New Years Eve Guide
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VinoVenue

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What would happen if you crossed a wine bar with a vending machine? You can find the answer at VinoVenue, a new concept in wine shops right around the block from SFMOMA at the corner of Mission and Third streets.

At VinoVenue it's possible to sample any of 100 wines on sale before buying them. But how you try the wine is what makes this store unique; VinoVenue is the first wine store in the United States to utilize an automated system of vending or tasting machines and smartcards to sell one-ounce wine "testers." Purchase a pre-paid smartcard worth $10, $20, $50 or $100 and step up to the stylish vending machines. Insert your card, hold your glass up to a spout and 'voila' a sampling of your choice pours out for sniffing, swirl, or sipping. Each "taste" ranges in price from $1 to $28 depending on the year and vineyard. While you might assume the wine bottles are pumped with Nitrogen, VinoVenue actually uses Argon gas to preserve the wine in the bottles. Argon is an inert gas that does not interact with the wine.

VinoVenue, which opened in September of this year, emphasizes wines from vineyards that are family-owned and stay true to small production. Each is hand picked by the two owners, Mary Lynn Slattery and Nancy Rowland who have combined their passion for wine and entrepreneurism into this venture. While Nancy grew up in a family of wine collectors, Mary Lynn developed her interest in wine since she moved to California. Both have enjoyed traveling through many wine-growing regions and countries. Upon discovering the self-dispensing wine equipment on the last day of a European vacation, the partners knew they had discovered a rare, unique concept that they could bring to the United States.

The large space is modern yet warm, encouraging you to wander, sample, explore and chat with others about your selections. The shop also serves as a gallery of sorts, featuring the work of emerging photographers and artists. It's also a place to find gifts for wine lovers or those just learning about wine. There is an events space and a champagne and dessert wine bar for the chilled selections where you can try a mini-flight of four, one-ounce pours of champagne or sparkling wine. They even have a private, temperature and humidity controlled cellar space for rent onsite. Helpful and knowledgeable staff is always nearby to answer questions, though the wines are nicely labeled with plenty of detail.

At VinoVenue they clearly believe that tasting is the first step towards learning about wine. At the 10 tasting stations, wines are arranged by varietals and regions, allowing you to easily compare several wines at a time. Want to try that luxury white wine before spending over $200 on a bottle? This is your place. Since the focus is on tasting, there are also spit buckets available at every station.

While the two co-owners in the venture are passionate wine lovers, they also have two top-notch wine experts on staff, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis aka "grape goddess" and wine educator Rebecca Chapa, who lead classes and seminars onsite. Catherine teaches classes on topics ranging from "How to Taste Like a Pro" and "Syrah Around the World" to "Entertaining with Champagne and Sparkling Wine". Students will taste 6 wines during the 45-minute to 1 hour-long classes ($40). Rebecca's class topics include comparisons of Old World vs. New World wines, "Aromas and Flavors", and "The Concept of Terrior: France vs. USA". Students will taste 10 wines during the 1- to 1.5-hour-long class ($75). The full class schedule is available on the VinoVenue web site.

Look for an expanded menu and details on a wine club next year as well as a way to print out a list of the wines you've tasted for easy reference. For now, there are paper and pencils handy so you can make notes as you taste. Whether looking for somewhere to take novices, wine connoisseurs or gadget geeks, VinoVenue is sure to impress as well as engage the senses.