Twin Cities Articles
Top Five Wine Bars in the Twin Cities
I have seen many lists for the top five wine bars in the Twin Cities by critics and consumers alike but I decided to actually rate the wine bars using a specific rubric that would identify the best wine bar in the Twin Cities by visiting them all within a week of each other. I was amazed at how many operations call themselves a wine bar but really lack the criteria I was looking for.
What I am looking for?
Wine by the glass
First you should have a wine by the glass program with at least a dozen wines from various regions around the world. Quality is key and I am not impressed if you offer generic examples or un-established wineries in your by the glass program. The offerings should change throughout the year and producers should be respected by the wine community.
Stemware is critical to the wine experience. Without the proper stem it is very difficult to smell the aroma of a wine and in turn tasting it. It is important to have a standard white wine glass, a Pinot Noir (Burgundy) stem and a universal Cabernet Sauvignon stem for reds. Some restaurants even offer specific stems for Ports, Sherry and of course Champagne.
Pricing should be profitable to the wine bar but favorable to the consumer. While selling a glass of wine at the same price of the bottle is profitable it should be avoided. I like to try unique wines at wine bars and if it is affordable to try a Barbaresco or single vineyard Pinot Noir I am pleased.
Wine lists should showcase the world. While it is not cost effective to open a Chateau Montrose for by the glass purchases I do like to see areas of the world covered such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Willamette Valley, Barossa Valley and Rioja. When going out to dine I really am not interested in a cheap Spanish wine that I can get on sale for $6 or a watered down Pinot Grigio served ice cold. There is a lot of value wines from Mendoza, Colchagua Valley, South Australia, Columbia Valley and Priorat.
Service is always a factor as the wine world is confusing. By having a wine expert on staff to answer any questions it makes the dining experience more enjoyable. Also regular servers should have education and should be able to answer basic wine questions. One area that can make it easier for everyone is to have wine pairing ideas on the main menu.
White wines out of the refrigerator are too cold to fully appreciate and wine drinkers are unaware of the difference in the experience.
A wine bar should not be a massive sit down restaurant but a place designed for relaxing and conversation. Also what bonus features are offered as some wine bars now have attached wine shops in which the consumer can purchase a bottle at retail and bring it next door to sample without a corkage fee. This is an ideal setting for trying 4 or 5 bottles with a larger group and not worrying about blowing the restaurant budget for the month.
I was disappointed by the lack of wine flights at the wine bars I visited. A few that did not qualify offer wine flights but the quality was low. I encourage everyone in the Twin Cities to step up this program.
I like a restaurant that features the current wine list with vintages and appellations of the wines. It can help the consumer set a budget for the night and do necessary research to pick a great bottle of wine.
My Top Five
I was going to be looking at every detail about the experience in order to put together the best possible top five list. While reader’s polls are nice to look at there is a certain bias among them and certainly they have not visited all the wine bars in town. All wine bars that participated had the opportunity to showcase 4 courses paired with 4 wines. I looked first at the quality of the individual wine, next at the individual food dish and finally if the two match up. No wine by the glass could cost over $20 and I did allow them to pick one bottle off their list to serve to me which could not exceed $50. While I did quiz servers on their wine knowledge, I didn’t expect them to list off all the first growths of Bordeaux.
The Top 5
1. Domacin Restaurant and Wine Bar- Stillwater
This is the old Cesare Wine Bar and features a small but quaint dining experience. The name Domacin comes from the Latin word domicile, meaning home. The Serbian meaning is the host of the home and creating an environment where everyone feels welcome. They offered several wines by the glass with the main regions covered. The wine list is extensive and no one else matched the quality of the producers in multiple formats such as Magnums (1.5 Liters), half bottles and vertical flights by the bottle. Owners Aleksandar Pantic & Richard Hoch offered producers such as Felsina, Chapoutier, Ridge, Gaja, Siduri and Shea Vineyards which were not available at other wine bars.
