Wine is intimidating. This I know, even after almost two years of writing about booze every week and taking a whole class just about the science of wine. It’s easy for the experience of walking into a wine bar to feel like showing up to school and being given a pop quiz or being called on when you haven’t done the reading. You might be able to fake it through, but really you’re just as lost as I am when I see part of a cricket match.
If only there were a low-key, nonjudgmental space that felt comfortable and accommodating enough that a wine novice could come without their guard up.
Actually there is, in an unassuming commercial strip along Greensboro’s Battleground Avenue, wedged between chains including Starbucks and Penn Station along the edge of so-called Midtown. Rioja, a deep yet cozy wine bar staffed by the owner, is that place.
Show up on a Thursday evening between 6 and 8 to find the place packed, and order the wine-tasting option — five samples for just $5. It’s an affordable entry point, the offerings change weekly and the almost impossibly sweet proprietor will come around to your table and describe each wine, served independently like courses to a meal.
Last week he poured three reds, a white and a rose, all imminently palatable and also available for purchase by the bottle. I leaned towards the chardonnay from Healdsburg Ranches in California’s Russian River Valley while my friend Hailey preferred the cabernet from Aviary in Napa, but after each cheers and initial sip we agreed that we enjoyed all five.
Hailey had been here before, drawn to the deep orange walls that feel almost like a warm blanket and appreciating that Rioja also offers food, and at an affordable price. I very quickly came to agree with her, especially once our manchego and chorizo charcuterie board arrived (though you could also order a Panini or Italian meatballs if that’s more your style).
It isn’t that there aren’t friendly faces at other wine purveyors in the Triad — I’ve found a few, and Carolina’s Vineyards & Hops in Winston-Salem deserves recognition in particular. But if you’re the type who needs an extra nudge to step through the door of a wine bar, Rioja’s Thursday special is the gateway drug you’re looking for. I can’t imagine a lower possible threshold for learning about and trying new wine.
Rioja is not, of course, set up to cater only to rubes and newbs. That wouldn’t be enough to keep the doors open there for more than a decade. Instead the wine bar, restaurant and bottle shop found a way to remain inviting to all comers, which appears to be no small feat in this rather esoteric industry.
After dabbling with the wine tasting nights, the Wednesday night special is a natural step up — building your own flight, an offer that comes with gourmet cheese. Or if you’re already committed and embedded in wine culture, Rioja’s wine club might be a better home for you.
When Hailey and I showed up, most seats were taken, but the layout prevented the bar from feeling too crowded until we squeezed between the bar and a table on our way to the register to close out. We stayed in our seats by the front window the rest of the time, waited on by the owner and visited briefly by a wine distribution rep. But I’d recommend slipping into seats in the back; from there, the room would feel cozier and it’d be easier to ignore people coming in and out the front door.
For a date, try nabbing seats at the far end of the bar. To meet a couple friends, you might get lucky and land the couch up front. Big groups can fit too, if you arrive early enough, as one did before we arrived shortly after 6 p.m. last week.
I guess what I’m saying is, you don’t really have a good excuse not to give Rioja a shot. Even if you’ve decided you hate wine — which is certainly a rather ridiculous stance to take — this wine bar sells beer, too.
Visit Rioja Wine Bar at 1603-D Battleground Ave. (GSO) or at riojawinebar.com.