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Washington DC for wine lovers

After a tough few years, it’s safe to say that Washington DC – the one US city that melds Northern efficiency with Southern hospitality – is back. And its charming wine personality is stronger than ever.

The US capital – long known to insiders as one of the best wine-drinking cities in the country for its breadth and depth of choice – has emerged from a rather sombre decade with a host of new and revived restaurants, bars and bottle shops drawing enthusiastic food-and-wine lovers into the lively neighbourhoods beyond the Beltway.

An array of options fed by deep-pocketed lobbyists, government contractors and thirsty global diplomats fuels the effervescent hospitality scene. It’s all supported by local Washingtonians and residents from around the world who work in embassies and trade organisations.

And the District is constantly absorbing a youthful influx of university graduates bent on changing the system through policy and tourists from around the country. With such diversity of demand, a typical night out could involve a glass of orange wine at a riverfront wine bar, a bottle of Bordeaux first growth over dinner at a buzzy Michelin star spot, and a Champagne and caviar nightcap in historic Georgetown.

The District’s liberal alcohol importation permit system underpins the extensive choice of wines. In a country hampered by a notoriously arcane patchwork of alcohol importation and distribution laws, this translates to excellent news for wine lovers. DC’s eateries, bars and bottle shops offer one of the most extensive selections of small-producer wines in the country – along with every trophy bottle your heart desires, of course, given that the city is awash with big spenders.

In the nation’s capital, dining tables and bar stools are a great unifier – the cultural and racial melting pot of 712,000 straddles the nation’s Northern and Southern regions.

Maxwell Park with owner Brent Kroll. Credit: Marissa Bialecki

To experience the District’s delicious soul, you’ll want to seek out the multi-dimensional neighbourhoods beyond downtown’s monuments, memorials and museums. The clean and efficient Metro makes getting around a breeze, and most areas lend themselves well to walking. Another big plus for visitors is that you can expect a modest, friendly attitude even in the swankiest places.

The city is broken into four geographical quadrants: NW, NE, SW and SE, which refers to their location in relation to the US Capitol Building. Surprisingly, all quadrants have waterfront areas. Suggestions below are by geographic region and neighbourhood.


NW DC

Apéro

In 2020, advanced sommelier Elli Benchimol opened Apéro, an intimate Champagne and wine bar with delicious dining in a historic townhouse on a quiet colonial-era street in Georgetown. Although the doyenne of the District’s wine community – who, since 2009, has led a legendary DC industry tasting group – curates a 20-page menu of grower Champagnes, she tells me her goal is to offer something that ‘wine lovers of all stripes’ will enjoy.

Whether you choose one of her affordable Barolos or a bottle in the four figures from her Euro-centric wine list, ‘you will not dine in my restaurant without talking to at least two sommeliers, including your server,’ she says. And that’s a great thing, whether you are up for a Champagne and caviar tête à tête, a glass of rosé at the bar with the regulars, al fresco brunch in the charming garden-patio or the ambitious new chef’s tasting menu in the upstairs dining room.

Cork Wine Bar and Market

You’ll find Cork Wine Bar and Market a couple of blocks past the historic brick John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Logan Circle’s 14th street. Owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross launched the unassuming bar and bottle shop in 2008 to showcase quality wines from around the world, both experimental and old school.

Over the years, the cosy industry hangout has graced many ‘best of lists’. It offers about 50 wines by the glass, a rotating monthly wine flight menu, and Saturday afternoon tastings. I notice an excellent selection of well-priced magnums. Regulars come for easy fare like avocado toast, cheese boards and daily specials.

The Dabney

The Dabney. Credit: Bonjwing Lee

Tonic for the weary post-pandemic soul, this one Michelin star establishment is a cocoon of understated elegance tucked away off a historic brick-paved alley in the up-and-coming Shaw neighbourhood. ‘In a city where so many things are serious and heavy, especially over the past few years, wine and food are a comfort zone,’ says Jessica Liberto Hosseini, The Dabney’s beverage director.

