A great bar is all about the mood: the way the lighting, music, and glances between strangers add up to feeling that you belong, you’re understood, and you’re going to have a good time. A great wine bar is all those things, only more. It’s a great bar made with equal parts hedonism and intellect, the final shape of which is achieved by one of the rarest arts—the curator’s art. To curate a great wine list requires a gifted professional, someone with the ability to sift through thousands of bottles and find the most artful standouts: the smoky smoldering beauties, the lilting elegant flirts, the powerhouse brooders. Such talents are rare, but thankfully, they do exist in Minnesota. Here are the state’s best wine bars.
Söntés (pronounced son-tay, with no final s) opened four years ago in Rochester and has been steadily honing its offerings ever since. On a recent visit, I found delights both liquid and solid. A deep red Rioja from Spain’s Ramón Bilbao was spicy and velvety in the most riveting way. I had it with a fried egg which, when pierced, ran all over the chili-touched Moroccan beans it accompanied, creating the most satisfying interplay of richness and liveliness.
At first glance, I was surprised to find such an accomplished menu in Rochester, but looking more closely I realized that Söntés perfectly reflects the city’s international face, the one comprised of medical and business elites who pass through the Mayo Clinic. Owner Tessa Leung says that many of the wines at Söntés were suggested by patrons with Mayo connections: Ramón Bilbao, the Spanish winemaker, has a great-grandson who works as a surgeon at Mayo—and he introduced her to his ancestor’s wines. Other wines served at Söntés with local tie-ins include bottles from Napa Valley’s Rocca Family Vineyards, founded by a former Rochester couple; Spell Estate pinot noir, courtesy of Bill Spell, a private equity fund firm manager based in Minnesota; and vintages from Domaine Serene, an Oregon winery established by Minnesotans. Söntés makes Minnesota feel awfully global; it’s not unusual to find half-a-dozen different parties speaking half-a-dozen languages there on any given night, as doctors, patients, visitors, and visiting doctors retreat there after a long day.
That clientele has had a hand in developing the wine list at Söntés, says Leung, a southern Minnesota native who spent a few years in the kitchen at Vincent in Minneapolis. “People say, ‘You have to try this,’ or they give me a wine as a gift, and if it’s great, it goes on the list,” she explains. This crowd-sourcing has made for fantastic drinking. A Persian customer introduced Leung to Napa Valley’s Darioush winery and the profoundly hedonistic Cabernet Sauvignon. Now on Söntés’s list, the wine makes a cold night in Rochester feel like one of the best experiences life has to offer. âž¤ 4 Third St. SW, Rochester, 507-292-1628, sontes.com
Toast Wine Bar & Café
Toast is on the western edge of downtown Minneapolis, close enough to the new baseball stadium that you can see Target Field’s gleaming lights from the window, but far enough from city center that you can still find free street parking most nights. Speaking of the great American pastime, what goes on inside Toast’s semi-basement space is a form of “insider baseball.” The place is owned and run by Erin Tomczyk and her husband, Scott Davis—Davis being the wine guru and front-of-the-house guy for Minneapolis’s leading restaurant in the late 1990s, Auriga. Because Davis has a deep knowledge of wine and a relaxed, friendly manner about him, Toast has turned into the place where local wine-industry players drink. The wine list is a very of-the-moment document, filled with bottles that make insiders go head over heels. There’s a pink, sparkling sake so light it froths with a purity bordering on childlike joy. There’s a Basque white as brisk and salty as a gust of wind from the sea. There’s a dry Tokaji from Hungary. And there’s even a Moscato d’Asti with a bit of peach and fennel in its delicate bouquet.