Scallops featuring green beans, hazelnut, saffron-lemon aioli $10
2008 Steven Ross Edna Valley Chardonnay $8
Medium gold and featuring lemon, mineral and orange peel. 86 points
The scallops were fresh and flavorful and the beans crisp. This was my least favorite food and wine pairing at Domacin as the wine needed a little more richness to match up with the food.
Tomato Salad featuring mozzarella, tomato, vinaigrette, basil $8
2006 Vigin Piedmont Barbera $9
Barbera is an affordable and quality wine that plays well with food. The wine featured cherry, minerals, spice and earth. 90 points
The salad was a nice change of pace from the traditional salad found at most restaurants. The tomatoes were perfect and the mozzarella was local and delicious with the wine. A really good pairing.
Braised Pork with cheese grits, candied jalapenos, tomato marmalade, cilantro $20
2004 Sottimano Barbaresco Cotta $18
The Barbaresco was amazing and the best wine I sampled on the wine bar tour and it featured truffles, earth, raspberry, leather and minerals. Medium and concentrated finish. 93 points
The braised pork was really tender and went perfect with the tannic Barbaresco. The only part of the dish I would have not added was the jalapenos as they districted me from the quality of the wine.
Panna Cotta- Cream, vanilla bean, raspberry, coulis
2008 Malvira Brachetto d’Acqui Birbet $8
The producer is Malvira and the grape Brachetto. This is a sweet sparkling wine from the Piedmont Region in Italy. The wine featured blackberries, raspberries, spice and fruit syrup 91 points
This was the best pairing of the night as it went perfectly with the cream dessert. Fresh raspberries topped the Panna Cotta and I enjoyed trying such a unique sparkling wine.
Wine Average: 90 points
They do not feature a happy hour special but on Sunday nights you can get a three course tasting menu for $25 with optional wine pairings for $15 which changes often. The food was outstanding and the staff was well trained in fine dining. You can ask them anything about food or wine and feel comfortable that they will explain the right combination in a non abrasive manor. Their stemware was number one of all the wine bars along with the wine list. I would like to them add a happy hour or half price bottle nights as their only downfall is their wine pricing.
Other bottles I would recommend:
2004 La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino $90
2005 Core Santa Barbera County Grenache $40
2005 Domaine Giraud Chateauneuf-du-Pape $59
2006 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay $50
2007 Januik Columbia Valley Merlot $45
2008 Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $46
Domacin Restaurant and Winebar
102 South Second Street
Stillwater, MN 55082
Spasso offers the best wine program in the Twin Cities restaurant scene period. Most wine lists have 100 selections but with the Wine Shop next door they allow you to purchase any wine at typical wine retail pricing and bring it over to Spasso without a corkage fee. With Fernando Santa the new General Manager expect the regular wine list (already impressive) to continue to grow. I was also impressed with the ability to name your own flights from their by the glass menu which is not the same as prearranging them but good to know for the consumer.
Olives mixed in a home-made marinade $5
2009 Burgans Rias Biaxes Albarino $6
Featuring minerals, floral and orange with a medium finish. Very refreshing. 88 points
I normally don’t enjoy olives but they were nice with the marinade. The acidity of the Albarino matched well with the olives.
Smoked artichoke with grilled tomatoes
2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Piedmont Arneis $8
Fragrant aromas of peach, floral, minerals and lemon. Medium finish and good acidity.
This wine sells for $26 a bottle on their wine list and is cheaper than you would buy it for in many wine shops. 90 points
The food and wine pairing worked really well as the smoked flavors along with the crispness of the wine was nice.
Grilled Chicken and Wild Mushroom Risotto $16
2007 Vietti Barbera D’Asti
Really nice Barbera wine with cherry, spice, minerals, plum and great structure. 90 points
Barbera is a food friendly wine and the fruit blended well with the Risotto. I was not overly impressed with the Risotto compared to other offerings around town over the last six months.
