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by Erika Lenkert

The New Generation of Wine Bars

It used to be that wine bars were just that—bars serving wine. But in recent years they've become much more. Many of today's shrines to fermented grape juice are bona fide destinations where your taste buds can traipse across county—and often international—lines, and also be tantalized by snacks that go worlds beyond boring palate-cleansing crackers. In Napa and Sonoma there are even more reasons to seek the power-taster's alternative to winery hopping. First: They're open long after wineries have washed the last wineglasses of the day. Second, as local hangouts, bar offerings here must impress people for whom some of the world's finest food and wine are as ubiquitous as burgers and cokes are to strip malls. But don't take my word for it. Stop by any of the following haunts to school and satiate your palate with the exceptional taste of Wine Country. Then call yourself a taxi.

One of my favorite places to snack and sip, The Bounty Hunter (975 First St., #B, Napa, 707-226-3976, Napa, was a wine catalog for years before owner Mark Pope created his country-western chic wine bar, bistro, and retail shop. Now one of downtown Napa's few places that heats up as the sun does down, it's a prime spot to saddle up to a table (literally) or snag a stool at the bar to sample from 40 wines by the glass or 400 by the bottle. Add to that an order of beer can chicken that's grilled in the back parking lot and you're really living large local style.

"Upvalley" has lots of restaurants with vast wine programs, but wine bars, not so much. Calistoga's BarVino (1457 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga, 707-942-9900,, which opened in September in the Mount View Hotel, hopes to change that. The co-op tasting bar showcases the latest juice from 25 of the valley's small-production wineries such as Calix Cellars, Waugh Cellars, and Spencer Roloson. Sweetening the deal is a menu of Mediterranean-inspired small plates and the promise of conviviality.

It's fitting that an unassuming road off of Northern Sonoma's beaten wine path leads to Willi's Wine Bar (4404 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa, 707-526-3096; Dimly lit and low-slung, the bar-meets-restaurant has the kind of speakeasy appeal that pairs perfectly with its 40 mostly local wines. Offered by the two-ounce or five-ounce pour, and half bottle or bottle, selections are especially delicious when accompanied by a few of the beautifully presented International small plates, which look as good as they taste.

Wine Spectrum Wine Shop and Bar (123 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-636-1064, is another newcomer born from a successful wine catalog. Located in Santa Rosa's old Railroad Square and launched this past June, the loung-y spot characterized by contemporary décor and a giant curved steel wine rack makes good use of the owner's 25 years worth of winery connections. Drop by at the right time and the staff may be pouring an old Châteaux Lafite, but equally exciting is their ever-changing menu of 30 local and international wines by the two-, five-, and nine-ounce taste, most of which are limited production and lesser-known. Regardless, it's a sexy spot to sip, sit, and snack on charcuterie, panini, or a fine cheese plate.