More interesting, there’s restraint. The menu at Toast is tiny but great. The antipasti plate is the best international one in town—chorizo, salami, and olives judiciously arranged. The pizzas are similar, just paper-thin, crisp crusts loaded with, say, deeply caramelized onions, gloriously funky Taleggio cheese, and a bit of fresh thyme—each bite rich and lush. The burrata alone, however, is worth a trip to Toast. Burrata, familiar to anyone eating on the cutting edge for the last couple years, is a particularly dewy, particularly light, particularly vaporous form of mozzarella—at its best, it’s buoyant as a cloud. It started showing up in Minnesota about two years ago, and the impulse of most local chefs is to bulldoze and destroy it. I’ve had burrata wrecked by splashes of sugary balsamic vinegar, dissolved to ghost form on pizza, and tortured out of relevance by craisins. But not at Toast. Here, it’s served simply—a lightly peppered white knob in a big plate of well-sautéed mushrooms and onions, the mushrooms serving as nothing more than a forest-savory, understated foil that allows the burrata to bloom into its own glory, leaving each bite homey and comforting, yet regal.
But Toast is more than just a cutting-edge wine bar that has understated, spectacular food. It’s a place that can change your mind—or my mind. One evening Davis noticed that my husband and I were very much enjoying an Italian Barbera, so he approached the table: “Would you like to taste a Petite Sirah?” he asked. “No, not really,” I confessed. I generally find Petite Sirah to be not my taste—it’s burly and tannic and rough. I tend to think of it as a wine that grabs you by your collar and then bops you on the head with a bowling pin. “No, try it,” he insisted, and poured a glass of the McManis Family Vineyards 2009 Petite Sirah. Although it had the expected larger-than-life cowboy qualities of tightly furled black-fruit and tobacco, the roughness was wrapped in velvet and fat—compelling and delicious. It was a taste that told me the world of wine was bigger than even I knew, and held a friendly place for me to learn it. âž¤ 415 N. First St., Mpls., 612-333-4305, toastwinebarandcafe.com
Domacin (pronounced doe-mah-cheen) is a Stillwater wine bar that works on a couple of levels. For regular drinkers, it’s a really friendly place with shockingly craveable mini-cheeseburgers—sweet and rich little two-bite burgers made with good beef and sweet red-pepper ketchup, the kind of burgers you order more of by waving wildly because you can’t take the time to swallow to call for the waiter. For irregular drinkers—the kind that smuggle wine purchases into the cellar when their spouse is out and then claim that the bottle they’ve brought up for Thursday-night supper is nothing special, when it most certainly is!—Domacin is even better. The options are knee-weakening: four hundred total offerings (all killer, no filler), including rarities, oddities, and hard-to-find wines, as well as vertical tastings, meaning they have the same wine but from three consecutive vintages, say, 1995, 1996, and 1997. Domacin is sort of like a rare-book shop for wine people, one where you can bring your least wine-interested friend and they’ll love it just for the mini-cheeseburgers. âž¤ Domacin Restaurant & Winebar, 102 S. Second St., Stillwater, 651-439-1352, domacinwinebar.com
Meritage is the biggest news in local wine bars. That’s because the brasserie, one of the best restaurants in St. Paul, closed for a week in November in order to open its new oyster bar and expanded cocktail-and-wine bar. The place already had one of the top French-leaning wine lists in Minnesota, but the addition of the oyster bar is giving Meritage the chance to lengthen their list of bubblies and French whites, making it the leading new place in town to head when your sensual self and analytical self both develop a powerful thirst. While you’re there, check neighboring tables for rock stars. Owner and chef Russell Klein told me the rock band Rush came in before their last show at the Xcel Energy Center, bringing with them an $8,000 bottle of Pinot Noir—a Grand Cru Burgundy from Richebourg. That’s some good drinking, but the musicians were impressed with the food, too. After the visit, Klein says, the band sent tickets to the kitchen for everyone to attend the show. That is, I’ll point out, the very definition of drinking like a rock star—and it nicely puts a point on the difference between drinking in a bar and drinking in a wine bar. In a bar, quantity makes headlines. But in a wine bar, it’s all about quality. âž¤ Meritage, 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-222-5670, meritage-stpaul.com