Critic's take on the wine bars

Times Staff Writer

I love the idea of a wine bar, the chance to drop in somewhere congenial for a glass of wine and a bite on the spur of the moment. Bottom line, though, a wine bar should be a place where you can discover new wines and regions, not just a place to get a glass of wine. And after studying the wines proposed by this new generation of wine bars, with a couple of exceptions, I have to wonder why so few of the owners seem to have done their homework. There are so many wonderful wines available now that it doesn't take long-held connections or months of research to come up with a list to interest novices and dedicated wine lovers. I think owners would find too that making markups more reasonable will mean people are more willing to experiment and will order better bottles of wine if prices are more appealing.

Bodega de Cordova. With 13 to 15 wines by the glass, you don't get a comprehensive view of the Spanish wine scene, but the selection, which concentrates on less-known Spanish wines, changes frequently. Recently, these included Adega Condes De Albarei Albarino, a crisp minerally white from Rias Baixas; a Bodega Nekeas Vega Sindoa rosada (rose) from Navarra; or Onix Priorat. There are usually two wines available by the bottle, a Rioja and a Ribera del Duero.

Crepe Vine Bistro & Wine Bar. More than 70 entries, most available by the glass. The list is stronger on French, which is a natural given the crepe connection; it includes some good, moderately priced wines with a good many of interest for less than $40. For the French wine novice, this is a good list to explore. Try the rose from Domaine Les Aphillantes in the Rhone Valley or the Bandol rouge from La Bastide Blanche. Bottles, though, are better values than the wines by the glass. But if you just want to taste, flights of four French whites or reds are $13 to $14; New World reds, $15. The list is organized by weight, from light and juicy up to big reds.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. One hundred wines by the glass, organized by degrees of intensity from lighter to heavier. Everything is available by the bottle. Those in the exploratory mode can order a wine flight, a trio of 2-ounce tastes. Mostly California selections from the usual suspects, with a very few imports sneaked into the mix, including a Gruner Veltliner from Austria and Inniskillin ice wine from British Columbia. A reserve list has older vintages for those with deeper pockets.

La Maschera Ristorante. Twenty wines by the glass, mostly Italian and Californian, with only one over $10, and that's a French Champagne. In general, the Italian selection holds more interest than the California one, which is made up mostly of familiar names, so no discoveries there. The Italian section focuses mostly on Piedmont and Tuscany, with big names and more commercial producers. It's beefed up with some heavy hitters -- a Sassicaia (no vintage given) for $269, a Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino for $167. Le Volte, a super Tuscan from the Ornellaia estate, is a good deal, though, at $39.

Madeleine's Restaurant & Wine Bistro. Just under 50 wines by the glass from $7 to $19, mostly from California; it's a less exciting collection than you'd expect. No bargains either. The by-the-bottle list has more breadth, with a number of eclectic, sought-after wines. Still, serious wine drinkers may have trouble finding something sufficiently interesting to warrant the considerable markups. There doesn't seem to be much of a point of view or any soul: Every wine is listed with its points from Robert Parker's the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar.

Next Door Tapas Lounge. This small but choice list of Spanish producers was clearly put together by someone with knowledge and passion. It encompasses not only Rioja, but also interesting stuff from less known regions such as Priorat and Jumilla. Good descriptions of the wines too. Check out the half a dozen sherries, which include delicate Hidalgo "La Gitana" Manzanilla and Bodegas Toro Albala Pedro Ximenez Gran Reserva 1975. Prices are reasonable, and 17 wines are served by the glass.

Sopra Spuntini & Bar. Fifteen wines by the glass. The California selection is really boring. And though the Italian part of the list isn't large, it is possible to come up with two or three wines that you'd drink with interest, such as Bottega Vinaia Lagrein from Trentino or Ornellaia's accessible Le Volte. On the whole, the list is serviceable and markups are reasonable, and that's about it. Some more research on the part of the wine director would be recommended.

Vinoteca Farfalla. A very serious list with more than 200 wines by the bottle and an excellent, frequently changing selection of 45 by the glass. Extremely strong on Italian wines, especially from Piedmont and Tuscany. This list has breadth and depth, and the prices are fair. Italian wine aficionados will find lots of wines they'd love to taste, from Sandrone Barolo and Gaja Barbaresco to Castello di Ama Chianti and Sella & Mosca Cannonau from Sardinia. Caution, though: The reds are sometimes poured too warm. You might want to ask them to chill the bottle for a few minutes. One of the better Italian lists around.

Zinc Bar. Thirty-six wines by the glass, mostly inexpensive California selections from mostly undistinguished producers. The wine naif may be happy, but not the serious wine buff.

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