‘We focus on mid-Atlantic regional food with roots in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,’ Hosseini adds, explaining that seafood from the nation’s largest estuary is delivered daily by a local man who ‘drives up and down the coast daily to find the freshest fish’. And although à la carte snacks are served at the walk-in patio and bar area, she points out that the dining room’s six-course prix fixe menu changes daily ‘to allow for creativity in the kitchen’. This philosophy spills over into your glass, too.

‘The beauty of our wine list,’ she says, ‘is that it appeals to the nerdiest and the novice.’ Ask Hosseini about The Dabney’s ‘hidden gems’ that every wine lover dreams of finding, like her collection of López de Heredia Riojas from the 1970s and ’80s.

Le Diplomate

Every major US city has at least one traditional French brasserie – and I’m here to tell you that Le Diplomate is the most perfect one I’ve found. Gooey French onion soup? Check. Steak frites, warm goat cheese salad, escargots? Triple check. And, of course, a lengthy wine list, including plenty of half bottles and wines by the glass (including attractive daily specials served only at the bar).

Head sommelier John Loats shares: ‘Our wine list features the classic French regions at all price points because our clientele ranges from folks coming in for a burger to lengthy business dinners.’ Loats adds that the white-aproned servers poured 3,500 glasses of wine the previous week. As I dig into my dessert (the hockey puck-sized, house-made Paris-Brest pastry with a glass of Jura Vin de Paille), I notice that the wine list, organised by French regions, also offers a section called ‘Le Monde’, in a très French tongue-in-cheek nod to the rest of the world. Another fun touch? The towering ‘hamburger frites’ served with a little American flag perched on top. Diplomatic, indeed.

Maxwell Park

In 2017, when District wine pioneer and sommelier Brent Kroll opened Maxwell Park, the seminal and oft-awarded wine bar in the emerging Shaw neighbourhood, he launched the city’s wine revolution. California Cabs made way for the world of wines. Since then, the father of the city’s expansive wine scene has always tried to ‘act as a friendly compass, pointing any and all wine drinkers in the right direction, based on their individual preferences and tastes’. Over the years, Maxwell Park has become the industry hangout for their fifty wines by the glass (or half-glass) and monthly deep dives into different wine themes. If you’re in the mood for bubbles, head to Pop, Kroll’s new neighbourhood ’fizz bar‘ for everything from Champagne to Cava.

Nido Wine Shop and Market

Nido co-owner and general manager Thea Merl

This charming shop on the main commercial avenue in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood will lift the hearts (and taste buds) of those looking for a casual sidewalk al fresco lunch spot. All can be served with a glass of well-priced, low-intervention wine. The neighbourhood is a historic enclave for immigrants from Central America and elsewhere (including a DC favourite Filipino restaurant, Purple Patch, right next door). The shop offers a tightly curated group of quirky (yet ‘non-funky’ according to GM Thea Merl) wines from small French, Spanish and Italian producers, selected by the knowledgeable proprietors who modestly call themselves ‘three women with a wine shop’.

Reveler’s Hour

If there’s one place where the District’s hospitable soul reaches peak vibes, it’s at Bill Jensen’s refuge for curious, wine-loving folks like him. Along with his two partners, the convivial DC native tells me his early work in political organising prepped him well for restaurant life. Indeed, Jensen (supported by his simpatico staff) treats everyone like a regular.

At Reveler’s Hour, the 2021 winner of DC’s sommelier award focuses on simplicity. There are weekly menus rooted in perfect portions of house-made pasta and with well-priced and eclectic wine pairings. Every detail is spot on, including to the hilarious drawings by James Beard award-winning artist Maryse Chevalier in the
bathrooms.

During the pandemic, Jenson says, he started selling his wines, too, so his guests can ‘take their experience home with them’. Diners looking for a more extensive tasting menu experience can head around the corner to the much-lauded Michelin-starred Tail Up
Goat, which Jensen also runs along with his two partners.

NE DC

Domestique

Domestique. Credit: An Phuong Ly

Founder Jeff Segal caught the District’s natural wine wave at the perfect time in 2018. He and his director of operations, Meri Lugo, opened this bottle shop in an airy, light-filled space on the ground floor of a renovated 1920s brick beauty that anchors a bustling corner in the multi-cultural Truxton Circle neighbourhood. Since then, accolades have accumulated.

