Restaurant Review - The stunted evolution of Atlanta wine bars

The gastropub may be the hottest trend in Atlanta dining, but it seems to me that we've skipped a step in our beverage-centric eating establishments. Wine bars were the original foodie-friendly evolution in casual but classy drinking and dining. And yet, Atlanta is lacking in this department. Over the past couple of years, we've had a number of franchise and corporate wine bars open, as well as a few quirky, independent restaurants that offer smaller lists but more thought. Where's the neighborhood wine bar that has depth, passion and intelligence?

A few independent establishments have always aimed for that crossover. Kevin Rathbun's Krog Bar, which has won Creative Loafing's Critic's Pick for Best Wine Bar three years in a row, is an unabashedly wine-centric hangout. Servers are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and selections are eclectic and set up to encourage easy exploration. But Krog Bar isn't trying to be a world-class wine bar – it's trying to be a tapas bar with an emphasis on wine. That it's our best in the city is a little disappointing.

To be the best, the selection should surprise and educate even the wine geeks among us. There's no blowout bottle for a special occasion, no chance to delve into the depths of one region or style. None of this is a dig at Krog Bar – it does exactly what it sets out to do. But where is the wine bar that aims higher?

Eno and its Barrelman retail store have long strived to be the go-to place for Atlanta's serious wine drinkers, and they've succeed on a number of levels. Eno's wine list, especially its bottle list, is broad and exciting, covering many regions and prices. But try as it might to sell itself as a wine bar, the restaurant's reputation lies with its upscale dining room and menu. The ample bar area does invite the more casual drinker, but it has never taken off as a true wine bar. It still feels like the bar of a fancy restaurant. And the by-the-glass list isn't extensive enough to distinguish it as a serious wine bar, either.

So what about the newcomers, the large, corporate or franchise places that bill themselves as totally wine-centric? I've been to the Grape, the national franchise that now has four Atlanta-area locations, a few times, and have never found anything in particular I wanted to drink. I can see how the list might help someone just starting to learn about wine – more than one person has made the joke that the color coding and pre-school graphics should be titled "Wine for Dummies." But the Grape teaches people to go for the obvious and mass-produced, and never gets to the quirks and intrigue of smaller-produced, more carefully made wines.

Tastings, a Wine Experience recently opened its first Georgia location in downtown Decatur. Also a franchise, the concept behind Tastings allows drinkers to sample from the store's 100-plus bottles. Patrons must purchase a pre-paid card that's then inserted into a machine, which dispenses the selection by the taste, the half-glass or the glass. Sound confusing? It is, and when I visited, I practically had to drag an explanation out of the server: "How much money should we put on the card if we're going to have two glasses?" "I really couldn't tell you." This may be an issue of one guy rather than a whole concept. (We also came close to brawling when he downright refused to tell me what the "tartine" on the menu was.)

There are actually some lovely and interesting wines to taste here. While the insert-card-get-taste system is a cool idea, it works better for retail than for hanging out and drinking. I'd gladly pay $3-$5 for a sip of wine if I were looking to buy an expensive bottle and wanted to test it out ahead of time. But the system is too expensive for a self-serve experience ($3 is the low end for a "taste" here, which is literally two sips). I'd no sooner go here to hang out and talk about wine than I'd go to the airport for its romantic atmosphere.

The Wine Loft, a huge, swanky new wine bar downtown, is part of a large chain with locations from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh. If we have to settle for corporate wine bars, this is how they should be done. The list is long, the atmosphere is comfortable and upscale, and there's a genuine sommelier on site who's happy to sit and talk about volcanic ash and stainless steel fermentation. The Wine Loft's list leans toward the lowest common denominator, with a heavy emphasis on New World chardonnays, merlots and cabernets. I was able to find some truly cool wines from Turkey, Lebanon and even the other Georgia (as in, the former USSR Georgia). But for the most part, French wines are prohibitively expensive by the glass, and waitresses are obviously chosen for their looks rather than their knowledge.

So where do we go in Atlanta for wine that's interesting, affordable, and served by folks with passion and knowledge? For now, it's still the smaller, independent eateries that are filling that void. Last week I went to the new downtown restaurant Social, where the wine list is short but eclectic and wines are available by the glass, carafe or bottle. My waitress was smart and enthusiastic, and she brought tastes (that didn't cost $3) of anything I was interested in. It was fun – I felt engaged and even discovered something new.

Places like Social are doing the job for the time being. But I'm hoping that one day soon we get the same kind of enthusiasm and intelligence in a true wine bar, one with a huge selection, knowledgeable staff, and room to lounge. I'm all for the gastropub, but beer isn't the only beverage that deserves to be fun.