Solano Cellars

18 Sep

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My favorite wine bar, just outside of Berkeley, Solano Cellars is the perfect neighborhood wine bar (except for the fact that I don’t live in this neighborhood). Part of the local chain of wine bars headed by Vintage Berkeley, Solano Cellars is run by friendly wine nerds who are happy to chat with you regardless of your level of experience. If you live in the area, you should make it a regular stop.

Vintage Berkeley is known for being a great place to pick up interesting $10 bottles for a party. SC aims a little higher, with selections ranging from basic up to spendy. While there is a focus on well-curated small California producers, the interests of the staff wander broadly, from ports to German rieslings to French roses. They tend to be a good place to be on the leading edge of wine trends — I remember the staff pouring Bedrock’s heritage-varietal wines and gushing about them before I had seen much about them in the press.

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The wine bar is where SC really separates from most wine shops, including the other excellent area options, Kermit Lynch and Odd Lots. They are always pouring three separate flights of wines, and generally have some secret pours if you get the staff talking about what they find interesting that day. The cheese and charcuterie plates are typically Berkeley, meaning they are excellent.

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One of our earliest experiences at SC really sealed the deal. They had a special night highlighting German and Austrian rieslings. About a dozen producers had flown in for a tour a distributor had set up, and they were behind the bar pouring samples of their wines, explaining the differences between Kabinett and Spatlese and Auslese. One woman, an American, had married into a winemaking family and showed us pictures of the estate she lived on and poured the family’s lovely wines. The night was convivial and generous with no pressure to buy. It cost $15 and they refunded that $15 with any purchase of the wines poured. They were even selling bratwurst on buns for $5. It was one of my favorite wine experiences ever.

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I’ve tried to find a place like this in LA — friendly, interesting selection, wine bar, affordable events. K&L is great, but it is huge and less personal. As are the Wine House in West LA (and wow are their events pricey) and Hi-Times in Costa Mesa. Silverlake Wines is OK, but is not really a friendly place. The new Bar & Garden in Culver City is promising, but suffers the same hipster-snobbishness as Silverlake Wines and Domaine LA. Lincoln Fine Wines is pretty good, but I don’t think they have got their tasting operation permitted yet.

Our favorite wine bar so far has been Willmore Wine Bar in the Bixby Knoll section of Long Beach. I’ll write about them another time. But it is even friendlier than Solano Cellars, a true local hangout with a crowd of regulars. They serve decent food (not as good as what you’d get in Berkeley, of course). The wine selection is nowhere near as wide or interesting as what Solano has, but it is still pretty good. Almost enough to make me not miss Solano Cellars too much.

Solano Cellars
1580 Solano Ave
Albany, CA 94707
(510) 525-9463

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