The best part: While their menus are all on-trend — expect buzzwords such as "natural wine," "pétillant-naturel" and "skin-fermented" — each of the newcomers is forging its own identity. "You're seeing completely different takes on what a wine bar is," says Brent Kroll, the founder of Maxwell Park in Shaw.
These bars eschew the stereotypical intimidating-sommelier attitude for something far more user-friendly, employing staff members who are happy to chat about the differences between two choices and offer free splashes of wine for customers who can't make up their minds. "We're all working with such small wines, we have to be open to doing that," says Sebastian Zutant, the owner of Primrose in Brookland. "I'm selling things that I've never even heard of before, so there's no way that people who just drink chardonnay are familiar with it."
Is it a coincidence that this many wine bars have opened recently? Maybe, says Lauren Winter, Zutant's wife and business partner, but this spurt has been years in the making.
"Most of these owners, in the last decade, were servers or sommeliers in the D.C. restaurant scene and have been part of its growth," she says. "They have taken time to travel, to make wine, to explore other regions, and have settled down here to open spaces that exemplify what they've learned."
Here's a guide to the best of the crop.
The Dabney Cellar
This gem of a bar, hidden below the Dabney restaurant inside a 19th-century rowhouse's brick-walled basement, meets all the criteria for a date-night destination. It's cozy, but not too crowded. Lively, but not so loud you can't have a conversation.
Dabney chef Jeremiah Langhorne and partner Alex Zink were inspired by trips to Paris and Montreal, where cellar bars act as a waiting area for restaurants or as a place to grab a late-night snack. Upstairs, at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Langhorne works his magic cooking regional ingredients over an open hearth. Downstairs, plates are covered with gorgeous, paper-thin slices of Tennessee ham from Bob Woods's Hamery; seasonal, regional cheeses; and expertly shucked Chesapeake and Atlantic oysters from small producers. "Fundamentally and philosophically," Zink says, the Dabney and its wine cellar share a sensibility, but downstairs, "the lights are low and the music's louder."
About 25 wines are available by the glass in the basement, and the wine list is reprinted every day. One staple: "wines that pair well with oysters and beautiful cheese," says Zink, who's the beverage director for both levels. The menu is more classic than ultra-trendy, with well-chosen wines from the Loire, Italy and, on one recent visit, a blend from Delaplane's extraordinary, award-winning RdV Vineyards.
Although the Dabney Cellar's down a slightly treacherous flight of stone stairs, with no sign other than a frosted-glass window, it has become popular since its early-December debut. There are only 30 seats, and the bar opens at 6 p.m. If you show up after 7, there's probably going to be a wait.
On busy nights, expect to be told to come back for an update in 30 or 45 minutes. "We wanted to keep it more casual, and we don't know how long people are going to stay," Zink says. "Some people are grabbing a bite pre-dinner. Some people settle in with a bottle of wine and put together a dinner."
Once you get a seat, you'll just want to settle in and stay.
1222 Ninth St. NW. Wine by the glass, $10-$18.
The first time you sit at Primrose's zinc bar, you might need to be reminded to look at the wine list. The scene is mesmerizing, transporting you to a quirkily hip Parisian bistro with its pressed-tin ceiling above robin's-egg-blue walls, gleaming hardwood communal tables and lamps swaddled with ostrich feathers.
Primrose is the first restaurant from veteran sommelier Sebastian Zutant — the nattily dressed guy who's been behind the wine lists at Komi, Proof and the Red Hen — and his wife, Lauren Winter, who's made a mark on the District with her bar and restaurant designs for Tail Up Goat, Calico and Tiger Fork. Together, they've created a wine-focused modern French bistro — "not super rustic, a little updated," Zutant says — serving classic dishes such as coq au vin and a vegetarian French onion soup, while pouring natural wines — a somewhat ambiguous term that may refer to wines that are organic, use indigenous yeast, remain unfiltered, or a combination of all three — from France and a smaller selection of cocktails.
Zutant, who roams the room as the sommelier, describes the list of 14 wines by the glass as "always shifting. I've changed the wines by the glass list five times, and we've been open for a month."
His menu mixes small French producers and some of his own creations produced at Virginia's Early Mountain Vineyards and sold under the label Lightwell Survey. "I've gotten really dedicated to the idea that I can pour stuff no one else can get," he says. On this list, he's into the poulsard, a minerally, salty red with an edge from France's Jura region, and soft, easy-drinking cinsault from Languedoc. You may not recognize the style (or the grapes) right away, but Zutant's selection — and his enthusiasm — make everything effortlessly approachable.
Primrose is a bar that invites lingering — whether you're splitting an order of pâté and sipping a few lesser-known wines, or settling in for a full meal. "We just wanted to open this little dreamland and have people get excited about some geeky wines," Zutant says.
So far, it's working.
3000 12th St. NE. Wines by the glass, $9-$14.
