Truth be told, I have a bit of disdain for writing "listicles": they tend to be fraught with a lot of bull shit, a pandering circle jerk that endlessly regurgitates the same names and places.
So, when I decided to do this wine bar guide, I knew I needed to reach out to a wide array of friends in Vancouver who could offer some alternatives to the usual suspects. A few caveats: they needed to work in the wine industry, and they needed to share why the people they mentioned are special. Did they work at restaurants who might not have that "cool factor" but are working with a really sexy list? Are there pop ups that draw top industry darlings?
While this list is far from exhaustive, these are the ones that came up again and again from a breadth of trustworthy sources. Enjoy!
Bistro Wagon Rouge
Where: 1869 Powell Street
I had the pleasure of dining at Bistro a few years ago, when I had been chatting with one of the staff, Meg McDowell, over Instagram. She insisted we come by and it didn't disappoint. The list is managed and curated by Jesse Walters, who has been described to me as "one of the nicest humans on the planet". Jesse operates on the basis of inclusivity - he runs regular blind tastings for anyone wanting to hone their palate. In an industry riddled with cliques, it's a refreshing change to encounter someone working hard to make everyone feel welcome.
"When someone walks into our little restaurant, I want them to feel so free. I would love for you to come as you are and feel instantly at home. We’re always searching for options on the list that are affordable, delicious, ethically made, and that will get out of the way. I want to find wines that let people forget themselves and their troubles for a couple of hours. Let our guests get lost in their company.
But, then … There are people in the wine world who are true-to-life heroes, making brave, rebellious and unspeakably beautiful wines against all of the odds. Sometimes I wonder if it’s too much to ask a glass of wine to be the axe that will shatter the frozen lake of your mind. But every once in a while, I’m reminded that it’s still possible. We try to offer that experience. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it falls flat. But, hey – there’s always $8 riesling."
The Stable House Bistro
Where: 1520 W 13th Ave
I met Matt Landry at Terroir Consulting's "BC Tasting Games" (that he won) in April when I was still living in the Okanagan. Matt is known for three things in our industry: bad Dad jokes, winning BC's top sommelier competition of 2019 and a love for puns. Matt is probably one of the smartest people I have met in the wine realm to date. He's the type of person who makes you question your career when you consider his laundry list of accolades and accreditations. When I chatted with him recently, he shared that one of his greatest fears is a lack of knowledge - so he spends the bulk of his free time studying. And despite his impressive resume, Matt remains incredibly humble.
"A lot of what I do is instinct, really. I try not to set too many hard and fast rules – what the Champenois call “lutte raisonnée" - but generally speaking, I assume the best of my customers. I assume they’re curious and open minded, that they want to learn and that they appreciate a wine program with a point of view. That’s not always the case of course but I’d rather be wrong in my optimism than to spend my days chasing the lowest common denominator.
Also, change must be constant. I bring in a few cases of something and when it’s gone, I move on to something else. It keeps me interested. It keeps the staff interested. And it gives regulars a reason to come back. I probably reprint two or three times a week. Apologies to the environment on that one."
VV Tapas Lounge
Where: 957 E Hastings St
A new addition to the wine bar scene in Vancouver - owned by the same group responsible for Le Vieux Pin and La Stella in Oliver, BC. Operations manager Chase Macleod endeavours to offer a space free of pretense and ego. In addition to wine, they're placing a strong focus on Apertivo. Their incredibly knowledgeable and passionate staff hope to showcase how interesting and food friendly vermouths, amaros, bitters and sherry can be. You can try their selection of Apertivo at happy hour for only $4/each.
"When building a wine program I want the list to have balance and a little something for everyone. A nice variety of styles, price points and regions. I am looking for value at every price, even the higher end choices should over-deliver for the price. I prefer to focus on smaller producers and winemakers that have a real connection to the land and the fruit that land provides. I offer all wines by the glass and in smaller portions as well so guests can explore the world of wine. I change the selections often so there is always something new and exciting to discover. I think of a wine program as two things; a playground for your tastebuds to explore and a toolkit of flavors to pair with food."