With over 1,000 natural wines for sale, it’s a destination. But, just as importantly for Segal and Lugo, it’s a community gathering place where curious folks can learn about natural wine during the regular Saturday morning tastings. As Segal tells me when I visit, ‘people can exist in a non-transactional, casual way’. The ethos stems from the name, Domestique, which harkens to Segal’s passion for bicycling. ‘In road bike racing,’ he explains, ‘a domestique is a rider who works for the benefit of their team and leader, rather than trying to win the race.’ But for customers, it’s a winning ethos, indeed.

Irregardless

Opened in September 2022, this low-key, intimate wine bistro along the busy H-Street Corridor showcases up-and-coming wines from the District’s neighbouring state of Virginia. Mika and Ian Carlin fell in love with these Blue Ridge Mountain wines (and each other) while studying law at the University of Virginia. Ultimately, the wine won over the law, and the couple says they decided to showcase Virginia wines – ‘Irregardless’.

They found a storefront restaurant for rent two blocks from the home they’d purchased in 2019. Ian says their neighbourhood, where riots broke out in 1968 following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, is today ‘figuring out its identity’, which makes it an ideal place to try something new. The wine-curious, like me, will opt for the tasting menu paired with Virginia wines.

My favourites? A Barboursville Vineyards 2019 Barbera Reserve and a Domaine Finot Cabernet Franc 2020 from Turk Mountain Vineyards. If the tasting menu is too much of a commitment, post up at the 12-seat bar for à la carte bites and wines by the glass. ‘Irregardless’ of where you sit, you’ll be in for a wide range of Virginia offerings – among the best, according to the owners, from the state’s 300-plus vineyards.

Primrose

Primrose, the whimsical French bistro-slash-community gathering place, has uplifted a corner lot in the District’s northeast Brookland neighbourhood since 2017. At night, the light spills from open windows over the sidewalk café and the spacious interior – backlit by perhaps the most gorgeous bar in the city and crowned with oft-Instagrammed feather-draped chandeliers – buzzes with the casual conversation of an eclectic crowd of patrons.

You’re bound to be surprised by the diverse offerings, whether you choose a bottle from the 70-plus low-intervention French wines on the menu or try the 2021 Shenandoah Valley Strange Collapse rosé, like I do, straight from sommelier-owner Sebastian Zutant’s Virginia vineyard. His artsy picks in the glass, paired with world comfort food like house bouillabaisse, scallion pancakes with Mapo-style pork chilli, and mac n cheese, reflect the DC native’s years of dedication to good food, drink and hospitality.

Schneider’s of Capitol Hill

DC’s legendary family-owned bottle shop, opened in 1949, is just a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. I drop by the corner store on a weekday evening just before closing, a silver-haired gent loads a case of wine into the boot of his BMW, and a young man in an Air Force uniform checks out at the counter. Andrew, the incredibly friendly clerk, shows me around the cosy shop – the jumble of bottles arrayed on the shelves was a wine-lover’s dream.

‘We have a bit of everything,’ he told me, in the understatement of the year. Need a $6 Domaine de Subremont for a night with the family or a $5,000 bottle of Château Lafite 1900 for a special evening? No problem – the staff will even choose the perfect wines and have them delivered, Andrew explains, adding that Schneider’s does much of its importing and there’s a 1,800 square metre off-site warehouse for the cellar stock purchases and rare spirits.

Union Market District

The Union Market District (the UMD, for locals) was once a declining neighbourhood of ageing warehouse spaces abandoned by the food and produce vendors who had operated there in the 1930s. My how times have changed.

The revived UMD is home to over 35 independent merchants and purveyors of food and drink. For a casual vibe with a French twist, head to La Jambe wine bar, just inside the entrance of the refurbished original market hall. There, you’ll find a convivial crowd sipping glasses of well-priced jaja from the exclusively French list and digging into copious cheese and charcuterie boards. Another world wine discovery awaits down the street inside the UMD’s La Cosecha Latin American food hall.

