I finally talked a few friends into stopping by VinoVenue last night. I had to keep explaining the concept to them--a self-serve tasting bar, like an automat for wine. Maybe I'm the only one who's nostalgic about buying sandwiches and slices of pie out of machines.
With our various consulting backgrounds, we were curious about all the aspects of the business--marketed to tourists at Moscone wandering by or to locals? are they a store or a wine bar? As the thread below indicates, we aren't the only ones who weren't sure. And ultimately it was the technology that interested us.
We were warmly greeted and purchased our own smart cards, with a quick reference guide on them. Smart cards come in valuations of $10; there is no longer a set up charge. Tastes are a 1-oz automated pour and cost roughly 11% of bottle price (although it seemed to vary, which confused us). The wines are disproportionately from California, many from smaller wineries. Their imports were generally a better value.
Once charged, you insert your card into a slot where it reads your total, place your glass under the spigot, and press a button under the price. Then you remove your card. The wine is dispensed and the amount is deducted from your card. The amounts are very peculiar; they're pre-tax prices (maybe a vestige of VAT?), so you end up with $16.73 on a $20 card after drinking a $2 pour and may think you did something wrong. When I can do this with my cell phone instead of a smart card, I'll be a lot happier.
The layout of the store is a little confusing; each station and wine is numbered, although the stations are out of order. The whites are in special refrigerated cases that are hidden from the front door, plus they're numbered something like station 11 and 12.
There's also a bar where you can pay for pours of champagne and dessert wines, but not with your smart card. (Got it?) I did persuade them to cash out my card and let me buy a glass of dessert wine, although we'd been warned this was discouraged. They serve a "flight" of 4 champagnes for $15, but they're miniatures, and I'd probably go elsewhere for atmosphere.
On a cool note, if you have less than a full pour left on your card, the dispenser automatically calculates the appropriate amount. We joked about how many drops of Sauternes (at $28 an ounce, the most expensive bottle being sampled) that spare $1 would get. Eric also wondered what it would take to hack their smart card system and promised to investigate (just out of professional curiosity, of course).
You can bring in food from next door at AG Ferrari, and a few cheeses and salamis are in the refrigerated case. The owner said she hoped to hold happy hours with more food at some point, although they have a store rather than food license and their open hours are limited.
We really enjoyed the experience, more as a curiosity than a wine bar. The stemware is quite nice; a self-serve pitcher of water for rinsing it wasn't as prominent as I would have liked. I'd prefer a warmer atmosphere and more food to complement the large selection of hearty reds. I don't know why the dessert wines aren't included in the self-serve tasting; perhaps the 375 ml bottles don't fit.
They also stock interesting if pricey gifts; flash cards about wine that we entertained ourselves with; elegant looking pyramids that turned out to be teabags; Voss water to show off at the Bay Club; this year's hot stocking stuffer, the Riedel stemless tumblers; and a few great looking leather purses to transport wine to your next dinner party. We didn't buy any bottles, although there were a few we liked enough to consider it, if we hadn't been headed to the movies.
VinoVenue is on the corner of Mission and 3rd.