Where: 568 Beatty Street
I met Kelcie Jones, wine director at Chambar, when attending the 2018 instalment of Top Drop in Vancouver. I had enrolled for a seminar Kelcie was moderating on gamay and pinot noir, pitting BC wineries Bella and Blue Mountain up against classics like Lapierre and St. Innocent. I remember being so impressed by her knowledge and eloquence. I had the chance to briefly chat with her later on that day at another seminar, and was not surprised to hear of her role at the restaurant. She was warm, charming and approachable, and has remained just as lovely in all our interactions since.
"We love being in close proximity to a wine region, and source heavily from Okanagan, Similkameen and Island wineries for our list. The "From Our Backyard' section is one of the first pages in the wine list, and it is one of the most popular. We're fortunate that our local clientele love drinking local wine, and that our tourist population is curious to try new things. Tantalus, Nichol, Le Vieux Pin and TH wines are always on the list. Rathjen Cellars from the island is a new favourite. I like buying wine from producers who are concerned with creating a flagship style for our region, so that their wines can tell the story of BC if and when I take them on wine trips to introduce them to other sommeliers around the world.
Everything we source must be farmed in an organic or sustainable way. I'm fairly rigid on this point, which can be hard when you build such a big list, but I really believe that supporting agribusiness that doesn't respect the earth will only hurt the wine business down the line. Further, because we are a small, family-owned business, it is important to buy wine from wineries that operate similarly. I do a lot of personal research, but also enjoy working with small importers and finding new products through their expertise."
A P É R O mode
Where: Hosted at Dachi, 2297 E Hastings Street
Maude Renaud-Brisson, curator and founder of A P É R O mode, is a staple in the Vancouver wine scene. She's worn many hats, from working as a sommelier at L'Abbatoir and Chamber to wine sales for Lifford Wine and Spirits. I have enjoyed following her career on social media, and her unique pop up series has come recommended to me by many. With a focus on accessibility and community, Maude is bringing together wine trade and consumers alike.
"Growing up in Québec, Apéro is ingrained in our culture. Similar to the after work pint in England, or a pre-dinner Aperol Spritz in Italy, it’s all about taking a pause in the late afternoon to catch up and indulge in a little wine, often without commitment to dinner plans. The event runs from 5-8(ish)pm and it’s a place where everyone is welcome, you can socialize with your co-workers and friends or meet new people and discover fun wines. I think it’s very suited to Vancouver’s lifestyle as it ends early enough to still be home in time for dinner or make it to your morning yoga class, if that’s what you choose, of course…
I think what people like about Apéro is a sense of community. Since the beginning, we have had sommeliers, sales agents, winemakers, retailers, servers and wine enthusiasts all coming together. Normally, most of the interactions around wine between them would be in a professional setting but it’s nice to let your guard down and really get to know people. A big part of that is offering corkage for only $5 which is donated to BC Hospitality Foundation. Guests walk around with their open bottles, sharing their favourite wines or something special they brought back from their travels with a room full of people also passionate about wine. It’s all about connecting and being social!"
Where: Mondays at Fiore, South Granville, 1485 W 12th Ave
Jo Owen and Stephanie Walker wanted to mimic the pop up wine scene in London, something they felt was missing in Vancouver. Together, they founded Vin Van, which can be best described as a pop up wine bar, long table dinner series and monthly supper club. The duo takes over the space at Fiore every Monday and host reoccurring events geared toward consumers, what they describe as "wine for the people". They curate selections from bottles they already love drinking, and what think others will enjoy too. You can expect a mixture of classics and obscure regions and varieties, including natural producers. All wines are offered by the glass.
"Our goal is to create inclusive and approachable evenings centered around a love of wine. Our wine bar evenings are casual and friendly all about being able to try different wines by the glass in an unpretentious setting. The same goes for our long table dinners - the idea behind them being bringing people together over wine and a delicious meal in unexpected locations around Vancouver. showcasing local chefs, local suppliers and most often local wine.
We offer a low stakes way of trying new things with wines by the glass and flights. Coming from London, where the casual after work drink scene is so ingrained in the culture, I found that I missed this from Vancouver when I moved here. Another thing that sets us a part is the pop-up aspect of Vin Van - we currently take over Fiore's space every other Monday and you'll see us pop-up in numerous locations around Vancouver in the future like we do for our long table dinners."