Nearly a decade ago, wine bars moved into the hottest neighborhood in town one after the other. Some were themed, only serving California or Italian wines while others were a little more careless with their wine menu, only concerned with getting people in their seats regardless of the quality of wine they were serving.
Wine bars have become the new Starbucks for my friends and I after a trying week. Order a cheese plate, a glass of wine (or try a wine flight) and all you need is decent conversation to have an enjoyable night that won't break the bank.
One thing we really enjoy about wine bars if the variety of wines you're able to choose from. If you're new to drinking wine, there's always a decent Riesling or Moscato to choose from; Rosé's have once again increased in popularity so there's usually quite a few different styles to choose from and there's always something big and bold for the experienced drinkers.
Back in my early wine days, I of course went through my "terribly sweet" phase. The server tasting my order along with my drinking companion would cringe when I ordered a glass of Moscato. Eventually they put a stop to my novice ways by asking questions to help direct new choices. "What kind of candy do you like? Do you like savory or sweet? Do you like mushrooms and truffles?" At the time I didn't know or care to understand why they were asking me these questions—I just wanted to drink! Various flights of wine were placed in front of me. "What do you like about this wine? What don't you like about this wine?" I didn't know how to answer these questions without sounding like an idiot. Soon, I started noticing that the same varietals of wine were being given to me: Cabernet Franc, Merlot blends, and ultimately what has become my favorite wine, Malbec. It took me a few years to understand specifically what it was about those wines that I enjoyed but if it hadn't been for those early (and repeated visits) to my local wine bar, I would probably still be drinking questionable wines for all the wrong reasons.
Depending on which wine bar you go to, seeing as not all wine bars are created equally, you'll either come across a very experienced and knowledgable employee who can talk you through the stops of which wine suits you best and give you a bit of a wine education along the way, which isn't something you always get when you're visiting a tasting room at your local winery. In the early days of my wine drinking, I didn't have an interest in knowing what terroir meant or that Champagne is actually made from black-skinned grapes. But these were things that were introduced to me at wine bars.
Tasting rooms should be called drinking rooms. In my experience, I've only witnessed a small handful of people actually taste what's been poured for them. Many people are in such s rush to hit the next winery on their itinerary that they simply gulp down whatever is in their glass, ask very few technical questions, buy a hat or t-shirt with the winery logo and head off to the next destination.
Generally speaking, wine tasting attendants are knowledgable in their own wines. They know how long something has been aged for (it's on the tasting notes taped to the countertops) but their knowledge of wine in general is limited, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Tasting room attendants are there for one reason: to entertain you. They pour you a flight of wines, give you tidbits about the wine you're drinking that chances are you won't remember and encourage you to buy a bottle of so-so wine.
True, not everyone goes wine tasting to get an education on wine. For $30 bucks you can hit up three wineries and leave stumbling drunk. $30 bucks at a bar will get you two drinks and unwanted attention from the resident bar creep.
Much like wine bars, tasting rooms are social environments where you may drink more than you should. If you're interested in technical tastings, make private arrangements with the winery or wine bar directly. Much of my knowledge has come from conversations with the winemaker directly while sipping on a glass of wine. If you're interested in hearing how the wine is made, whether or not the wine lived up to expectations and how to drink it, there's really only one source for information.
You might be asking yourself whether going to a wine bar or to a winery is a better destination for you and your friends, ask yourselves what kind of afternoon you're looking for. If you're looking for food, a little conversation with a bit of education mixed in, head to a wine bar, preferably one with an extensive menu. If your focus is on getting wine wasted in high fashion with your friends with a cast of characters playing host, plan a day of wine tasting at your local vineyards.