On the floor of Dio, a just-opened wine bar on H Street NE, there's a description of champagne that sounds more like a Tinder profile: “28, Veuve. Runs a tight house. Enjoys effervescence and riddles.”
It’s one of many playful touches that owner Stacey Khoury-Diaz incorporated to lighten the stuffy mood that often surrounds wine. (You’ll also find “lobster and shrimp” scribbled on the floor, which is a nod to what rapper Drake enjoys alongside a glass of moscato, according to one of his songs.)
“I love highlighting stories about wine that people don’t usually talk about,” says Khoury-Diaz, who ditched a background in international development and food systems to pursue a career in wine.
Dio is not only lighthearted in its design (see: bright mosaic tiles, blond wood and flashy blue shelves), but also in its offerings ($11-$18 per glass). The focus is on approachable “natural wines” that are meant to spark a conversation.
“We want to be a place where people can come ask questions about wine,” Khoury-Diaz says. The menu highlights roughly 30 different wines and denotes when they come from women-run wineries.
Though there’s no legal definition of what makes a wine natural, it generally means any wine that is farmed with biodynamically grown grapes and has little added or removed in the cellar.
If you don’t drink alcohol, Khoury-Diaz is also looking out for you: nonalcoholic beverages like apple shrub soda and mint sparkler are served in stemmed wine glasses. “We want it to be fun, because you’re supposed to enjoy your experience, too, even if you don’t drink.”
904 H St. NE. 202-506-3103.
Another D.C. bar, Maxwell Park, is similarly trying to cultivate a place where local wine lovers can have fun. Although the Shaw bar comes from a trio of revered sommeliers with high pedigrees — Brent Kroll (of Proof and Neighborhood Restaurant Group), Niki Lang (of Voltaggio Brothers Steak House and Fiola Mare) and Daniel Runnerstrom (of Iron Gate) — it is decidedly laid-back.
“It’s playful in the sense you come in and shouldn’t expect a dissertation on what you’re drinking,” Kroll says of Maxwell, which offers chalk for guests to doodle and leave notes on the slate bar. Even the name comes from a playground in Detroit where Kroll spent a lot of time as a child.
He says they're all about not taking things too seriously. Further proof you’re not at an average wine bar: Your check arrives tucked inside a lovingly used pocket wine guide.
Every month, Maxwell Park chooses a witty theme and offers wines (and limited-edition T-shirts) to match. For example, October is “misfits” month, during which they’ll serve outliers and mysterious wines that will be new to most.
Beginning next month and lasting through November, wines will be accompanied by food from Adam Greenberg, the chef behind Coconut Club, a tropical-themed restaurant set to open in NoMa next year. The stint is part of a recurring guest-chef residency that Kroll believes keeps things interesting — and inclusive.
“Instead of being competitive, we feature people from all over the District,” Kroll says. “It’s a different approach than most wine bars.”
Although Maxwell’s menu, with over 50 choices ($9-$30 per glass), can be intimidating, the staff is eager to help navigate. Tastings are available for every wine (even if you only order it by the half-glass), and Brent makes a point to be there at the bar as often as possible to answer any questions.
“I haven’t bartended since college,” he says. “I’m having a really fun time.”
1336 Ninth St. NW. 202-792-9522.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited the lyrics on Dio's floor. This version has been updated.