Fine place for more than a wine taste

ON NIGHTLIFE

September 28, 2006|By SAM SESSA

The Vine could easily be the city's least assuming wine bar.

With grapevines and a farmland mural painted on the walls outside, the Vine definitely stands out from other Fort Avenue watering holes. But you don't feel like you're in a wine bar when you step inside. The walls are maroon, the ceiling is black, and two flat-screen TVs hang behind the long bar. It's not that different from most other corner bars in Federal Hill.

But rather than focus on fancy decor, the Vine offers a solid wine list and one of the best weekday specials in the city.

From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Wednesday, you can sample five wines for $5. It's no hoity-toity swirl, sip and spit into a bucket deal, either. They give you a tall glass and pour three or four ounces of good wine into it. Now that's a tasting. Plus, you can walk in any time between those hours and start, so if you get there at 7:50 p.m., you don't have to feel rushed.

"You can come any time and go at your own pace," said manager Mike Fishman. "It's kind of a self-guided wine tasting."

Fishman, a wine buff himself, updates the list regularly. A couple weeks ago, the featured wines came from vineyards in the Pacific Northwest. Detailed descriptions of each wine, including what kinds of food they go well with, are printed on scorecards and passed around. When you're done with one wine, you go up to the bar and hold up fingers to let the bartender know what wine you're on.

The service is usually right on point. Kevin Diesel, one the bartenders, can handle a full house by himself.

Side note: Diesel swears he's not related to the actor Vin, but most patrons don't believe it. They've even gone as far as to hang up a picture or two of Vin for comparison. I didn't see the resemblance when I went, but he was wearing a hat, and I couldn't get a good look.

Most of the time Diesel didn't need to ask what wine people were drinking -- he knew automatically. You don't have to open a tab with a credit card or pay as you go -- just tell him your name and you're set.

The first two were white wines: L'Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc, which was light and had citrus notes, and A to Z Pinot Gris, a fairly sweet and fruity follow-up. Then came the reds: A to Z Pinot Noir, Griffin Cabernet Merlot and L'Ecole No. 41 Recess Red. Each seemed better than the last, but after 15 ounces of wine, they could have been pouring Yellow Tail, and we would have thought it was top-shelf stuff. If you like what you taste, you can order wines by the glass or bottle.

With generous servings of great wines for cheap, Wednesday nights draw a sizable crowd. A couple weeks ago, the Vine was already comfortably full by 6:30 p.m. People kept coming, so that when the special ended at 8 p.m., the place was filled. People in their 20s through 60s mingled comfortably.

Some people were dressed up in nice jeans or black pants and button downs, and others came in T-shirts. No one cared, and it didn't seem like there were any wine snobs in there, either. The focus was mostly on conversation, and while the wines came up from time to time, most people didn't spend too much time talking about them. If they did, it usually went like this:

"What number are you on?"

"Two."

"I liked that one. What do you think of it?"

"Yeah, it's nice -- real light."

"Yeah. You live around here?"

And so on. Nobody shows off their wine knowledge, probably because not many people in there are wine fanatics or sommeliers. They come to hang out, talk and try some delicious wines, and the Vine is the perfect place for it.

The Vine is at Hanover Street and Fort Avenue. Hours are 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call 410-837-3733 (it's the number for Vineyard Wine and Spirits) or go to www.vineyardws.com for more information.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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