I admit it. The coolest wine bar in the city is in the uncoolest part of town. As a downtown dweller within a cork’s throw of Julep’s, Kelly Justice and the James, I’m not wont to tout Short Pump as the spot for Richmond fun. Nevertheless, between the Apple store and Umi, my hard-line stance is softening. My Rick Bancroft photos Shockoe devotion took another hit when I visited a freshly opened establishment adjacent to Whole Foods in that newly developed corner right off I-64.
The Wine Loft is a 23-unit, Baton Rouge, La., franchise of golden-hued, vino-powered hideaways. This location offers eight wines via the Napa Technology MX-8 WineStation (seen at right), one of several all-the-rage, spoilage-free wine-dispensing systems that now allow retailers and restaurateurs to open premium bottles without fear of lost profits thanks to oxidation or heavy-handed bartenders. Bottles are attached to the dispenser, topped with inert gas and left behind protective glass. When you’re pouring Rubicon Estate’s Bordeaux Blend (retail $125-ish) for $65 a glass and Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon for $50 a glass, this assures patrons that the last serving is as sprightly as the first.
A pal and I popped in for the 4 to 6 p.m. “Debriefing Hours” and stayed way longer — with 60 wines offered by the glass, you’ll need more time, too. The list spans the usual regions, and the core covers familiar brands (Veuve Clicquot, Conundrum, Cloudy Bay, Ravenswood), but there are also ample selections representing wine roads/producers less traveled by nearby sommeliers: Don Olegario Albariño (Spain), Domaine Pichot Vouvray (Loire Valley), Sagelands Riesling (Washington), Tenuta Setti Ponte “Oreno” (Tuscany), Cloudline Pinot Noir (Oregon), Fairview Estates Pinotage (South Africa) and Poema Cava (Spain). A full bar and craft beers are available too, plus the glassware is appropriate, and the three serving-size options encourage adventuresome sipping. That said, without vintages listed (for neither glass pours nor bottles), a dedicated in-house sommelier, a specialty cocktail menu or more wine-friendly cuisine, there’s another tier of service yet to be reached. I trust these aren’t just lofty goals for The Wine Loft.
Speaking of the menu … there are line cooks but no chef, Sysco rolls but no artisanal bread. Hmm, Tocai but no toque? In a state abounding with locally sourced goods, the Loft’s corporate model precludes some regional considerations. For instance, when I visited, there were no Virginia wines or cheeses on the list, though there was talk of bringing some in without delay. Meanwhile, the cuisine languishes in an unfortunate marriage of please-‘em-all variety and fill-‘em-up volume. Oven Roasted Lamb Lollipops ($14) were cooked perfectly medium-rare, but the accompanying Mushroom Duxelle and Herb Garlic Balsamic Glaze smacked of hotel banquetness. When the wines are complex, the food can afford to be elegantly simple. Where’s the grilled fish with herbs … game birds and risotto … seasonal salads? Certified Angus Pistolette with Maytag Blue Cheese Butter & Sweet Onion Jam Served with Root Chips ($12) is a fun play on gourmet sliders, but the buns beg for an in-house focaccia or a call to Flour Garden. Likewise, the Shrimp and Lump Crab Cheese Empanadas on Mango Chutney with Chipotle Pesto Drizzle ($13) could certainly earn awards for most countries represented in a single dish, but the finished product is more experimental curiosity than to-die-for combo. Vegetarians aren’t left out, but fish lovers and calorie counters will feel underserved, and anyone planning to dine here more than once a week ought to double up on cardio classes; what the menu lacks in regional specificity, it makes up for in puff-pastry fondness and truffle-oiled decadence. You won’t leave hungry. Yet, for anyone looking to tour the entire MX-8 WineStation, the weight of the dishes is a clarion call to consumption.
The owners, Jeff and Christy Ottaviano, don’t boast F&B backgrounds — he’s a handsome, retired pilot, she’s a Georgia peach with equine leanings and pharmaceutical-rep creds — but they’ve got a can’t-miss location and a winning playbook for step-by-step success in the bustling outer rim of Richmond. Both are keen on investing in their service team’s professional oenophilia, and the sexy staff’s dress code and emphasis on affability over snootiness makes the whole joint jump with nightlife loveliness. The setup is lounge-style, with scooch-to-where-you-need-it seating, electric “candlelight,” high ceilings, an upstairs loft for mirrored-wall canoodling, mod-beat electronica and properly dimmed fixtures. The Wine Loft’s inviting environs are unmatched elsewhere else in the 804. The Friday-night crowd pulsed with skinny jeans, pumps, salon hair, debonair gents and décolletaged dames. It’s no family bistro, but bi-generational hanging out is totally on the level here. I saw salt-and-pepper CEOs clinking cups with 20-something hipsters with nary a hint of irony. Also, not lost to me on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend was the un-Richmond-like mix of ages, styles and ethnicities. I talked to the crew beside me about how our town is about as mixed as the blackand-white cookie. They laughed as we bemoaned the lack of more places where diversity means something beyond red and white wine.
All in all, The Wine Loft is a fab addition to our scene. Aficionados whining about the democratization of wine will poke holes in the menu, but take one step into the temperaturecontrolled cellar, and you’ll see a lot of uncorked potential awaiting discovery. Short Pump may reek of chains and cookie-cutter commercialism, but until some entrepreneur visionary opens an indie spot par excellence, I’ll keep saying thank you and bon chance to Jeff and Christy. See you for a Debriefing soon.
Article by JASON TESAURO