Michael Fine winces when he hears someone order a soda with their meal.
“Have you have seen what cola does to raw meat?” he asks. “That’s also what it does to your palate. It destroys the nuances of taste. Some people would say you’re burning away flavors.”
Instead, Fine says there are only two beverages to drink with food — water or wine. It’s easy to see which is his preference and passion.
“When you go any place in Europe, wine is always part of the meal,” he says. “Wine makes good food more palatable.”
Few people would know better than Fine, a 49-year-old Scottsdale resident who founded and ran Sportsman’s Fine Wines & Spirits for 20 years before selling the three-store chain to Bashas’ last year.
Regarded as one of the Valley’s foremost authorities on wine, Fine opened his own wine-themed restaurant, Fine’s Cellar, this month in Scottsdale.
It’s one of a small but growing number of East Valley restaurants that offer diners a gourmet menu and an extensive wine list, but in a casual environment and at more modest prices than traditional fine-dining establishments.
“You can’t just have a good location and good prices and expect people to come,” Fine says. “You have to offer them a good experience.”
Twenty years ago, the Valley’s fine-dining scene was all but limited to swanky resort restaurants, where a meal for two, with wine, easily could run several hundred dollars.
Today, a seasonal four-course dinner at Fine’s Cellar is $35. Each course can be complemented by 2-ounce wine “tastes” starting as low as $2.75.
“I don’t want the wine to cost my customers more than the food,” Fine says. “Wine should be just another ingredient in the meal.”
That low-key approach is echoed by Ron Wojcicki, who opened 98 South Wine Bar & Kitchen in downtown Chandler — as well as its west Chandler sibling, 56 East — in 2004.
“It’s about the total package, about making people feel comfortable,” Wojcicki says. “It’s not sitting around sipping wine with your pinkie finger in the air. Venues are more approachable now.”
Like most of the East Valley’s new wine bars and bistros, 98 South helps educate customers with monthly wine dinners and offers wine flights, tasting samples of different wines served next to each other.
“Once people come in and experience it, they’ll tell their friends and family,” Wojcicki says, “It’s the best marketing we have.”
12 TO TRY
Where to find gourmet food and a wide variety of wines at reasonable prices in a casual atmosphere:
56 East Bar & Kitchen, 7131 W. Ray Road, Chandler, (480) 705-5602, www.56east.com
98 South Wine Bar & Kitchen, 98 S. San Marcos Place, Chandler, (480) 814-9800, www.98south.com
Caffe Boa, 398 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, (480) 968-9112, www.cafeboa.com
Centro Paninoteca, 7120 E. Becker Lane, Scottsdale, (480) 443-7162, www.centropaninoteca.com
D’Vine Bistro & Wine Bar, 3990 S. Alma School Road, Chandler, (480) 782-5550; also, 2837 N. Power Road, Mesa, (480) 654-4171, www.dvinewine101.com
Fine’s Cellar, 7051 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale, (480) 994-3463, www.finescellar.com
Humble Pie, 6149 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, (480) 556-9900.
Kazimierz World Wine Bar, 7137 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, (480) 946-3004, www.kazbar.net
Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar, 7000 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, (480) 991-6887, www.tapino.com
Uncorked Wine Bar, 16427 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, (480) 699-9230, www.uncorkedwinebar.com
Union Wine Bar & Grill, 3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale, (480) 686-9966