Atlanta’s restaurant scene is booming, but for those who choose where to eat according to the wine list, it still feels like something is missing: wine bars.
“I feel like we have no wine bars here,” says Chris McLloyd, known as The Hip Hop Somm. He isn’t wrong. While there are plenty of restaurants with fantastic wine lists, Atlanta lacks true wine bars. Following the closure of 8ARM and its natural wine bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue, many wine drinkers continue to search for the beating heart of Atlanta’s wine scene. And they’re finding it in wine shops across the city.
Wine shops like 3 Parks Wine in Glenwood Park are creating places for people to connect with others and learn about wine in a welcoming, friendly environment that eschews the stuffiness often associated with wine. Colorful, creative labels adorn the bottles owner Sarah Pierre and her team pour for tastings every Wednesday, only partially obscuring the vibrant hues of the wine each contains. In addition to weekly tastings, the store also offers weekend wine flights on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, presenting people with three small pours for just $15. People linger at tables outside the shop chatting with 3 Parks staff members about what they’re drinking, while casually sipping glasses of small-scale production and limited intervention wines.
“We were kind of the OGs of wine tastings [in Atlanta]. That’s essentially what put us on the map a long time ago,” says Pierre.
But 3 Parks is far from the only wine shop organizing regular tastings, ranging from affordable, casual drop-in experiences to pricier ticketed events with food led by a sommelier. Shops like VinoTeca in Inman Park hold weekend wine tasting and offers outdoor seating, as does Press Shop in Summerhill and Vin ATL in Edgewood, which features wines by the glass and flights and includes a large outdoor patio and seating inside. Kelly’s Market, a local market across the street from Kimball House in Decatur, offers selections from its wine stash on Thursday evenings, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Elemental Spirits Co. in Poncey-Highland shows off the shop’s low-intervention wines and spirits during its tastings. In fact, most Atlanta wine shops offer tastings, whether as regular occurrences or as special events.
Atlanta’s wine scene, in many ways, is centered around the retail space, McLloyd says.
A few weekly tastings were happening before the pandemic, but during the height of the health crisis, wine lovers in Atlanta came to depend on their local shops more than in years past. When bars and restaurants weren’t an option, Atlantans turned to wine shops to try new bottles or join monthly wine clubs. Retail spaces provided customers with the bottles they were looking for with little to no person-to-person contact.
“People’s palates became more adventurous” during the pandemic, says VinoTeca owner Katie Rice. Once restrictions were lifted, and public events flooded back onto the scene, people were eager to start tasting wine again with others. McLloyd doesn’t see the retail wine scene or public tastings slowing down anytime soon.
Many retail owners underscore that these tastings are about education, and while retail spaces cannot, in most cases, actually sell glasses of wine, shops can legally pour for educational purposes. “It’s all about education,” Pierre says. “There’s definitely a big learning component to our flights.”
Pierre and her staff work in teams of two during the weekend flights at 3 Parks, dividing tables between them. Each of the three bottles featured during the flights are discussed with customers before pouring. It allows people the opportunity to ask questions about what they’re drinking. This engagement often leads to a purchase.
But the public appeal of these wine tastings goes far beyond education. Bailey McAlister, chief communications officer at Telesomm, a wine experiences platform, says tastings also function as a space for growing the Atlanta wine community.
“These tastings are filling the needs of wine professionals. We have our skills and our interests that we want to promote, but we need the space and we need the audience, and the retail spaces provide that space and that audience for us.”
As wine professionals moved out of restaurant service in the early months of the pandemic, retail provided them a place to continue pursuing their passions in a new way and to keep their skills sharp. McLloyd, who previously worked as a sommelier for Fifth Group Restaurants in Atlanta, now leads public and private wine tastings around town, highlighting producers he’s most excited about at the moment.
Public wine tastings aren’t just a boon for sommeliers like McLloyd; they can also help smaller wine producers reach a larger market. Many such producers are focused on sustainable wine-making practices or are coming from family-owned vineyards.
“One of the best ways these small producers are getting their names out there is by networking with personal sommeliers who then want to promote their wines,” says McAlister.
For Pierre, she sees public wine tastings going beyond just education for enthusiasts or a way for the wine industry to connect with drinkers outside of a restaurant or bar setting. Some people come into her shop on the weekends to simply sit down and enjoy wine pours with their friends. Retail spaces like 3 Parks, Vin ATL, and VinoTeca aren’t providing a typical wine bar experience, but are building a kind of third place for people to explore and experiment with wine alongside other like-minded wine drinkers.
Still, even wine professionals who own shops and are heading up these tastings admit that Atlanta’s wine scene has a long way to go to meet the needs of the city’s growing community of wine enthusiasts.
“People ask me all the time, ‘what’s the best wine bar in the city?’ And I’m like, ‘we don’t have them,’” says Rice.
But that appears to be changing, thanks to widespread tasting opportunities at Atlanta wine shops. Pierre says by introducing consumers to new bottles and producers during public tastings, they’re building a more educated wine community here, one that will eventually create even more demand and hopefully lead to more wine bars opening in Atlanta. Former 8ARM general manager Joshua Fryer is set to open his wine bar Long Snake some time in 2023. Sea Legs wine bar, from the team behind East Pole Coffee Co., is opening soon as part of its Poncey-Highland location. And Jordan Chambers just opened Larakin coffee and wine bar on 12th Street in Midtown. Restaurants such as Lucian Books and Wine and Aria in Buckhead are known for offering extensive wine lists, often showcasing rare bottles and limited production vintages on the menu.
“The more we teach, the more we educate, the more we let people taste all the cool, fun stuff there is out there, the more we buy, which means more people will see that Atlanta has this really booming wine community,” Pierre says.
Retail shop owners are already looking toward the future, thinking about how to expand the city’s wine scene. Press Shop owner Ashley Buzzy says they’re considering expanding to a satellite location that features a wine bar. This will allow for on-premise consumption beyond tastings and give people a place to drink wine in a more conventional bar setting.
For now, these weekly tastings at wine shops are building the foundation for Atlanta’s burgeoning wine scene, and sommeliers and shop owners like McLloyd, Pierre, Rice, and Buzzy are leading the way.
“There’s a lot of collaboration around Atlanta, and seeing [these wine tastings] explode into something bigger [in Atlanta] is not far away,” Buzzy says.
Samantha Maxwell (@samseating) is a food and wine writer and editor who is currently seeking her masters in gastronomy at Boston University. She lived in Atlanta for over five years, covering the scene for Narcity, and is an assistant food and drink editor at Paste Magazine, which is headquartered in Atlanta. Her work has also appeared in Tasting Table and VinePair.