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Best spots for wine in Pittsburgh

Not so long ago big-haired waitresses in white blouses, black skirts and orthopedic shoes offered Pittsburghers two wine choices: “red or white, hon.” 
Not so anymore.  These days it’s not unusual for a restaurant to serve over 20 wines by the glass—with a hip staff that’s both knowledgeable about the varietals and trained in food pairings.  To help navigate Pittsburgh’s wine scene, we picked the brains of local wine celebs and then conducted our own research (aka bar hopping) to  find the best spots in town to enjoy a glass of wine.
The granddaddy of Pittsburgh oenophiles is Kevin Joyce who has been introducing Pittsburghers to great wine since he opened The Carlton Restaurant 28 years ago.  Known for its fair pricing and great selection (especially California wines,) The Carlton has received Wine Spectator Award every year since 1995.  Tucked in the mezzanine of BNY Mellon Center downtown, the walls of the bar are covered with caricatures of “old friends, great customers and well-known Pittsburghers,” says Joyce.  Very Sardi’s.  Wine-red circular booths add to the whole New York feel.  It’s a downtown crowd—people heading home from work, shoppers with their bags tableside and theatergoers all enjoy The Carlton’s 40-plus wines by the glass.  If you want to add a little decadence, try the Lobster Grilled Cheese appetizer—lobster tail, Alouette and Manchego cheeses nestled between grilled Tuscan bread slices and served with tomato bisque.
A more recent addition to Pittsburgh’s wine scene is Sonoma Grille in the Cultural DistrictA hand-painted wall mural reading, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine,” greets you when you walk in. That says it all.  Sonoma’s crowd is diverse: from families to singles, sport coats to flannel.  With one constant—wine is on every table. Serving over 100 glasses of domestic wines, it has the largest selection in town by far.  “It can be intimidating,” admits General Manger John Ajay, but our servers’ knowledge “is second to none.” In addition to the traditional 6 oz pour, the restaurant also offers wine flights and 3 oz. pours.  The seasonally changing tapas are a perfect pairing with the wines such as scallops, lamb, local cheeses, or braised pot roast ravioli.  Yum!
With a name like Toast! this Shadyside hotspot has to be about celebrating wine. Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar serves some 40 wines by the glass.  (I was delighted to find six selections of sparkling when I popped in on a Friday night.) European wines are their specialty and Toast! offers 2, 4 and 8 oz pours.  “It’s the exact same price (per ounce) whether you buy 2 oz. or a bottle,” says general manager Bob Flood.  Deep red walls and cozy seating areas make you want to stay awhile.  Don’t miss the Crispy Brussel Sprouts and Shrimp and Grits.  Still hungry?  Try the four-course tasting menu with wine pairings.  You’ll leave happy.
Night owls will feel right at home at The Wine Loft in SouthSide Works. We arrived at 11pm on a Saturday night and it was SRO. Very chic.  Very beautiful people.  A black undulating bar and glass wine cellar cover one end of the room, while conversation areas on different levels fill the balance. It attracts the business crowd  of Pittsburgh, says Event Coordinator John Coonfare.  A pre- and post-dinner spot with over 80 wines by the glass, it’s very Upper East Side.
If your tastes run more international, let Paris 66 transport you to the banks of the Seine.  Located in trendy East Liberty, Paris 66 has been serving its fully French wine list for just over a year. They toned down the intimidation factor by adding wine descriptions and suggested food pairings to the wine list.  Owner Frederic Rongier grew up in Paris and met his wife (and co-owner) Lori at Penn State.  After graduating, they lived on the outskirts of Paris for ten years before deciding to relocate to Pittsburgh.  The result?  Walk through the door of Paris 66, and you feel as if you’ve entered a French bistro—a sort of Midnight in Paris time travel transformation. “We wanted to show that French wines come in all shapes and sizes,” says Lori. Tres bon!
On the other hand, if great pizza and Italian wine is your idea of comfort food, then head to Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon.  The enoteca (hidden in a separate building behind the restaurant) serves some 45 wines by the glass--all Italian.  Most nights an actual wood fire crackles in the fireplace while a vintage Italian movie plays on a TV above the bar.  Although patrons are often stacked two-deep during the dinner rush, it’s a congenial crowd—like the Italians themselves.  Pair Il Pizzaiolo’s wines with the Antipasto Napoli or an authentic pizza margherita, and you’ll swear you're in  Naples.
California dreamin’?  Those who love Napa Valley tasting rooms will be delighted to sample The Naked Grape Enoteca in Sewickley.  Owner Ryta Mirisciotti was so committed to bringing unique wines to Pittsburgh that she shuttered her successful wine restaurant of the same name, got her importers license and reopened as a tasting room.  Now, walk in any Wednesday through Sunday evening and sample generous pours of at least three featured wines.  FREE. “Try before you buy,” is Mirisciotti’s philosophy. All wines are available for purchase, but PA’s liquor laws require a waiting period; therefore, in order to drink a bottle of wine the day you visit, you must pre-order.  Once your order is processed , The Naked Grape will store your wine for you—sort of like your personal wine locker-- so it is always available for you on the spot.  We sampled the pizza and hummus Lite Bites with our favorite wines, and by the end of our tasting we could swear we saw the sun setting over the vineyards.
Want a shocker?  You can get great wine at a mall restaurant.  A sommelier friend tipped us off about Mitchell’s Fish Market, and it was our biggest surprise.  Located in the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon and Waterfront in Homestead, Mitchell’s Fish Market serves over 20 wines by the glass. With its comfy red booths flanking the circular bar, weary shoppers and locals alike enjoy the wide variety of seafood-friendly wines.  Assistant General Manager Jim Shimko personally selects the wines for these two restaurants and recommends pairing Riesling with Mitchell’s spicy Asian Shrimp appetizer or Syrah with the spicy barbeque shrimp. We kept it simple: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with fresh-shucked oysters at the bar.  Delicious!
And who among us doesn’t love a bargain?  Not to mention a mid-week pick-me-up? The Wine Down Wednesday special at Luma Restaurants in Aspinwall and Mt. Lebanon gives you both.   Every Wednesday all wines by the glass and bottle (up to $100) are half-price.  Owner Greg Ackerman says he typically looks for wines from boutique wineries because he wants people to taste something they’ve never had before.  He also goes for value—as evidenced by their everyday offering of 22 bottles at $22.  Ackerman says they want to show that drinking wine doesn’t have to be expensive.  Be sure and try Luma’s famous crab cakes with your wine.  We think they’re the best in town.
Finally, three sure-fire wine bets are the Big Burrito restaurant trio of Eleven, Casbah and SOBA Lounge.  Great ambiance, food and people watching as well as a varied and well-chosen wine list, make this combo a sure thing when looking for a great glass of wine.
If all this makes you want to learn more about wine, then checkout the classes at Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District.  Casual classes (first and third Fridays of the month) are a great way to start your weekend and include tastings of six wines from around the world.  Formal classes cover specific subjects like Wine and Chocolate or High Brows & Low Brows-- Can You Taste the Difference? “We are all about wine education,” says Dreadnought president Mike Gonze, “Wine is like any other form of art.  Everyone’s going to have a different taste."

The fun is in the tasting.
 Anne Lutz Zacharias is a south hills writer and wants to know your favorite wine spot—she’s anxious to do more “research” on the topic.
Captions: Frederick and Lori Rongier and Chateau Bellevue 2009 at Paris 66; Kevin Joyce and Dreaming Tree 2009 at the Carlton Restaurant.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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