Noble Grapes

Car-seat country scores a family-friendly wine bar with a serious education mission

Riverview Wine Bar
3753 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.729.4200
www.theriverview.net

 

Learning about wine is very close to impossible. First of all, as an American, you don't usually get started until you have enough disposable cash to drop $12 to $20 for your dinner beverage--say, your late 20s. Which is the exact time when you cease to have time for anything, save apologizing for not returning phone calls. Second, alcohol is, by biochemical definition, something that impairs memory formation: Learning about it is like trying to learn about a Forgetting Potion by drinking a Forgetting Potion. Third, wine critics, writers, and teachers are shifty dodgers, and always forget that while a Zinfandel might smell like black pepper and black fruit to them, to wine newcomers it only smells like wine. And black fruit? Is that the opening act for Marilyn Manson?

Fancy flights: Mary Gaytan with one of the Riverview's cleverly conceived wine tastings
Jana Freiband
Fancy flights: Mary Gaytan with one of the Riverview's cleverly conceived wine tastings

Then, there are hundreds of foreign words and terms from dozens of countries, foreign customs and traditions, and foreign geography. Finally, if you want a bale of straw to break this camel's back, there's only one real way to learn about wine, and it's the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Which is itself an impossibility: How can you purchase something to practice with if you don't even...ah, forget it.

Happily, impossible is just another word to rhyme with defenestrable to David and Mara Bernick, the married couple who built, quite literally from scratch and with their very own paint-splattered hands, the Riverview Wine Bar, a far-south Minneapolis destination that looks poised to make the impossible task of learning about wine as easy as watching a small child chew on a truck, which you will also likely see at the family-friendly--no, make that family-ga-ga Riverview Wine Bar and adjoining Café.

First, let's talk education. If you go to the Riverview, you just have to check out the wine flights that dominate the first page of the restaurant's excellent wine and beer list. Here's where you'll find half a dozen groupings of wines, arranged by theme: "un-oaked whites," say, or "Pinot Noirs from around the world." Order a flight and you get four cute little tasting glasses with about two ounces of wine in each one, arranged on a card that's been specially printed for the wine flight in question with the name of each wine and the varietal, or other classification, printed right there under the glass. You can even jot your notes on the various wines right onto the card, take it home, and review it in the morning. Repeated a dozen times a year, this will teach you more about wine than anything you can do short of taking an actual class.

Now, most wine flights at most wine bars don't really teach you much about anything, but the ones at the Riverview I've seen have been chosen with special and rare wine insight. For instance, say you sat down with a flight of the un-oaked whites, meaning white wines which have not been aged in oak barrels, a winemaking technique used to soften the edges of wine acid, and make it toasty, buttery, and vanilla-scented. You would receive a selection of young, energetic, and light white wines like spritzy Portuguese Vinho Verde and lemony Chilean Yelcho, as well as a more complex Australian Chardonnay, and finally a weighty, toffee- and banana-edged South African Petit Chenin Blanc. You would sit there, sipping from one to the other, and thinking, "My, in and of themselves, each of these grape varietals is very different."

Then, for convenience's sake, let's say your date got the "Just like buttah" flight of oaked Chardonnays, and then let's say that you shared them all, swapping flights from time to time. Well, boy howdy, if you did that, you would know definitely and for sure what oak tastes like! This is no small accomplishment. Similar heights in auto-didacticism could be reached if you got the Pinot Noir flight and your date the Syrah/Shiraz flight; you'd have a pretty darn good sense of what those grapes tasted like when grown in distinct locales, and also gather any similarities the very different red grapes gained when planted in the same country.

The wine flight that really blew me away, however, was the un-oaked red one, because finding un-oaked reds is no easy task. Personally, I've been wanting to put together an un-oaked red tasting all year, and have been putting it off daily with the same enthusiasm I use for delaying cleaning out the garage. I'm guessing it would take at least a week of driving to every liquor store in the metro, being sweet-talked and misled about the oak appertaining to half a case worth's of wine, fruitless phone calls to distributors who wouldn't really know the details of the more obscure wines that they pick up from other distributors, which would finally culminate in internet sessions of definitive inconclusiveness, and...I dunno. It could just be one of those things that has terrified me out of all proportion to the actual difficulty, but I was darn impressed to find the Riverview just offering a quartet of un-oaked reds like it was no big thing. Who could pull off such a feat? And let's keep in mind that this is no downtown big-money joint with a sommelier, a nitrogen storage system, and all year to fly around the globe discovering fascinating wines. This is just a little family-owned spot deep in the heart of Big Wheel Country.

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