It's been nearly 10 months since Wine Expo opened a tasting bar/retail food shop next to its flagship Santa Monica wine store. In other words, plenty of time for manager Roberto Rogness to work out the inevitable kinks of suddenly jumping into the wine bar scene. (He's always happy to talk about the regulatory roadblocks of opening a wine bar in Santa Monica, should you care to get him started.)
The wine bar's regular Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m. six nights a week (every night but Thursday) is a great deal, with half off a rotating selection of craft beers and Italian-heavy wines that even at full price primarily hover in the pocketbook-friendly $4 to $8 range. But the new Thursday night "20/20" wine tasting, essentially an all-night Happy Hour, is one of the best new wine deals in town.
The Place: Wine Expo, 2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 828-4428
The Hours: Thursday, 5 p.m. until closing
The Deals: For $20, you can sample generous tasting pours of the 20 different rotating wines in a broad range of styles that are offered off the bar (there is no table service on Thursdays).
The Digs: A one-room wine bar in a small strip mall with a retail shop upfront. The bar is a bit on the dark and moody side, at least after walking through the sunlight-filled wine shop next door to get into the bar. But with nothing more than a parking lot and Santa Monica Boulevard to pontificate out front, that's probably a good thing. Paintings from local artists lines the walls, and there are a handful of small tables for 2 to 6 folks (you can call ahead to reserve a table). A handful of appetizers (think crostini with olive tapenade) are prepared on a small electric grill (the bar has no kitchen). Food trucks are regularly scheduled to park out front for between wine glass refueling.
The Verdict: The 20 wines offered up for the tasting on our visit were an impressively broad range of styles from different regions, essentially a two-hour tasting trip through Italy - Puglia, Emilia-Romagna, Catalonia, Sicily - with a few Bierzo (Spain) and Napa Cab blend glasses slipped in here and there. The tasting often begins with bubbles, on our visit an interesting and well-priced (retail, $16.99, normally $6 a glass in the bar) 100% Pagadebit (literally, "debt payer" as in, a hearty crop) Uccellina Libertino frizzante. From there, we moved on to several whites, a rosado or two, a hefty dose of reds and a few sweet wines. All were interesting picks reflecting Wine Expo's eclectic mix of unique Italian regional wines. Pretty darn great for $20.
The ever-changing by-the-glass menu comes with that now ubiquitous Wine Expo commentary, be it to explain why a Napa Cab blend is on the otherwise imports-only menu ("Made in California by a Czech winemaker trained in Germany") or to explain how a certain sweet wine is made ("Organic Aleatico air dried for 3 months, then slowly fermented").
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Retail price stickers remain front and center on the bottles - a handy reference point should you be headed to the Happy Hour to taste through the 20 selections intending to do a little wine fridge restocking in the retail shop next door (on our visit, a Puianello Malvasia Dolce Le Gemme from Emilia Romagna, a sweet white wine for $16.99 a bottle, was an awfully tempting souvenir).
As for the bartenders serving up those sips, you'll find an eclectic mix of regular retail shop staffers (like Rogness and Erik Moreno) and the occasional former customer like Tim Guest, pictured above ("I'm 25% Marchese, so I started my wine journey here ten years ago, now I do this a few nights a week," he says, grinning). It gives the evening -- and Happy Hour does soon turn into a full evening here -- that laid back, authentic neighborhood Italian trattoria vibe.
Well, at least until a chubby plate of "sushi burritos" from the Jogasaki food truck parked out front passes through the bar. Right. You're in L.A., damn it, not on a summer vacation in Tuscany. But hey, for $20, this is a pretty great 3-hour alternative.
Overall Grade: A