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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 08/14/2006

Sophistication on the Cheap

By Fritz Hahn

In my line of work, "happy hour drink specials" usually means discount Miller Lite or rail vodkas that are closer to paint stripper than Snow Queen. When wine is marked down, it's often from one of those commercial Australian wineries with colorful animals on a colorful label, or a ho-hum California producer that tastes Straight Outta Tha Box.

That's what makes some wine-centric happy hours so surprising: They actually want to give you the good stuff. Sometimes, they even give it away.

Sommeliers know that the best way to get people to order wine is to educate them about wine, and you can't do that without letting them taste it. Every Tuesday at classy Vidalia, wine expert Doug Mohr unveils his favorites new bottles from the list, which could be anything from a French rose to some unheralded German gewürztraminer, and offers free samples. You'll get to chat about the wine from 5 to 7 while nibbling on complementary appetizers.

Tied up on Tuesday? The weekly tastings have become so popular that Vidalia is adding a new daily happy hour, with 20 wines offered for $7 or less. (For comparison's sake, most wines by the glass on Vidalia's current menu are in the $9 to $14 range, with a few for $16 or even $19.) Free hors d'oeuvres make it an even better deal.

Also giving away wine in the name of education is Bistro Lepic, which offers free samples of French wine in its cozy upstairs bars on Tuesday from 6 to 8. While the appellations can be overly familiar to regular drinkers -- Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, Cotes du Rhone Villages -- there's always a new small producer to discover.

Firefly chef John Wabeck spent time working at an exclusive Napa Valley winery -- cleaning barrels and picking grapes -- and his love of wine shows on the restaurant's thoughtful list. More interesting, though, is the Wine Down happy hour, which features a rotating odds-n-sods selection that changes almost every day. These are samples from various producers, remnants from old wine lists or just something that Waback -- studying for his Master Sommelier diploma from the internationally recognized Court of Master Sommeliers -- picked up to taste. Glasses are about $6 to $8 for a healthy pour.

Sometimes, though, you'd rather just get together with friends than try to broaden your palette. And even when it's some mass-produced brand that's a step up from plonk, drinking wine at happy hour seems more sophisticated than popping the cap off another bottle of beer.

Here's one that's only for the ladies: Every Wednesday night, Barracks Row lounge Tapatinis -- famous for its free drinks on Thursdays -- offers complementary glasses of wine to women from 5 to 9. No cover charge, no food purchased required, no strings attached. While no one will confuse BV Century Cellars Cabernet with a Grand Cru from Bordeaux, the tables full of women are usually too busy chatting and catching up to worry about the citrus notes in the chardonnay.

In Bethesda, Mon Ami Gabi offers half-price house wines -- from the estate of Georges Duboeuf -- daily from 5 to 6:30 in the bar area. They're really nothing special, though Duboeuf's Beaujolaiss-Villages makes a lovely after-work tipple.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | August 14, 2006; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Rosemary's Thyme has a great half-priced-wine happy hour every day. Their list is pretty big, too.

Posted by: um | August 14, 2006 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Sort of between Vidalia and Firefly in location, the Wine Specialist ( has free wine tastings every Friday and Saturday

Posted by: wino | August 14, 2006 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Meze in Adams Morgan has 1/2 price bottles of wine on Tuesday nights, and they have a fairly decent selection.

Posted by: Elle | August 14, 2006 6:29 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Lovely after-work tipple | August 15, 2006 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Here's a good source for winos (or, for the sophisticate, oenophiles) in DC:

Posted by: DC wino | August 17, 2006 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Meyhane on Capitol Hill (around 6th & Penn SE) also has half-price bottles during happy hour, possibly on a daily basis, and they also have great Mediterranean food.

Posted by: DCenthusiast | August 17, 2006 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget The Curious Grape in Shirlington. Not only do they have free tastings (2-4 wines) everyday, but they often have guest experts and winemakers educating and pouring. It's a great place to meet and have a little drink before dinner or movie.

Posted by: winelover | August 17, 2006 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I live in Southern Maryland so I have taken advantage of the more geographically convenient wineries that have opened. Fridays Creek Winery in Owings, Maryland just opened and they have free wine tastings and an art gallery to enjoy. The Merlot and the 3 other wines I tasted were very good. Fun and convenient however I'll venture to Shirlington sometime soon.

Posted by: Tricia | August 17, 2006 6:15 PM | Report abuse

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