A short walk from my hotel was an interesting-looking wine bar called Vino Venue. What makes them unusual is that they are self-service: they feature automated wine-dispensing machines, made by a New Zealand company, Enomatic. (The US agent on the West coast has a page with installations to date, sadly none in Seattle...)
I had read about Vino Venue (or places like them) recently in magazines and the New York Times, so I was very pleased to find them one evening pureley by chance. It turns out they're not new at all (I think they opened at the end of 2004), but they are definitely enjoying continued popularity and attention in the press. (For some older press coverage, see this Wired, or this SFGate story. Whole Foods is also installing Enomatics in their stores.)
I went in around 5:30pm on a weekday, while they were still quiet, and started chatting to the guy behind the register. The system they use is quite elegant - you put money onto a "smartcard" (like a credit-card , but with a tiny computer chip) - with $10 being the minimum. Then you browse through their selection of wines (100+) and find one you like, insert your card, and press a button to get a 1oz (30ml) pour of wine. Each wine costs a different amount, with the cheapest being around $1.20. The most expensive is around $40 a pour. That works out at around $30 if you drank a bottle's worth of their cheapest wine, or $1000 for their most expensive. Obviously this is not a cheap way to get poeg eyed* on wine.
If you're there to drink wine and socialise, you'd be better off ordering a glass or bottle at the bar counter on one side of the shop. You can also buy bottles of wine for what looked like decent prices (Startign in the low teens $ for cheap wines) They also offer a small plate of goodies (a bit like a ploughman's platter), but food is definitely a second thought. (I would have loved a bread & cheese plate, withou the meat... More on that later).
For me this place is a great way to try a few wines without much risk, and I spent a good 30 mins trying wines and generally doing an impression of a wine snob, in solitude. After 6pm things got a little crazy, though, with the local lawyer and financial-types flooding in, including a large private party that practially took over half the space. The feel imediately changed into more of a pick-up bar, with groups of friends huddling together (and blocking access to the wine dispensers), and available singles nervously casting about for the catch of the day. I missed the solitude a little, and it was clear that if you're comign here to focus on tasting wine, you want to come a little earlier...
Their wine selection is good, but with a heavy focus on Californian wine (understandable since this is SF). I was a little surprised to see hardly any wines from Washington (there were quite a few Oregon Pinot Noirs though). One stations featured a few Italian and Spanish wines, and Australia and New Zealand were fairly well represented. No South African wine to speak of (so my dream of tasting a Eben Sadie Columella were dashed).
In terms of wines I remember liking, here are the winners:
- '05 Glamour Puss Pinot Noir, New Zealand. $13 per bottle.
Ripe and soft Pinot Noir with velvety tannins. Very drinkable and a great value, compares very well with NZ Pinot's in the $20-30 range, although it lacks complexity.
- '05 Cicchitti Malbec / Cab Sauv, Mendoza, Argentina. $?? (I think it was around $20)
This was an amazing full-bodied wine with loads of structure. Malbec adds a spicy, chocolatey flavour, and the Cabernet and body.
- '04 Tobin James Notorious Cab Sauv, CA, $20 per bottle.
Wow, and incredibly full-bodied Cabernet with an intense, super-long finish. Initial impact of glycerin and ripe red berry fruit, then tobacco and chocolate. Smooth, perfumed finish that lasts for around 20 seconds and seems to involve a cascade of flavours.
* Blotto, sloshed, hammered...