You’re out for a nice meal and plan to order wine but are vacillating between a few choices. What are your options? Consult the sommelier? Rely on your waiter, who may or may not be familiar with the wine list? Whip out your smart phone to consult your wine app? Or simply take a blind stab?
Before you plop down $40-plus on a bottle of wine, you might ask for a taste of your top choice. Many restaurants will offer a small sample of one of the selections they sell by the glass. Yet, I know some who would prefer to take a chance on the wine rather than risk abusing the restaurant’s hospitality.
Wine vending machines, known as Enomatics, were made for these folks. As wine bars continue to debut around town, many are incorporating such dispensers. The machines allow customers to purchase tastes, half and whole glasses at will. Budding oenophiles can explore and compare different varietals, blends, growing regions and both old and new world wines.
Vino Venue — a restaurant, retail shop and new home to Atlanta Wine School — features three Enomatic stations with 32 selections. Customers load non-expiring debit cards with funds and fill glasses from stations pouring whites, big reds or pinots.
During my three visits over a week and a half, each time nearly a third of the self-serve options had been replaced. If you snooze you lose. That ’10 AltoMoncayo Veraton Garnacha I wanted to try on my second visit? Gone. But the ever-marketable If You See Kay (say it aloud) Cabernet, the popular ’10 Cuvelier Los Andes Coleccion Malbec and my favorite ’11 Domaine Pichot Vouvray were constants.
One night, the Enomatics featured wines like a Don Melchor Cabernet from the private cellar of the owner’s friend and another night showcased older wines like the ’01 Elderton Command Shiraz. The fun and surprise of the Enomatics draw both couples and ladies’ groups alike.
These samples prime guests for the almost 50 wines by the glass and lengthy list of bottles available (many in the $29-42 range). For non-wine-drinking companions, Vino Venue has compiled a thoughtful craft beer list with foreign and domestic brews like Rochefort 10 Trappistes and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
Vino Venue’s wine bar/restaurant and retail store are new additions to owner Michael Bryan’s business model. The operation began with Atlanta Wine School, providing wine education and food pairing courses for consumers and certification programs for industry professionals. Since it opened in 2003, the school has grown to reach more than 4,000 students annually.
Bryan’s students urged him to open a wine bar and retail shop. With Vino Venue, he did just that and put all his ventures under one roof. He says he wanted to create a “wine think tank” of sorts. He gathered former students and other professionals to join him in this grand adventure.
The restaurant’s servers will undergo the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) training offered by the school.
Given its sisterhood with the Atlanta Wine School, I expected Vino Venue’s menu to contain wine pairing suggestions and the wine list to contain tasting notes. That may be in the works.
Chef Faye Stein developed a menu she hopes will create an “impressive taste experience” to work in conjunction with the wine experience. Stein, who has a degree in baking and pastry and taught courses for Sur La Table, says the small plates, cheese and charcuterie mainstays should be “easy to eat but surprisingly enjoyable.”
You’ll find a nice range of dishes from light to hearty, but none so flashy as to take center stage, leaving that to the wine. The bistro fare plays a supporting role. Bryan explains that her light touch with the seasoning broadens the range of wine pairings.
Snack on flatbreads and salads. I enjoyed the light green goddess salad ($8) made with vibrant green butter lettuce leaves, topped with feta crumbles, pepitos and a delicate avocado, herb and champagne vinegar dressing. I prefer it to the Nicoise salad ($12) with fishy seared tuna.
Of the two flatbreads, I’d go for the tomato-and-Fontina version ($9), jazzed up with briny olive tapenade and sweetened with a balsamic reduction. I can imagine it will only improve as we move into tomato season. The tomato toppings mask the pale flavors of the gourmet frozen flatbread more than those on the mushroom-onion-mozzarella concoction ($9).
Dishes get a little more interesting with the Scotch egg ($9), a beautiful orange-yolked farm egg rolled in juicy pork sausage and coated in crispy fried bread crumbs. I appreciate the play in textures more than in temperature. I find the stark contrast of the warm egg with the cold smoked-tomato and raw garlic puree somewhat jarring.
The same was true of the steamy Moroccan-spiced lamb riblets ($11) served over a frigid citrus and white bean salad. The tender braised lamb, so rich and meaty, overwhelms its partner.
Play it safe with the mix-and-match cheese and charcuterie selections. Modeled after the menu at the former Pie Bar, Vino Venue offers combinations of two ($7), four ($14) or six ($20) options. Build a plate with salted marcona almonds and crostini made with H&F bread.
Assemble a cheese board, choosing from soft cheeses like the French Brillat-Savarin triple cream, hard cheeses like the Italian Ubriaco and “aggressive” ones like the Winnimere from Vermont. Plates come with salted flatbread crackers and accompaniments like bits of honeycomb and red-wine poached pears.
On my next visit, I’ll prepare for my wine-tasting adventure by filling my belly with cheeses and charcuterie like the sopressata and Italian prosciutto di Parma.
Of course, the jury is still out on the Winnimere pairing. Manager/partner Rob Van Leer tells me that after a “stinky cheese training” with servers, they decided the craft beers may make the best pairing. That or the Vouvray.
Take advantage of Stein’s pastry experience with desserts like the smooth dark chocolate and Frangelico pot de creme ($6). Finely chopped candied hazelnuts form a crusty topping with a sugary crunch. A fan of chocolate-and-port pairings, I sipped a glass of the Ramos Pintos 10 year port ($6) with my grown-up pudding.
While wine bars continue to grow in number, Vino Venue is positioned to offer a unique opportunity and experience.
My girlfriends and I will be back, Eno-card in hand.VINO VENUE 4478 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody. 770-668-0435 Food: bistro fare designed to pair with a broad range of wines Service: very friendly and eager to help Best dishes: Lamb riblets, braised short rib, pimento cheese Vegetarian selections: salads, flatbreads and a few small plates ———————- Credit cards: all major credit cards Hours: 5-10 p.m., Mondays-Wednesdays; 5-11 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Saturdays Children: not a good idea Parking: yes Reservations: no, but best to call ahead for large groups Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: no Takeout: yes