington in a setting that's made for date night.