First Bite

At Church Street Cellars, a Sip Can Be a Splurge

Church Street Cellars offers a short menu of wine-friendly foods, including cheese plates that come with grapes, olives and bread.
Church Street Cellars offers a short menu of wine-friendly foods, including cheese plates that come with grapes, olives and bread. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I'm not the kind of guy to spend big bucks on a bottle of wine, but I still want to know what the pricey stuff tastes like. Part of that stems from a thirst for knowledge (what makes for a great wine?) and part is sheer voyeurism (what's it like to be super-rich?).

Church Street Cellars (111 Church St. NW, Vienna; 703-255-0550) helps answer those questions.

Since it opened in late 2006, the business, created by commodities trader Mark Heider, has morphed from just a wine shop into a place where customers can also unwind over drinks and a light meal. Before he could showcase his temperature-controlled Enomatic wine-preserving system that allows 32 wines to be sampled by the 1-ounce splash, 2 1/2 -ounce half-glass or 5-ounce glass, Heider says, his ABC permit required that food be served.

So in went a kitchen, and up went a small menu last summer. The spinach salad, smoked salmon quesadilla and pillowy focaccia pizza -- strewn with roasted red peppers, olives, onion and cheeses -- are prepared by Zack Leasure, a former line cook at 2941 in Falls Church. Unless Leasure isn't around, that is, and his boss has to assemble your cheese plate. Slices of Maytag blue from Iowa, Humboldt Fog from California and Oakspring Derby from Virginia make a pleasant indoor picnic when they show up with some grapes, olives and practically a loaf of bread in tow.

But it's really the vino -- dispensed by that shiny Enomatic and kept fresh with odorless argon -- that we're here to try. Most of the selections go for between $1 and $3.50 a taste. We start modestly, with an ounce each of a couple of chardonnays from California and a pinot noir from Oregon, but curiosity leads us to splurge -- which is exactly the category Penfolds Grange falls in. Depending on which button I press on the glass-and-steel cabinet, I'll be charged $17, $42 or (gulp) $85 for the pleasure of trying the celebrated (2002 vintage) Australian wine made mostly with shiraz. " That will teach people to sip!" a buddy says after he sees the digits pop up on a tiny screen above the bottle, which sells for $270.

And so I sip. Reluctantly. The Grange smells divinely of dark chocolate, coffee, oak, anise. Dark berry flavors dance on the tongue. My birthday is around the corner. Maybe I'll ask for a glass of Grange.

Next to Church Street Cellars sits Bazin's on Church, a contemporary American restaurant that Heider describes as an "extraordinarily helpful" neighbor. Diners waiting for a table at the popular establishment invariably use the wine bar's 16 or so seats as their default lounge; after dinner, those same customers sometimes return for a liquid dessert. "We serve port," Heider says, along with Pedro Ximenez, a Spanish sherry.

Appetizers, $9-$13.

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