There, digital nomads work at communal tables sipping Panamanian coffees from Café Unido, and wine lovers gather at Grand Cata, a wine bar and pantry, to sample (and buy) unusual wines from Latin America and Spain. As one DC-based sommelier told me: ‘It’s where you drop by looking for a Chablis and leave with an entirely unknown bottle.’ The two globetrotting owners – originally hailing from Chile and Puerto Rico – divide their time between Grand Cata’s Union Market outpost and their flagship location in the Shaw neighbourhood.

St. Anselm

But some things never change. Like St. Anselm, a traditional steakhouse and corner tavern still thriving amid the few remaining neighbourhood kitchen supply shops and food distributors. Gravitating away from the after-work groups around the boisterous bar on a weekday evening when I visited.

I headed to a booth. Instead of parsing the 56-page wine list, I opted to follow in the footsteps of America’s founding fathers and explore some of the 60 Madeiras by the glass that Megan Cruz, the head sommelier, had told me about earlier. Good choice. Drinking history through a flight of Madeira and while feasting on charred Rappahannock Bay oysters in garlic butter was a fine way to connect the dots between the District’s past and present.

SE & SW Waterfronts

Albi

New and old coexist in DC’s Navy Yard – a redeveloped neighbourhood of waterfront parks, condos and leisure spots on the shores of the Anacostia River near the historic Washington Navy Yard. There, let the world fill your glass at Albi, the country’s one-star Michelin home of creative Levantine cuisine. It’s safe to say that a meal at this sunny spot will transform your view on hummus, lamb kabobs and pita. The magical wine list will have you travelling from Lebanon to the Azores via Virginia, France’s Jurançon and beyond.

William Simons, Albi’s genial wine director, delights in bringing the wide world of wine to his guests with tales about his visits to many of the wineries. It’s also nice to note that the close-knit team, led by chef-owner Michael Rafidi, has kept its heart firmly in the right place despite a meteoric rise to fame since opening in 2021. Proceeds from the monthly Habibi Sofra Club dinners prepared by a visiting roster of chefs from around the world go to supporting displaced peoples in the Levant.

Moon Rabbit

Kevin Tien chef and owner of Moon Rabbit

Nationally acclaimed chef Kevin Tien’s serene and sexy 50-seat restaurant, Moon Rabbit, brings modern Vietnamese cuisine to The Wharf. This vibrant high-rise waterfront neighbourhood with remnants of the District’s historic Municipal Fish Wharf draws seafood lovers to the remaining fish shacks, oyster sheds and fishmongers still huddled on the banks of the mighty Potomac River. A meal at Moon Rabbit (in the Intercontinental Hotel at The Wharf) unites Tien’s multiple culinary passions gained growing up in New Orleans among the thriving Vietnamese community there.

The wine list, first developed by sommelier Jenn Knowles, provides perfect pairings by the glass. From the cassava coconut cornbread with lime leaf cultured butter with a crisp Susana Balbo Crios from South Africa to the succulent Viet Galbi style short ribs with a 2019 Columbia Valley Requiem Cabernet Sauvignon. But the Vin Santo del Chianti Bellini with dessert – a condensed milk flan with ice cream, coffee gelée, palm sugar caramel and hazelnut coffee foam – is the coup de grâce that sends me staggering out to walk it off along the waterfront.

Rose’s Luxury

A short walk from Capitol Hill, in a townhouse across from Barracks Row, is the much-lauded restaurant where President Obama has fêted two birthdays since the millennial-chic hotspot with an irreverent twist opened in 2013. When we speak on the phone, Justin Moore, MS and wine director for Rose’s Luxury Group, sets the stage. ‘Rose’s is our one-star place that’s great for a date night spiced up with interesting, well-made wines,’ he says.

After shaking my hand (yes, you read that correctly), my waiter hands me the prix-fixe family-style menu. ‘Choose your adventure,’ she says as I perch at the upstairs bar. A magnum of Champagne is chilling in the retro-style fridge, with David Bowie playing on the sound system. Rose’s is, simply, a perfect incarnation of the casual-yet-stylish vibe that DC does so well. For a more high-octane experience, the group’s two-star Michelin restaurant Pineapple & Pearls is next door. Moore tells me: ‘You’re in for a first-class ticket for an amazing experience where we will put something stupendous in your glass back to first growths from the 1980s.’


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