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Vermont's Emerging Wine Scene: Wednesday Wine Down

Vemont isn't likely to be at the top of anyone's list when it comes to wine destinations. The vast majority of wine consumers aren't likely to be familiar with any of the state's wineries (although there are several good ones to be sure). Similarly, the state's signature red grape, Marquette, isn't a varietal that has lodged itself in the vocabulary of most wine conoisseurs. On top of that, Vermont has only six wine distributors, and some top wines do not have distribution in the state. With all this being said, some might write off the state of Vermont as a lost cause when it comes to wine appreciation. Yet this isn't the case. While Vermont might not have a wine scene comparable to New York, California, Oregon, or Washington, there is a vibrant wine culture within the state. The Killington Wine Festival draws crowds of wine enthusiasts every summer. Trapp Family Lodge holds weekly wine tastings, often with a focus on improving the wine lists at their restaurant. Finally, there are other annual wine festivals like those in Burlington and Stowe, that provide evidence of an emerging wine scene.

Sadly, the one area in which Vermont is sorely lacking, when compared to food and wine meccas like New York and California, is that of the wine bar. While there are frequent festivals and special events designed to draw wine enthusiasts together across the state, there is little in the way of wine bars to provide a place for wine enthusiasts to congregate, and explore new wines outside of the comfort of their homes. Part of the problem is the lack of an urban environment in Vermont. That's not to say that we Vermonters are complaining. Part of the reason many of us live here is the lack of traffic, and the natural beauty that pervades the state. However, unlike New York, there isn't a bustling urban metropolis in which to situate a wine bar, and unlike California and other major wine producing regions, Vermont's wineries aren't concentrated enough to make a wine bar a feasible proposition. This isn't to say it can't be done. Cork Wine Bar & Market recently opened in Waterbury, VT, and based on the initial response, looks like it will be fairly successful. The Blue Cat Cafe and Wine Bar in Burlington offers a 300 bottle wine list, but it straddles the line between restaurant and wine bar. The food is really good, and the wines are carefully chosen, but with tables full of diners surrounding the bar, it's hard to escape the feeling that you are in a restaurant. Perhaps soon, other entrepreneurs will look to open wine bars in Vermont, and this dilemma will be resolved. However, in the mean time, Vermonters are stuck in a situation in which the state's largest metropolitan area, Burlington, is virtually devoid of wine bars. 

One bright spot in Burlington's almost wine bar free landscape exists on St. Paul Street, at a bar called Drink, on Wednesday nights. It is here that Brad Kelley, owner of Burlington Wine Shop, has established  the Wednesday Wine Down, which is in my opinion, one of the most exciting events in the Burlington wine scene right now. Wednesday Wine Down consists of four wines, each of which are paired with a cheese, chocolate, or occasionally a cupcake or toffee for $12. I've been attending Wednesday Wine Down for a while now, and I've been continually impressed by the value it offers. When I caught up with Brad to ask him about the history of the Wine Down, he said that when he founded the event three years ago, he "wanted to make sure it was at a price that would make it easy for people to attend regularly." The $12 price tag certainly does that. In fact, the $12 price tag is almost unbelievable, when you consider that a single glass of wine can cost $12 at many establishments, and that's before you factor in the pairings for each wine.

All of the wines are new each week, and Brad does an excellent job mixing in both well known wines, in addition to more eclectic, "off the beaten path" selections. The featured wines rarely exceed $20 per bottle, but if you talk to Brad, you'll quickly learn that he didn't launch Wednesday Wine Down to get his customers hooked on Chateau Petrus or Opus One. "I wanted to offer a fun event for my customers that would give them an opportunity to try new wines each week," Brad told me, when I emailed him. 

I asked Brad about how he went about selecting the wines, and if there were any particular wines that he tried to feature. "We do new wines each week and rarely repeat a wine," he wrote back. "I try to cycle in new wines that I have recently tried and liked. Sometimes if there is a wine that I like but I'm not sure if it will resonate with a larger audience I'll use it at Wine Down to see what people think. I always want them to be solid wines that are well worth their retail price.  Ideally, they are bottles that if you bought them at the store and took them home you'd be surprised at how good they are based on what you paid."

