The Bueno Vino Social Club

Where the blood of the grapes runs freely and cheaply

Wine bars have quietly become big business in Miami. Among the better of our relatively recent arrivals are D'Vine District Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Design District, Vine Wine Shop on Biscayne Boulevard and 77th Street, and the cozy Xtreme Cafe in South Beach (which misleadingly sounds like a place where skater dudes guzzle Red Bull). Even restaurants that are really just restaurants, albeit with extensive wine lists, are attempting to cash in on the craze by affixing wine bar to their monikers: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, Scorch Grill House and Wine Bar, Vida! Bistro and Wine Bar, the recently opened City Cellar Wine Bar and Grill.

Frenchman Philippe Douriez was way ahead of the cuvée when he opened Best Time Wines in the Caracas shopping center on SW Eighth Street in 1997. Two years ago he added a second establishment, Happy Wine and Gourmet, ten blocks north. Both locations offer seating at which to partake of tapas, pressed sandwiches, and glasses of wine culled from a considerable inventory of bottles. Still, most people wouldn't think of these venues as wine bars per se. They are so much more.

First and foremost, these are wine shops that boast the best bottle and case prices in the city. Best Time is the larger of the stores and, as such, carries a much wider selection. Hand-lettered signs dangle from the ceiling, pointing perusers to their desired country — Argentina, France, Spain, and so forth. The stock turns over fairly frequently, so some of the bargains we encountered during our trip — such as a 2000 Château Bernateau Saint Emilion Grand Cru ($15.99) or 2003 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon ($9) — might be sold out by the time you read this sentence. Need some last-minute bubbly for New Year's Eve festivities? As of a few days ago, the shop still had Champagne Drappier on hand (brut $20 a bottle, rosé $22).

JOE ROCCO

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Happy Wine and Gourmet, 5792 SW Eighth St, Miami; 305-262-2465. Open Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Best Time Wines, 4765 SW Eighth St, Miami; 305-443-6070. Open Monday through Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

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You can also order wine online for the same bargain prices — besttimewine.com — but then you'd be missing all the fun that comes with drinking it on-site. Friendly folks behind the counter are quick to offer a taste of the wine du jour — on our visit Hoya de Cadenas Reserva (1999), a soft, well-rounded wine made from Tempranillo grapes. A generous pour is just $2.50, an inarguably great deal if you're imbibing by the glass, but most patrons prefer to pluck a bottle from the shelves and shell out a token $1 corkage fee. We uncorked what many consider the best wine of Andalusia, Pesquera Ribera del Duero (a steal at $24). What about the fun part? We'll get to that soon enough.

There used to be a chain of self-service cafeterias in New York called Horn & Hardart. Through a widely aired television ad campaign that mocked the ostentatiousness of high-end restaurants, the company implied its food was inexpensive because it didn't waste money on frivolous decorative appointments. The tagline: "You can't eat atmosphere." To say that Douriez didn't spend a lot of cash on prettying up his properties is like pointing out that Willie Nelson's budget isn't exclusively devoted to the purchase of Armani suits. Yet the charming unpretentiousness and convivial Cuban crowds that congregate at Douriez's wine shops make for an absolutely enthralling environment.

At Best Time, the seating is set around the perimeter of the store, mostly in the form of tiny wooden tables for two tucked into nooks and crannies created by columns of wine cartons. Outdoors are two wine barrels masquerading as tables, and counters are composed of narrow wooden shelves affixed to the storefront windows. When the place gets crowded, which occurs every Saturday afternoon, patrons hang out in the aisles and place their glasses on stacked boxes of wine.

At the Happy locale, the wine cases are piled and displayed toward the rear of the room. A seating section is housed in the center of the space, encompassing tables made from casks, crates, and a door-size plank of wood propped up by barrels at each end. The ceiling is black and the walls are garnished with graffiti. Lingering over a bottle of wine here feels more communal than at Best Time. This is especially true come 4:00 p.m. Saturdays, when rock radio tunes cease and a group of Cuban musicians picks up instruments and turns the place into some sort of Bueno Vino Social Club. That's when the party really begins.

The menu at both spots is the same: a concise list of tapas and pressed sandwiches. The latter are referred to as pami (an acronym of the words Paris and Miami) and feature fresh baguettes ironed with choice of seven fillings, including ham, turkey, prosciutto, and grilled chicken. On a recent visit I savored every bite of the special sandwich of the day, a compelling combination of tortilla española, melted cheese, and garlic-laced tomato slices. All pami are $2.99.

Standout tapa was a dish of olive oil-and-garlic-marinated white anchovy fillets (boquerones), the slender fish delicately delicious, the leftover oil an absorbing sop for rounds of baguette that accompany all tapas. A single-serving casserole of passable paella is also available, bright yellow rice studded with one shrimp and a pair each of mussels, littleneck clams, and calamari rings, though many folks seem to opt for chorizo y queso, a large paper plate covered to the rim with slices of the spicy sausage and cubes of imported Swiss cheese. Plates of either Manchego cheese or chorizo are options as well, as is a combo containing chorizo, cheese, salami, prosciutto, and anchovy-stuffed olives — for $4.99. Ostensibly two people could visit either wine shop, pay the corkage fee for a $9 bottle of wine (that might cost $12 elsewhere), share an antipasto platter or a pair of sandwiches, and end up forking over only $7.50 or $8 apiece.

Unfortunately I am far from being the first person to discover these diamonds in the rough, so if you're contemplating a Saturday soiree, I suggest arriving early — parking and seating are limited.

Although you can't eat atmosphere, nobody ever said anything about not being able to revel in it.

 
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