House-Made Meatballs broiled and served with marinara and parmesan $5
2006 Hendry Napa Valley Block Zinfandel Blocks 7 and 22 $9
Very nice wine with blackberries, floral, spice, oak and plum. Concentrated wine and medium finish. 92 points
The second best bottle I sampled on this assignment. I liked the wine better than the meatballs as they were just a bit spicy and distracted the palate from the wine.
Wine average: 90 points
Spasso is one of the larger wine bars in town and the décor is wood and modern with a wood burning oven for pizzas and other dishes. There is a separate entrance to their adjacent The Wine Shop Retail Wine Shop. One perk for customers is they offer a Cadillac Escalade shuttle service to and from the restaurant. The GM, Fernando Santa, said they have picked up customers as far away as downtown Minneapolis. Fernando knows his wines and they are there to please the customer with as little or as much wine education as you want. Their wine by the glass changes quarterly and as a wine reviewer I was impressed that they offered Wine Spectator and Robert Parker scores. Also if you agree to buy 2 wines by the glass you can try any bottle on the list. I would like to see the food evolve to a higher quality level and for the vintages to be included on the wine list.
Other bottles recommended
Where do we start as you can purchase a bottle next door and bring it over to the restaurant?
2006 Ladera Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $9/$30
2006 Larkmead Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $58
N.V. Heidsieck Champagne $40
2009 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc $8/$16
2004 Schafer Hillside Select $250
17523 Minnetonka blvd
Minnetonka, MN 55345
Ursula’s by definition is the most defined wine bar in the Twin Cities sampling by the fact that owner Kurt Hegland is always working and willing to chat about wine. They offer a large by the glass program and you can pick any whites (3- 2oz pours) for $8 and any reds (3- 2 oz pours) for $10 which is a great concept. Ursula’s is not a large restaurant but in the summer there is a patio and recently a few local artists will play on weekends.
Eggplant Parmesan Stuffed Mushroom Caps $8
N.V. Pierre Sparr Crémant d'Alsace Rosé Brut $8
A nice Sparkling wine with strawberry, minerals and toast. Short but refreshing finish. 86 points
The Sparkling wine is made from the Pinot Noir grape and it is one of the most versatile grapes with food. The eggplant dish paired well with this acidic wine.
Sliced whiskey teriyaki marinated sirloin steak with Asian broth, celery, carrots, and bean sprouts $24
2006 Palazzo della torre Veronese IGT $8
Really flavorful wine with plum, spice, raspberry, blackberries and coffee. Medium finish and concentrated. 91 points
The pairing was great as the wine had some tannic backbone which dissipated when combining the red meat. The vegetables where really fresh and it was my favorite food and wine pairing at Ursula’s.
Spinach and grilled pina with feta, olives, tomato and red vinaigrette
2009 Trefethen Napa Valley Dry Riesling $7
The Riesling is made in a dry style and features lemon, minerals and floral notes. Good acidity and makes it a food friendly wine. 88 points
Salads are hard to pair but this worked out great with the acidity from the wine cutting through the vinaigrette. The vegetables were fresh and flavorful.
Grilled marinated pork chop with bacon along with whole grain mustard mashed potatoes
2005 Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Crianza Rioja $24 a bottle
This Tempranillo wine features oak, cherry, vanilla, spice and a rustic feel. 88 points
A wonderful pairing as the Rioja wines have nice acidity and the earth components of the wine match up with the meat.
Wine average: 88.25
Overall the producers are solid and well respected in the wine community. You will not find White Zinfandel by the glass but will find one of the best Rose wines I have tasted in a while which I will let Kurt tell you about.
Other values on the wine list
2006 Argyle Nuthouse Willamette Valley Chardonnay $7/$28
2008 Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc $7/$28
2009 Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir $9/$36
2005 Vigin Moody Piedmont Nebbiolo $40
2009 Elas Bianchi Mendoza Malbec $6/$24
Ursula’s Wine Bar & Café
2125 4th St.
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
4. King’s Wine Bar
King’s Wine Bar is a pure wine bar located in Southwest Minneapolis. The atmosphere leads well to exploring a variety of wines and the small plates are wine friendly and original. They don’t offer a large menu but everything I sampled was prepared well and fresh. The service was delightful and stemware was Riedel.