The idea of finding wines with a high price to quality ratio is nothing new, but in the wake of the recession, it's something more and more consumers are paying attention to. For most people, the days when they could casually drop $50 on a bottle of wine are gone. Instead of buying one $30 bottle of wine, many consumers are now buying two $15 dollar bottles, or three $10 bottles. Wednesday Wine Down offers a great atmosphere for wine drinkers to come together, casually taste four new wines, and maybe pick up a wine or two to take home for every day drinking. At last week's wine down, the featured wines and their pairings were as follows:

One of the things that has impressed me the most about Wednesday Wine Down is its ability to expose consumers to grapes that they likely wouldn't try otherwise. Take for example, the Piccio Nero d'Avola. Although many wine lovers refer to it as "the most important red grape in Sicily," there is also a sizable contingent of wine drinkers who have never heard of Nero d'Avola, and would be unlikely to buy a bottle without being prompted by a trusted wine retailer. Although most retail shops frequently hold in-store wine tastings to expose customers to new wines, there is something different about the atmosphere at Wednesday Wine Down, that sets it apart from traditional in-store tasting events. The casual, relaxed atmosphere at Drink allows people to sit and savor their wines, and frequently prompts discussion of the wines at the table. 

"I like it because it's engaging," said Wine Down attendee, Kevin O'Hara. "It's a chance to try new wines, and to come together in a social environment. Sometimes we talk about the wines, other times we just use the Wine Down to catch up. I also like it because it's a place I can go, and have a glass of wine, without feeling like I'm in a college bar."

Kevin's sentiment was quick to catch on among wine down attendees, as attendance at the Wine Down has spiked since its launch three years ago. "We had 8 people come to the first Wine Down," Brad told me. "12 people came to the second Wine Down. Word of mouth didn't take too long to spread and it slowly built off the first year, so that now we have between 50 and 75 people attending each week."

Drink's decor, with couches and board games, may not feel like a college bar, but college students are attracted to the Wine Down. Of the 50 to 75 weekly attendees, some are college students, some are med students, some are young professionals, and there is a middle aged contingent as well. While there isn't typically too much interaction between the tables, a strong sense of community exists at the Wine Down. For many attendees, it is a Wednesday night tradition. Some of the attendees are wine connoisseurs, others are wine novices. Yet they are all drawn to Drink on Wednesday nights for well-priced, carefully chosen wines, and pairings that are tremendous compliments to the beverage. 

It is in these pairings, that the sense of community that surrounds the Wednesday Wine Down is extended, as the many of the featured pairings are the results of partnerships that Burlington Wine Shop has fostered with local businesses. When I asked how these partnerships came to be developed, Brad was quick to sing the praises of his fellow local business owners. "Over the three years I have slowly brought in some of the businesses that we work with regularly," he said, citing partners such as Laughing Moon Chocolates, August First Bakery, My Little Cupcake, Saratoga Olive Oil Company, and the newest addition to the Wine Down menu, Vermont Krunch Toffee Company. "These are all small locally owned businesses that I have a lot of respect for and have owners that are enthusiastic about working together to help promote each other's businesses."

Some of these companies' products are featured at every Wednesday Wine Down, while others are featured once a month. The first Wine Down of each month is especially popular, because it is when My Little Cupcake pairings are featured. It has come to be called "Cupcake Night" by some regulars. Yet regardless of the frequency with which their products are featured, the sense of camaraderie in the local business community is a tangible component of the Wednesday Wine Down atmosphere.

In a city that lacks a plethora of wine bars, an event that allows wine lovers of all ages to congregate for a few hours and experience new wines in a relaxed setting is a welcome addition. Maybe it only reduces the wine bar shortage for one night each week, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. And who knows? If it were surrounded by more wine bars, Wednesday Wine Down might never have blossomed in the first place, robbing us of this fabulous community event, and the satisfied smiles of the patrons who walk away each week, having paid $12 for four wines, with great pairings. I'd love to go to Wine Down every night, but for now, I'm happy to content myself with looking forward to a mid-week highlight at each Wednesday Wine Down.

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