"Stop taking wine so seriously" seems to be the message at this 33-seat Shaw hangout, the brainchild of former Proof and Neighborhood Restaurant Group sommelier Brent Kroll. Cozy up to the slate-topped bar, which has USB ports and doubles as a chalkboard for tasting notes and doodles; grab a window seat for people-watching the pedestrians on Ninth Street; or hang out around the patio's fire pit.
Then take a gander at the wine program. The themed menu of about 30 selections changes monthly to add dozens of new bottles. Previous topics have included Anything but Pinot Grigio (focused on other styles of Italian whites) and Friendsgiving (what tastes good with turkey and traditional sides).
Expect to find an additional 20 or so on the "core" menu, mixing popular varietals from small producers and odd grapes, plus dozens of by-the-bottle choices on a menu dubbed "The Great Big Bottle Book." The daily Aperitif Hour, from 5 to 7 p.m., brings a free glass of aperitif, such as vermouth, for everyone.
Despite the relaxed, youthful vibe, Maxwell is exactly the kind of place where you can feel comfortable geeking out about wine. There's always at least one certified sommelier behind the bar: Kroll, or partners Daniel Runnerstrom, who worked with Kroll at Iron Gate, and Niki Lang, who served at Fiola Mare and Voltaggio Brothers Steak House. "To do a wine bar, I needed to make a wine bar that wouldn't annoy me as a customer," says Kroll, who, at 32, is the oldest sommelier on duty.
Having an expert in front of you changes the dynamic. "Instead of taking orders, we say, 'Tell us something you like or don't like about wine,' " Kroll says. "It's a conversation, not, 'What can I get you?' We'll pour [free] tasters. We'll serve you a half-glass."
The goal, he says, is to avoid being pretentious, "which is the cliche about wine bars."
1336 Ninth St. NW. Wines by the glass, $9-$30.
With the opening of Dio on H StreetNE, Stacey Khoury-Diaz returned to her Sonoma County roots after working as a contractor in Washington and East Africa and getting a master's degree in food studies. "Basically, the culture out [in Sonoma County] is wine culture," she says. "My family grows their own grapes to sell to wineries and make their own wine — I call it 'moonshine wine' in their barn."
The 30-seat, light, airy spot has pretty mosaic tiles under the bar, copper lamps and columns, and towering blue shelves packed with wine bottles. Natural wines are Dio's focus, with about 20 by the glass (choose from red, white, sparkling and "pink and orange") and around four times as many by the bottle. Vineyards owned by women or created by female winemakers are highlighted, which Khoury-Diaz calls a reminder of a "burgeoning movement" in a male-dominated industry. Skin-contact wines — wines fermented with the grape skins on, which adds color and tannins — have proved more popular than she expected.
Many customers aren't familiar with natural wines, Khoury-Diaz says, but that's just an opportunity for her passion to shine through: "What I'm trying to do, if they're receptive, is tell them the story about the wine — explain whether it's natural or biodynamic and what that means. Even if you've been to tastings or winery tours, you might not know about the methods."
The bar hosts regular tastings — on Jan. 18, an importer will pour flights of six natural French wines for $16 from 6 to 9 p.m. — but later this year, Dio will begin hosting classes based on different styles and regions in the hopes of spreading the love of wine culture.
904 H St. NE. Wines by the glass, $12-$16. Happy hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, includes a red and a white for $8 per glass.
Little Pearl, from the team behind the Michelin-starred Pineapple and Pearls and Rose's Luxury, is two businesses in one. Stop into the converted carriage house at the Hill Center between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., and you'll be greeted with breakfast wraps, gluten-free cinnamon toast and caffeinated beverages. But return after 5:30 p.m., and the lights are lower and the music is funkier. The focus is now on two dozen wines by the glass and a short, snacky menu that features a savory okonomiyaki spring roll — the traditional Japanese pancake that's rolled and sliced like maki — and a rich, moreish smoked onion dip with crackling house-fried potato chips.
The wine list is less funky than some others, with familiar styles and regions, but even so, it's embracing the natural movement: That flinty cabernet franc from the Loire? Organic and unfiltered with vineyard yeast. The cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend from Napa is organic and sustainable, even if the menu doesn't boast about it. (Also winning points, and making this prime territory for a baby shower: two non-alcoholic sparkling "wines" from Germany's Jörg Geiger.) If you're anticipating a nice tax break — or celebrating a special night out — go right for the menu's "Special Moments" section. It sounds like a line from Kay Jewelers, but it features a handful of special reserve wines, such as a nine-year-old chardonnay from Burgundy ($32).
Your enjoyment may depend on where you sit: The solarium-style dining room, with its glass walls and ceiling, becomes clatteringly loud when full on weekends, while the seven-seat coffee counter-turned-bar at the front is more laid-back and comfortable.
921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Wines by the glass, $10-$17.