If someone said “You buy a little card – like $20 worth – then walk around the place, stick the card into a machine, get some wine, and taste until your card runs out. It’s fun!” it might sound strangely like...
“You buy a little card – like $20 worth – then walk around the place, stick the card into the machine, get some small hard balls, and play until your card runs out. It’s fun!”
Skeeball. At Dave & Buster’s. Or better yet, Whack-a-Mole.
Or, if you’re at Vino Venue, it’s wine.
I don’t know much about the history of Vino Venue, except that it’s a relatively new wine tasting room-slash-retail store-slash-bar in San Francisco. A hybrid destination is not a groundbreaking idea, but Vino Venue is a fairly innovative concept in wine tasting. Rather than the traditional way of a wine expert pouring tastes for patrons and providing information, patrons serve themselves from machines.
Wine from machines.
I was a little hesitant about meeting at Vino Venue before our late dinner reservation, because in essence, you are wine tasting from a vending machine. I couldn’t picture how Vino Venue made the concept work. My experience with vending machines has been Diet Coke and Cheetos. But hey, I’d give it a shot. Diet Coke and Cheetos always worked for me.
When we walked in the front door, I felt like we had just walked into the rival high school’s Prom and I had just tripped the wire and unplugged the DJ’s turntables. All eyes fell on us. Because the space is somewhat small but very open, the people who were already there, huddled together around small “stations” in pairs and triplets. They were tasting, talking, and looking very comfortable, and suddenly turned to look when we walked through the door. Obviously, it was a quick moment, and had only to do with people’s natural tendency to look up when a door opens, not because people had attitude or were checking us out. It was a new environment filled with unfamiliar faces who were doing something I had no idea how to do, so I felt self-conscious. I am not always comfortable when it comes to wine because it is something about which I don’t know very much, if anything at all.
We didn’t know how long we’d be there, so we purchased $20 cards to start at a small counter with a cash register just inside the front door. The guy behind the counter explained to us “how it works” – slip the debit card into the slot of the machine, place your glass under the siphon that corresponds to the wine you want to taste, and let her rip! Tastes range in price from under $2 up to almost $30, though the majority are in the $3-$4 range. He gave us our empty wine glasses and sent us on our merry way.
Vino Venue’s space is divided somewhat by concept. Around the main front area, there are small tasting “stations” of wines that were grouped together – by country of origin, by varietal, etc. Behind these red stations, there is a wall of wine behind a counter which I am guessing is for retail sales. Off to the side, there is an actual bar where patrons can sit down. All the way in the back corner, there is a small room set up as a “lounge” area with low seating and cocktail-like tables. It is hidden away back in this dark corner where there are some of Vino Venue’s more expenisve tastes.
All of the white wines are housed together in a chilled station. I tried all of them, though only one of them tasted good to me – Pomelo 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from Mason Cellars. Of course, it might have tasted good because I got to taste that one without deducting from my wine debit card. When the bottles run down, there is still a little bit left in the bottom when the staff replaces the bottle with a fresh full one. I happened to be there when they were replacing the Pomelo, so the guy just poured it into my glass. Then again, because I liked it, I bought another taste of it from the full bottle in the machine.
The reds were tougher for me, though I did stick with Syrah, since I know that I like those. I only tasted a few, mostly as side sips from friends’ glasses, and thought the Beckman Vineyards 2002 Estate Syrah was most suited to my taste. About halfway through our tasting, we decided to sit down in the back lounge area with a cheese plate. Vino Venue has a small menu of cheeses you can order to accompany your tasting. They are also open to tasters’ going to A.G. Ferrari next door, buying cheese and bread, and bringing it. Several of the people at the wine bar had done just that and were making an evening of sitting there at the bar with a baguette, some cheese, and a couple bottles of wine.
For the most part, the wines we tasted were good. The atmosphere at Vino Venue, however, is what would bring me back. Though I initially felt uncomfortable upon walking in, and slightly hesitant about the concept overall, the staff there, as well as the other people, made it very casual.
I mean come on. There's nothing intimidating about skeeball.
686 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
** a year ago today, dr. seuss did blowfish sushi **