Noble Grapes

Fancy flights: Mary Gaytan with one of the Riverview's cleverly conceived wine tastings
Jana Freiband
Riverview Wine Bar
3753 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis


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?

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.  

It turns out that co-owner David Bernick was a flea's hop from being a winemaker himself. He grew up in Southern California and went to U.C. Davis for winemaking, eventually securing a prestigious internship at the winery now known as Franciscan Oakville Estate, in the Oakville appellation of Napa Valley. He was there working for famous winemaker Greg Upton, during the time Upton debuted his wild yeast Chardonnay--an event about as interesting to wine nuts as gull-wing doors are to car nuts; not the most important thing that ever, ever happened, but of extreme interest to a few.

Anyhoo, when Upton wasn't actually making wine, says Bernick, he was convincing his young protégé of the importance of family values. And, as we all know, as soon as you cast your lot with family values, south Minneapolis's tractor beam switches on. "He told me, unless you're a great, great winemaker, you're just a commodity," says Bernick. "Enjoy your wine, but enjoy your friends and family; this is not as good a life as people think it is, you spend your whole life in a lab."

This advice led Bernick to a brief career as a wine broker, which taught him to hedge agricultural commodity prices using currency fluctuations, which led him to a high-stress career in finance, which relocated him to Minneapolis, where his fear of burnout led him to chuck it all and, seven years ago, open a coffee shop, where his business sense convinced him to put in a large children's playroom, which attracted a longtime nanny, Mara, who found a child-friendly, single, energetic entrepreneur with a head full of family values and...introducing Auguste, age three, a child who will doubtless become famous in the schools for supplying limitless quantities of corks for craft projects. And now we have the Riverview Wine Bar, which unites David Bernick's first love with his enduring one.

The kitchen at the Riverview puts out a few very nice little snacks to have with the wine. I especially liked the cheese plate. A recent one for $9.75 had a very fresh local chèvre, a block of Schwarz und Weiss Blue, an aged Asiago Casaro, a few slices of pears roasted in Merlot, and a cheddar made with curds that had been soaked in port and brandy and then pressed; it resembled a dollhouse cobblestone walk. An antipasto plate ($9.75) one night hit all the right salty and sour notes, offering two sorts of sliced salami, prosciutto, that aged Asiago Casaro, three sorts of olives, cornichons, caper berries, and pickled asparagus. A fruit plate ($7) looked like it had been cut up by a concerned mom five seconds earlier: a whole pear carefully sliced, half an apple, handfuls of berries and grapes.

The limited menu offers a few other things, but I wasn't a fan of the six-inch pizzas ($10.50), finding their crusts far too sweet for my taste, and I could live without the beet salad ($9), which, when I tried it, was swamped with a strong and sugary curry vinaigrette. On weekends the little spot serves a full entrée: I tried a Thai-marinated pork chop ($13.50), which didn't taste very Thai, but did taste like a nice Midwestern family dinner, and, appropriately enough came with fluffy handmade garlic mashed potatoes that the Riverview could serve in cups through an ice cream window and make a cool million on.

The kitchen puts out some very nice desserts. I was particularly charmed by the egg-sized homemade chocolate-cognac truffles ($2 each) that I tried alongside a bowl of Cabernet Sauvignon sorbet: The potent weight of the chocolate went so well with the slick dark fruit of the sorbet that I am calling this the adult's version of the bliss that comes from the venerable high-summer pairing of air-conditioned matinee followed by Dairy Queen. You do know the grand old Riverview Theater is just kitty-corner from this wine bar (, right?

Well, it is. So it's not just a wine bar with a fascinating selection of wine flights and a 60-bottle-deep list boasting a number of well-priced options (I counted 15 bottles priced at $21 or under). It's not just the rarest of Minnesota phenomena: a nice place for a drink within walking distance of a movie theater. It's not even just a great destination for beer lovers, with its three dozen specialty ales, well weighted with robust American microbrews, fine-bubbled Belgian classics, and robust eternals from the United Kingdom. It's not even just the most toddler-friendly wine bar in the whole entire world.  

The wine license covers all the square footage of both Riverview Wine Bar and the adjoining coffee shop, Riverview Cafe, which has a large, cheerful, mural-bedecked play area full of toys to share, soft couches, and the works, so you can sample some late harvest Riesling with a friend while junior plays with trucks. (On my last visit the wine bar had no fewer than a dozen guests seated in backpacks, car seats, and double strollers, some of whom eschewed the on-premise beverage selection, preferring the breasts they brought from home.)

No, in addition to being a whenever-you-want-it wine school, in addition to being a great wine bar, a great beer bar, a good place to teach your child to say "Mommy's Riesling," and a nice place for cheese and dessert, the Riverview Wine Bar has finally put voice to the current spirit of south Minneapolis.

"Where do I want to be in five years?" David Bernick asked me, rephrasing a question he had been asked by a neighbor. "Right here. This is my life; this is what I want to do. I'd rather have another baby than another coffee shop."

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Riverview Cafe & Wine Bar

3745 42nd Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55406


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