I'm drinking a lot of beer these days, but wine will always be my No. 1 adult beverage. Although I began way down at the bottom of the barrel years ago with Boone's Farm, everyone's familiar screw-top-nemesis, I became a convert after my first enlightened taste from a decent bottle of red. Thirsting for more, I went down the aisles of local stores, tasting through all the different grape varietals to find the ones I liked, studying the differences between old-world wines (Europe) and new-world wines (everywhere else). I discovered Sangiovese, the main grape in Chianti, which, all these bottles later, I still love most.
These days, I save up and replenish my stock on well-timed trips to wine regions, forgoing luggage space that might have been used for other souvenirs so that I can save suitcase-room for many laundry-wrapped bottles.
I've learned that some wines and some foods make very good bedfellows—a spicy Shiraz with juicy, pepper-seasoned steaks or a mineral-crisp Sauvignon Blanc with oysters are absolute food-pairing soul mates. Though beer goes fantastically with food, too, there's something about pulling a cork on a bottle of wine and sharing it amongst pals and loved ones that just feels a little more intimate than cracking open a bottle of beer. I think wine tastes best when opened in a home, with friends, but I've ventured out to test many a bar stool in search of places that meet my basic wine-bar criteria: a reasonably priced bottle list, a little food and a patio—I don't require much. Two regular drinking grounds, Wine Steals in Point Loma and Wine Vault & Bistro offer all three, but Downtown's San Diego Wine & Culinary Center has an added feature that's awfully appealing: live music.
Dizzy's jazz club, which occupied a warehouse on Seventh Avenue for seven years, has found a new home in the wine bar, which sits at the bottom of the Harbor Club at Second Avenue and J Street. The original Dizzy's space served only the soft stuff, and as someone who likes wine or the occasional hard drink with my concert-going experience, I previously went without or got resourceful. I can now sip to my heart's content at the new location, which serves wine by the glass, flight or bottle and has a full bar, making it friendly to even non-winos.
A couple of friends, among them a former trumpet player and self-professed band geek, and I checked out a recent performance by the Orquesta Bi-Nacional de Mambo, a group of professional musicians from both sides of the border (including Canada) who get together to perform Latin big-band classics at Dizzy's and other local spots. With every intention of ordering a spread of eats and drinks, we sat at one of the round tables to the side of the concert stage.
Robert Mondavi, king of Napa Valley wine country, had just died, so we started with a bottle of his light and dry Fumé Blanc (a fancy, made-up name for Sauvignon Blanc) in his honor, paired with a four-cheese board from the bar's café menu. The wine list is affordable, with a lot of selections from local wineries. We tested a Sangiovese from Orfila Winery in Escondido—I alone was a fan of it—then switched to a Bordeaux blend with an appetizer platter of hummus, paté and bruschetta. A bottle of Tawny Port from Orfila was universally liked, especially with bites of bars from a favorite local chocolatier, Chuao. The Caracas, studded with California-grown hazelnuts, pistachios and almonds, is delicious but the Spicy Maya, dark chocolate infused with throat-waming Pasilla chile, cayenne pepper and cinnamon, is too good for words.
The San Diego Wine & Culinary Center is a pretty pleasant place for a glass or two even on non-Dizzy's concert nights. There are ongoing weekly events, including a nightly happy hour and a regular Wednesday get-together for dogs and their owners. They also host food-and-wine pairing events, featuring local companies like Venissimo Cheese and Brandt Beef, and offer cooking classes in an exhibition kitchen, lately taught by Sam the Cooking Guy. Finding parking in the Gaslamp is a tough prospect, day or night, so find a free spot elsewhere and ride the trolley in—the Orange Line conveniently stops directly in front of the wine bar, making for a safe ride home.