Days of Wine and More Wine

By the glass, vino is the drink of choice

"Anyone who isn't mad or drunk is just a fool," writes Tuan Ts'ai-Hua in The Feast of Flower-Pattern Wine. In Drinking Alone in the Moonlight, Li T'ai-Po notes that "only those in the midst of it can fully comprehend the joys of wine; I do not proclaim them to the sober." And Po Chü-I, the most straightforward of the bunch, wants his readers to "put out the fire that burns in your rage, stop whetting the knife that hides in a smile. Better come drink wine with me; we'll lie down peacefully, merrily, merrily drunk."

Damn, but these Chinese poets know that of which they speak: The best relief for times like these is to get liquored up, preferably on wine.

Folks in New York City have taken these eighth-century poets' words to heart. The New York Timeshas been reporting a steady increase in bar traffic. Down here industry watchers like John Ireland, Southern Wine & Spirits' district manager for the South Beach wine division, tell me sales of hard alcohol are way up, though ironically people have stopped spending money on high-end wines.

That may soon change. For the first time I can remember since about 1992, enophiles have something to celebrate other than the opening of a Crown Wine & Spirits. In Kendall an upscale wine shop called the Cork & Bottle recently debuted, and it's selling everything from Portuguese vinho verde to Italian prosecco -- browsing paradise for the serious wino. And this, no less, in a shopping plaza where the resident Romano's Macaroni Grill typically has a 30-minute wait for dinner.

The turn of the year will also bring us Wolfe's Wine Shoppe in Coral Gables, owned by Jeffrey Wolfe, former general manager of Norman's, and his wife, Christie, the marketing manager for Augustan Wine and Food Imports. Originally the Wolfes had wanted to construct a café and wine bar along with the shop, but an archaic law on the books prevents Gables businesses from doing on-site consumption and off-premise retail sales. They're trying to get the code revised, but meanwhile Jeffrey Wolfe will stick with the plan of educating his generation of X-ers. The inventory will be "very much the way that I wrote the wine list at Norman's: niche, boutique-y kinds of wines," Wolfe says. "But out of the $60,000 worth of wine I have waiting to be installed, about $40,000 of it will be priced under $30 a bottle." The Wolfes also plan to educate via seminars and tastings and will have an Internet kiosk with links to wine Web pages. Customers will be able to burn CDs with tasting notes and food pairings for particular vintages. Can't get more Gen X than that.

Restaurants also seem to be using the wine line to grab some business, though that can backfire on the wine-savvy consumer. I stopped into Pua Cafe and Wine Bar in the Design District to check out the paler grapes, only to be told that no white wine at all was available. "We had a party a couple of days ago, and we ran out," the waiter told us. Um, ever hear of a wine distributor? A liquor store? Or even Publix? The brand-new supermarket in Miami Shores, only a few minutes up the road, has a decent stock.

Fortunately I didn't get burned at the just-unveiled 5061 on Biscayne Boulevard. This place promised wine to Upper Eastsiders and it delivers -- all 41 bottles on the list are sold by the glass. 'Course proprietor Xavier Lesmaries, who also is the managing partner of Ocean Drive's Les Deux Fontaines, where he annually fetes the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, might want to move that South African pinotage under the red wines where it belongs. But we'll forgive the occasional glitch for Limestone Coast cabernet-merlot blends like the one from Greg Norman Estates to go with our cheeseburgers, no?

The most encouraging sign of our developing regional palate comes from Leonard Fassler, proprietor of Pacific Star Winery, a 10,000-case producer in Mendocino County. Fassler not only makes his home in Broward County, he and winemaker Sally Ottoson craft old-vine reds at this westernmost winery in the continental United States. They recently introduced the winery's signature charbono and viognier vintages to South Florida at a tasting at the Beach House Bal Harbour. Fassler, who may be one of the most enthusiastic men I've ever met, claims,"We may be new to South Florida but not for long!" And indeed I've been spotting Pacific Star everywhere from the Cork & Bottle to wine lists in Coral Springs eateries like Martunie's.

Nor is the trend over yet. While visiting Captain's Tavern the other night, long known for its excellent wine values, I spotted construction taking place across the parking lot. In a matter of weeks, it looks like, Southwest Brasserie and Wine Bar will be ready to whirl.

My liver already hurts. But it's the kind of pain I appreciate.

 
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