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Grape Expectations

New San Diego wine bars deliver on style, selection and service


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THE BEST WINE BARS make you feel immediately welcome and comfortable by appealing to all your senses with an array of colors, surfaces, sounds, smells and impressions. Think going from Norman Rockwell to Picasso, if art is your frame of reference; from Mozart to Metallica for music buffs. The top spots blend wine, food, decor, ambience, crowd, well-trained staff and fair pricing into a recipe they hope will please.

From there on, what's the occasion? It's your choice, from an intimate evening sampling good wines with one special person to making the rounds with party-hearty conspirators concerned more with quantity than quality.

To bring order to the chaos of these multiple ingredients, we developed 10 criteria and turned to the familiar 100-point scale used to rank wines: 85 to 89, very good with special qualities; 90 to 95, outstanding, exceptional quality and style; 96 to 100, extraordinary, a classic.

Our search for new wine bars throughout the county yielded a bumper crop, with a wide range of styles for almost every mood, occasion, personality, palate and pocketbook. Pour a glass, start up your favorite wine-sipping soundtrack, and meander through this guide before heading out to do your own research.

Mosaic, 3422 30th Street, North Park, 619-906-4747, mosaicwinebar.com: Dark colors, straight edges and creative lighting give Mosaic a distinctly urban and upscale ambience. The front section has couches and chairs, where groups tend to party, plus tables for four. The space flows to the long and lively bar and table area toward the back.

For calibrating your taste buds, Mosaic offers different flights of wine and an excellent by-the-glass selection. For better value, order a bottle from the extensive wine list with retail prices. Add $5 for corkage when enjoyed with food (salad with balsamic vinegar, tasty flatbread pepperoni pizza and panini packed with chicken, cheese and bell peppers). Mosaic scores well on all counts except noise level, which can be considerable. Points: 92.

Enoteca Style, 1445 India Street, Little Italy, 619-546-7138, enotecastyle.com: This cozy but urbane spot has a warm, welcoming aura, produced by the soft colors, textures on the walls, cushioned seats along the windows and into a romantic corner; great panini; a short but well-thought-out wine list; friendly and educated service; and comfortable bar seating.

The panini are named after neighborhood streets (Ash, Beech and so on). We started with an artisan cheese plate and a white-wine flight followed by the Ash panini (salami, mortadella, provolone cheese, garlic aioli) with a red-wine flight. Choose a 3- or 6-ounce glass or bottle. The crowd skews older and less raucous than in some other wine bars. The only drawback: Televisions can detract from conversations. Points: 90.

Wet Stone, 1927 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-255-2856: This spot could be a San Francisco coffeehouse of a bygone era, with its subdued color palette, small colored lights, unmatched chairs and random furnishings and fixtures. And you feel welcome. Grab a table for intimate conversation, or drink family-style at one of two tall rectangular tables in the middle of the room, swapping stories with people from the neighborhood, businesspeople on the way home and other strangers in the night.

There's an interesting mix of wines from different countries, including South America, Spain and Chile, with several in the $7 to $10 range. We liked the small-bites menu, with its flatbread pizzas, sauteed Mexican shrimp and a cheese-and-meat plate. The staff is bright and friendly. Points: 89.

Kensington Vine, 4191 Adams Avenue, Kensington, 619-282-8463, kensingtonvine.com: Not quite like the pub in Cheers, but this clean neighborhood bar enjoys a strong local following, lured by the friendly atmosphere and good selection of wines and wine-bar fare. The room is open and bright, with large windows on two sides. Spread out at a table, or belly up to the curved bar. The staff is quick with advice on a range of wines by the glass, from the low-priced spread ($7 Chardonnay) to bigger wines ($12 Syrah). Points: 88.

Splash Wine Lounge, 3043 University Avenue, North Park, 619-296-0714, asplashofwine.com: We love the concept: 72 wines on tap. Buy a debit card, insert the card in a wine station slot, align your glass, push a button, receive a 1-ounce "splash," and your card is reduced by the cost per ounce (from 93 cents to more than $6).

The choices are super, the staff friendly and the food good, with more excellent flatbread pizza here. The challenges: cost and flow. You bump into the wine stations first, before learning you need to visit the bar and cash register in the back to get your card and guidance. Jams occur at busy times around the refrigerated wine stations and tall tables by the bar on the way to the restroom.

The concept is tough on extended partying (a $2 splash equals $12 for a 6-ounce glass or $51 a bottle; a $3 splash is $18 a glass, $76.50 a bottle, et cetera). The plan: Find a 1-ounce favorite, buy a bottle from the fairly priced list, and pay a $5 corkage. Get there early to secure seating on the leather couches, ottomans or tables at the front. Points: 87.

Wine Steals, 1243 University Avenue, 619-295-1188, Hillcrest; 2970 Truxton Road, Point Loma, 619-221-1959; 1953 San Elijo Avenue, Cardiff, 760-230-2657; winestealssd.com: Once you get settled in with your wine and food, the Wine Steals experience can be lively, fun and easy on the budget. But having to get everything from the bar makes settlement challenging. Hand over a credit card, place the food order, choose a glass or two from the wines listed on the chalk boards, get help carrying things, repair to your seat, and wait for the food.

Those who just want to party (most of us) should enjoy $4 quaffing wines from 5 to 7 on weeknights. Best discovery plan: a $10 tasting of 12 wines every Saturday from 4 to 6:30 p.m. A 1-ounce pour from each bottle equals almost a half-bottle (12 of 25.5 ounces). Best value: Buy a bottle at retail ($7 corkage). The list is broad but not deep.

The decor and furnishings are funky, with different types of couches, chairs and old wine barrels scattered around, and there are tight spaces to negotiate in narrow aisles between the rows of wines. The outside patios are appealing, but they can be crowded and noisy. Younger singles seem to predominate in Hillcrest. Cardiff is a melting pot of Generation X, Y and boomers, singles and married, from beach attire to the finely coiffed and sartorially current. Point Loma draws singles, couples, military, professionals and marrieds-with-children. The food is fine, with different cheese plates and thin-crusted pizzas. Nits: brown paper plates; staff service and friendliness varies widely. Points: 87.

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