With wine bars seemingly opening on every block, we thought this would be a good time to offer some advice on how to make the most of your wine bar experience. Here are some tips:

1. Make sure the wine bar is really a wine bar. Wine bars are so trendy now that all sorts of places are calling themselves a “wine bar,” even if they really don’t have much wine. It’s often more marketing gimmick than description. Take a look inside and make sure there really are plenty of interesting bottles of wine that appear to be available by the glass. A good wine bar isn’t just a bar with some wine. It specializes in wine. We noticed that the menu we were handed at Fleming’s in Birmingham, Ala., included four pages of wine and two pages of food. That’s our kind of proportion.

2. Sit at the bar. Even if you plan to eat later and maybe move to a table, the bar is the place to be at a wine bar because you can easily look at the bottles and schmooze with the bartender.

3. Check out how the opened wines are stored. Good wine bars spend some money on preserving opened wines, often with systems that pump gas into bottles. If you don’t see such a system, it’s especially important to make sure your wine isn’t poured from the bottom of a bottle that has been open for who-knows-how-long.

4. And if the wine has been open too long and not preserved well, talk to the bartender about it. The wine might taste flat, listless or stale, like other things that have been around too long. It might even smell odd — metallic, oxidized. Just say, “I think maybe this has been open too long,” and, handing it to the bartender, nicely ask, “What do you think?” We have never done this without cause and in every case a new bottle was graciously opened.

5. Look for the unusual stuff on the list. Wine bars should offer wines that you haven’t seen before. This is a good opportunity to take a chance on a wine on which you might not want to risk a full-bottle price.

6. Order tastes, not a glass. Many good wine bars offer wine by the taste, which is something around half the amount of a glass (perhaps 2½ ounces). This means you can taste more wines.

7. Order flights. A good wine bar should offer flights of wine — say, four Chardonnays from around the world. This is a rare chance to taste the differences among wines. Even if you don’t think you know the difference between one wine and another, you will discover that you do like one more than another. That’s the one that’s gone first.

8. Talk to the bartender. We’re not the kind of people who normally chat with bartenders, but at a wine bar, this is a critical part of the experience. The bartender should know a great deal about the wines you are drinking. Hearing about where wines came from, who made them, the climate in which they were grown — this makes them more interesting. You might think this sounds boring, but a good wine-bar server should be so passionate that it’s not. If the bartender isn’t passionate about this stuff, try another wine bar.

9. Be honest. This is a great tip from Robert Alexander, owner of the four-year-old Cesares Wine Bar in Stillwater, Minn. “Try to be as honest with your level of budget and knowledge as you can be with your server or bartender,” he says. That way, the server will be better able to tailor the experience to you. Don’t be shy about asking for recommendations.

10. Ask if there’s anything special that’s open. There is often something that’s not on the list. Maybe a distributor came in that day with something new, or a good customer wanted a glass of something special earlier so the bar opened a bottle. For whatever reason, we have often found some stunning stuff that wasn’t on the wine list. Be sure to ask how much it costs, because it’s not on the list and you don’t want to find that you just had a $100 taste of wine.

11. Look at labels and take notes. You’re going to remember the wines better if you have seen the labels. You might think it’s geeky to take notes, but if you like one of these wines so much that you want to buy it later, you need to remember the name. We know you think you’ll remember it, but, trust us, you should write it down. If you really love it, you might also write down the distributor or importer in case you need to call to find out where to buy it.

12. Be careful. It’s easy to get so much into the spirit of this that you drink more wine than you intended. This is bad for a number of reasons, including cost. Tastes of wine are like the new trend of “small plates”: They seem so cute and reasonably priced, until you see the total cost.

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Filed under: Dinning With Wine