It took me a while to get to Tastings, the new Florida-born wine bar franchise attached to the Conrad Hotel. Mostly I had been turned off by the dark, stale-looking awning, whose amateurish logo reminded me of old mail order catalogues. A friend assured me that things looked better on the inside, and tasted even better than that.
Once inside, things looked a bit up. At least at first. As I became comfortable in my surroundings, I realized the overwhelming brownness of the space. I'm told the setup isn't too different from the previous resident, Vitesse, which I'd heretofore had the pleasure of escaping, if only for the color scheme: Tan, off-white and medium-brown woods and walls coalesced in an unending continuum of poop-hued monotony. The garish lighting doesn't help things. It manages to be too bright even while dim, casting unflattering shadows all over drinkers' faces.
And the paintings! Granted, I may never have put my finger to the general malaise that plagued me after an hour inside the wine bar if I hadn't gone with a professional artist. He balked at the large, mostly wine-themed paintings splayed around the space. Surely, we bet, these puff-painted monstrosities were surplus from '80s starving artists shows. But a glance at the descriptions revealed differently: The artist, Leanne Laine, has been specially commissioned by the Tastings' Florida-based owners.
I detect a strategy here. Rather than become one of those swanky wine bars that dissipate in all but the biggest cities (and even in those nowadays), Tastings seeks to surpass those snot-nosed 20-somethings for the old people with real money. Nothing says "40 and above club" like the aforementioned color scheme.
And here my ranting stops, because aside from the very important aspect of the joint's interior, the business model is quite solid. Tastings offers a customizable value and experience: $25 got me 16 oz. of wine. Good wine. So good, I failed to write down all the varietals that comprised those glasses. Their memory comes in faint waves: Trimbach's spicy, off-dry Gwertz. A simple, plummy fruit-forward Shiraz blend by The Stump Jump. The Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz that, to my beer-dominated palate, tasted almost whiskey barrel aged, with smokey chocolate and a smooth, hot sweetness.
The setup spurs a little debriefing: The wine station carousels are arranged by related varietals, so you'll go to a tasting station focused mostly on interesting whites or bold reds, for example. Insert your pre-paid Tastings card in one of two slots at each roundabout, push the button above your bottle of choice and put your glass under the spigot to receive your taste of wine. Wine-by-the-2-oz. pour ranges from about $2.50 to $50, whether you're tasting a cheap-but-solid California bottle or 2 ounces of Opus One.
When I say cheap but solid, I mean it. I didn't have a bad-tasting $20 bottle of wine while I was there - and, in fact, had a pretty pleasing run-in with a petite Sirah from California, around $3 per pour. By-the-ounce pours seem to get the greatest markup; every bottle in the house is offered for sale, but prices don't seem to be too far off from retail.
In case you're wondering how well the wine in those "tasted" bottles is preserved, rest assured that the Enomatic tasting machines decrease oxygen and increase nitrogen to keep the wine "frozen in time." Indeed, my smidge of 2008 Mollyduker Shiraz tasted like it had just been opened (though, with its popularity and turnover, it probably hadn't been in rotation long). This is one to try at Tastings if you're a fan of Shiraz: it was well-rounded on the side of velvety sweet, with chewy, thick and spicy stewed fruit, and syrupy legs.
There is a menu of smallish bites to help temper your tipsiness; we chose a cheese duo of Port Salut and aged Gouda for around $8. The plate came with toast, grapes and minimalist silver cheese knives, and was everything it was promised to be. The pizza we ordered never materialized; we chose not to remind our waiter of our request.
But the food really isn't the focus here. It's all about the oft-rotated wine you can sample and savor with friends — over a good laugh at the atmosphere's expense.