Flight, glass, bottle. The delicious terminology of the wine bar. We follow its incarnations from city to suburb.

What, no Miller, Pabst or even Sprecher on tap? Beer City is becoming a rather different place, as illustrated by the steady rise of the wine bar. We’re not talking about restaurants with extensive wine lists (though there are many more in Milwaukee than there used to be), but dedicated wine bars, often quaint establishments offering both traditional and more adventurous tastings, coupled with wine-savvy staffers and complementary food offerings such as cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and chocolates. At their best, they are places to sip, nibble and chat like a true cosmopolitan. And lucky for the wine newbie or connoisseur, these places are plentiful. From the Third Ward to the outer burbs, a previously highbrow art form has never been more accessible – or more delectable.

Balzac
1716 N. Arlington Pl., 414-755-0099
The Brady Street hot spot is a restaurant that serves small plates but also bills itself as a wine bar and boasts wine specials five days a week, including half off select reserve bottles on Sundays. The climate-controlled cellar greets guests upon arrival, and the selection is wide-ranging, with hundreds of choices served by flight, glass or bottle, including some particularly special wines listed in Balzac’s unique wooden bottle book. The wonderfully quirky decor and effortlessly chic atmosphere make this a nice place to indulge. Glasses $5-$17; bottles $20-$170.

Bin One Eleven
111 E. Capitol Dr., Hartland, 262-367-6525
Far, far away from Downtown Milwaukee, nestled between a bustling suburban intersection and a meandering creek, is this comfy spot. There’s a small retail wine store, but the bar business takes precedence. Friendly owner Tim Kollmeyer rotates the menu biweekly, offering more than 40 varieties at a time and knowledgeable advice. Unlike the standard high-topped bar chairs, Bin One Eleven features an assortment of more comfortable chairs and couches perfect for sinking back with a glass and into a good conversation. Selection is heavy on California luxury brands and light on French wines. Glasses $6.25-$14; bottles $28-$100.

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Ruby Tap
1341 N. Wauwatosa Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-456-1300; 6000 W. Mequon Rd. Mequon, 262-302-4112
For the winos who know what they like, The Ruby Tap has a full self-service wine bar, but for those who are less knowledgeable, they offer wine on tap, plus beers, cheeses and charcuterie. On Thursdays, enjoy a bottle sans corkage charge or book a private wine tasting for you and your friends at their Wauwatosa or Mequon location.

Cuvee
181 N. Broadway, 414-225-9800
[Now private events only] This hidden-away, second-floor place, which requires an elevator ride and a walk past darkened storefronts, might provide the perfect reward for the winner of a scavenger hunt. Cuvee Champagne Bar is the city’s only place devoted to sparkling wines. Snag a stool at the large round bar or snuggle up in a cozy velvet corner booth, complete with tiny circular tables and snazzy inlaid ice buckets. It’s all bubbly all the time, with more than 100 varieties of champagne and sparkling wine, as well as a creative list of champagne cocktails (and a smallish area for retail sales). Artisan cheese plates, truffles and chocolate-covered strawberries (on weekends) are also available. Ooh la la. Glasses $6-$26; bottles $26-$503.

Indulge
708 N. Milwaukee St., 414-390-9463
Milwaukee Street is the city’s bastion of high-end hip, and Indulge fits the theme. The atmosphere is coolly modern: Leather chairs mixed with metals and industrial eight-top granite tables (come in a group or prepare to make friends) fill the back of the small space, while a little crescent-shaped bar resides in the front. Select from more than 600 wines (30 by the glass) that are heavy on California choices and listed under a mood of your choosing: flirty, frisky, sassy, luscious, alluring, sensuous, voluptuous, fierce or decadent. Pairings of cheese, chocolate and charcuterie add a few more moods. Glasses $7-$20; bottles $18-$250.

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Pam’s Fine Wines
100 Main St., Mukwonago, 262-363-7166
It’s something of a shock to find a wine bar in sleepy Downtown Mukwonago. The store offers an eclectic selection of wines and craft beers, with tastings of three whites and three reds that change weekly and are available by the glass, bottle or flight. On Saturdays, there are free tastings. The store is casual with a distinctly suburban feel, with high-top tables and friendly service from Pam herself, who is typically found behind the counter. Glasses $7-$10; bottles $7.75-$200.

Thief Wine Shop & Bar
400 N. Water St., 414-277-7707; 4512 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, 414-906-1906
A well-known local favorite, Thief’s original location has warm wooden stools and tables cordoned off amid the hustle and urban feel of the Milwaukee Public Market. The newer Shorewood location is more modern and minimalist, with a shining marble bar and bigger retail operation: floor-to-ceiling wine racks, bottled beer, spirits and accessories. Tastings are by flight, glass or bottle. The Shorewood bar emphasizes California wine, while the Public Market’s is more eclectic. Glasses $5-$21; bottles $10-$500.

Vino Cappuccino
2848 N. Brookfield Rd., Suite 1, Brookfield, 262-797-9061

This is a restaurant, wine bar and coffee shop, though with a more extensive food menu. Convenient for west suburbanites, the atmosphere is modern but cozy, with couches and a fireplace, a unique touch among local wine bars. The varied list of more than 100 wines is particularly strong on California choices. Glasses $6-$10; bottles $18-$98.

Vino 100
219 E. Erie St., 414-277-8466
“100 great wines for $25 or less” is the motto of these Third Ward and Wauwatosa locations. Vino 100 combines standard wine bar amenities (high-top tables, happy hour, tastings) with extensive retail offerings, wine clubs and special events. Glasses $5-$11; bottles $11-$80.


This story appears in the June 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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