Our college town has certainly grown up. In Claremont, home to some 7,000 or so college students, there are two wine bars, one gourmet cheese shop, a jazz and fondue club, and a dream gastropub for a Belgian beer connoisseur. A dive bar for cheap PBR or Coors Light? Not in this Village.
Our town may be miles from the nearest vineyard, and the Village may not exactly strike oenophiles as a destination to contemplate the latest pinot noir. However, believe it or not, Claremont is home to not one, but two wine bars to challenge your wine palate far beyond that of the college mainstays André and two-buck Chuck. If in need of a chardonnay pick-me-up before that 2:45 class or a late night digestif, head over to the Packinghouse Wine Merchants or Wine Styles Claremont along Indian Hill to begin swirling those glasses and discussing the legs on this malbec or the nutty aroma to that shiraz.
Both wine bars are wine stores at heart, with various seats and tables to run through taster flights along with an actual tasting bar. Nearing its fourth birthday, Packinghouse Wine Merchants is the most classic representation of the wine bar genre, with a larger selection of flights, wines by the glass, and a food menu (Wine Styles does not serve any food). The classic cheese plate is uninspired, with a few cold slices of a low caliber Brie, Parmesan, and Irish cheddar thrown on a plate with some dried apricots. A more impressive and extensive sampler of cheeses, proscuitto, Serrano ham, salami, and olives is more engaging, enhancing the wines rather than merely accompanying them, and a number of very cute salads and flatbreads could almost be meals in themselves.
But despite their tasty selection of food, sake, and Upland’s Dale Brothers beers, wine is the focus at Packinghouse. The selection in the store is very thorough, with a particularly impressive array of wines from around the world, along with a collection of wines connected to Claremont. The constantly changing selection of wines by the glass is mainly limited to one per type of wine. Hope that the bold, wonderful Edward Sellers “Le Thief” syrah from Paso Robles is an option for your visit. An excellent way to not break the bank is to order a glass of the cheaper house red or house white, which also rotate frequently. The tasting flights are the real treat here. The wines are often grouped by country or style. Weekend evenings often bring entertainment along with special wine theme nights, most recently with extensive pinot noir and Argentinean malbec tastings. The lounge-like space to the side of the bar certainly elevates the store’s atmosphere. This also makes it an excellent date place, especially if you can charm your date with your knowledge of zinfandel. The only negative is that, on busy evenings, the tiny staff seems overworked selling bottles, pouring flights and glasses, cooking, and delivering all the food. Diners almost feel guilty just sipping wine while watching the frenetic state of the servers.
Wine Styles Claremont, meanwhile, has no lounge-like feel—its design of caves for the bottles on sale presents a more modern, less stale store backdrop. The tasting flights here certainly compete with those at the Packinghouse, and weekends again provide entertainment. With the glass windows overlooking the traffic on Indian Hill, the room has a big-city, loft-like feel, lending another sophisticated touch to the already very sophisticated art of wine tasting. The wine selection is a tad bit more ambitious here, the flavors a little more challenging. One sauvignon blanc had a very off-putting aroma but presented a wonderful dry taste. A torrontes from Argentina was perfect, full of floral notes.
Service is much more casual here: customers order at the bar even if sitting at a table. Yet drinking wine amidst bottles for sale is a somewhat awkward feeling. The atmosphere at Wine Styles lacks the Packinghouse’s relaxed vibe, and does little to invite wine-tasters to linger.
With a pair of wine bars to choose between, it’s clear that Claremont is maturing like a fine wine itself. Not only are both terrific stores for purchasing an intriguing bottle for your next wine and cheese pairing, but both also serve as an exciting alternate bar option for students and experienced wine tasters alike.