Mussels with spicy house made sausage in a stout mustard broth with grilled bread
2008 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc $40 bottle
Stones, floral, lemon, chalk and grass. Rich white wine with good balance. 90 points
Mussels were full of flavor and not gritty. Both the mussels and sausage offered great flavor and the mussels complemented the wine better. I enjoyed the sausage on its own.
Duck Sausage Blue Corndog $6.95
2009 Pedroncelli Dry Rose of Zinfandel $8
Strawberry, mineral, rose petals and raspberry. Very clean wine and well made. 87 points
A corndog? Well this is not your State Fair variety. This was one of my favorite appetizers I sampled and it featured stone ground corn with some amazing home made dipping sauces. The rose was a great match with the duck as the flavors enhanced each other.
Fresh Fettuccine with smoked bacon, roasted Brussels and carrots, parmesan and smoked almonds. $17.95
2008 Vina Borgia Campo de Borja $7
Plum, spice, cherry and minerals on this full of life Spanish wine. 89 points
The bacon and the wine were a perfect match. I really liked the fact they did not put too much parmesan on the dish so the vegetables could shine. Very fresh.
Grilled Pork Loin with King’s baked beans, broccoli and shallot demi-glace $19.95
N.V. Warres Otima 10 Year Old Tawny Porto $12
A nice Port offering with maple syrup, orange peel, brown sugar and minerals. 90 points
I would have never guess a Port would go so well with the grilled pork loin but this was amazing. The broccoli would convince anyone that broccoli tastes great and the Port’s sweetness added to the grilled meat.
Wine average: 89 points
Kings Wine Bar
4555 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419-4947
Toast offers a relaxing atmosphere with friendly, upbeat staff. Owners Erin Tomczyk and Scott Davis have created a true wine bar in downtown Minneapolis with small plates. Overall the wine list is interesting and priced fairly and the food is not fine dining but is perfect to pair with a variety of wines. With over 30 wines by the glass you will be sure to find something that will interest you.
Crostini’s: Chickpea puree with avocado and sea salt, Herbed goat cheese and grilled Brussels sprouts and Mozzarella and serrano ham $2.00 each
2009 Bodegas Callia Alta San Juan Torrentes $6.50
Nice flavors of lemon, grapefruit, floral and minerals. 87 points
Nice combination overall and the Crostini sampler would be good to share with a larger group of people. Very flavorful.
Spanish antipasti plate featuring cheeses, olives and ham.
2008 Flor del Montgo Yecla Monastrell $7
A bold wine with blackberries, pepper, cranberry and earth. 88 points
The wine paired ok with the ham and olives but not the cheeses which were potent.
Baked polenta spinach, mushroom and pecorino cheese $12
2005 Di Majo Norante Prugnolo Terre degli Osci IGT $40 a bottle
A nice wine with cherry, plum, earth and minerals and finishes very clean. 90 points
A nice combination and Italian wines do really well with food.
Manjari chocolate pudding tart with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil
Graham’s Porto 20 Year Tawny $13
A very nice Port with minerals, cherry, nuts, and maple syrup. Sweet but balanced overall. 91 points
The combo worked but I would like to have skipped the olive oil.
Wine average: 89 points
Toast offers a nice special Tuesday through Sunday which is half price bottles on any wines under $40 from 5 to 6 p.m. if you order a thin crust pizza and a glass of wine you can get a second glass for free during the same times. I did like the fact that they offered a flight of 3 dessert wines for $12 and now they just need to expand that with the table wines. During the summer months the outdoor seating is impressive and you can actually see the scoreboard at Target Field from some of the seats. Parking can be a problem during game nights and is meter only or parking ramps.
Toast Wine Bar and Cafe
415 n. 1st st
Minneapolis, MN 55401
This was a major undertaking to visit this many wine bars and the wine bar scene is alive and well in the Twin Cities. As wine bars start selecting better wines by the glass, adding flights and training staff you might see new wine bars making my top five list next year.