Miami for wine lovers

Sarah Phillips, who works for Liv-ex, now lives in Miami and proves the ideal guide. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

Ocean Drive, Miami’s most iconic street, doesn’t exactly scream ‘wine paradise’. Art deco-style bars serve different variations of the same fried food. Giant cocktails come in large plastic martini glasses, and brightly coloured supercars crawl along the street with music blaring. Dancers perform on rooftops. Sometimes you see a man walking around with a parrot on his shoulder. Walk down on a Saturday lunchtime and you’re more likely to encounter a backflipping drag queen than a wine list worth looking at.

It’s true that I was nervous about the wine offering in my new city. Alessandra Esteves, who runs the Florida Wine Academy with her husband Guilherme de Macedo, was honest during my first visit: ‘It’s no London’, she said. She was right. In London you can barely swing a cat without knocking over a glass of something delicious. Jancis Robinson’s hefty wine guide to the city attests to that.

But there’s good news too, because the second half of her sentence was, ‘…but the wine scene here is really developing.’ This also seems to be true, though I will say that you need an open mind – and not just on Ocean Drive.

Coconut Grove and Little Havana

When we pulled up at El Carajo, I hesitated. This wine bar and restaurant is on a main road in a former gas station. Its neighbours include the new, replacement gas station and a pizza fast food joint. From the outside, it looks like any other generic, windowless highway stop.

Inside, it’s a small replica of the beautiful Cordoba Mosque (see below), which makes stepping through the door quite a strange experience. There are around 20 wines available by the glass, and many more by the bottle – just pick them off the shelf for a very reasonable retail price and add $10 to drink in. The Spanish, Chilean and Argentinian selections are particularly strong. The food is Spanish and delicious.

El Carajo wine bar in Miami

Happy Wines Coconut Grove, where a small note on the bar reads, ‘I’m drinking wine! I’m happy!’, will please fans of good wine in informal settings. Like El Carajo, it triples as a store, bar and restaurant. Its shelves hold many fine wines, and $15 is charged on top of the retail price should you wish to drink on-premise. It has a sister bar of the same name in Little Havana. Both venues host musicians and wine tastings.

Further downtown, Vinos in the Grove has a sizeable by-the-glass list, an interesting bottle list, and a bar made almost entirely of wine boxes.

Coral Gables

In the ‘Gables, shoppers can enjoy Wolfe’s Wine Shop – my ‘go to’ for an adventurous purchase (but it has plenty of traditional styles, too). Owner Jeffrey hosts a tasting – usually $20 – in store every Friday evening. Get on his mailing list for details.

Cibo Wine Bar (which is more of an Italian restaurant) is across the street and does a very good pizza. If you order the right bottle, you can watch one of the team literally abseil the cellar wall to retrieve it. So choose wisely.

Brickell and Downtown

Brickell City Centre is a very modern shopping mall. In other words, it’s not somewhere you’d expect to find a cavernous Tuscan wine bar with arched brick ceilings, tiled floors, heavy wooden tables. Yet it’s home to La Centrale Enoteca, which is exactly that. There’s no wine list, but its shelves of mostly Italian bottles are vast. The by-the-glass offering is whatever the sommelier feels like opening, and on ‘Wine Wednesdays’ it hosts acoustic musicians and offers $7 wine. Casa Tua Cucina – a stylish Italian dining hall – is nearby. Its glass list is lengthy and packed with Italian varietals.

The Florida Wine Academy is located downtown. As well as offering WSET and Wine Scholar courses, Alessandra and team regularly host masterclasses on all sorts of topics. I teach some WSET 3 classes there, alongside my continued (now long-distance) marketing duties for Liv-ex.

Midtown and Design District

Langiappe House is a lot of fun. This (accurately) self-proclaimed ‘New Orleans-style wine bar’ has nightly live music and several bottles to choose from the shelf, plus a varied glass list. Its large garden has over 100 chairs, none of which are the same. Its cheese selection is a particular highlight.

For dining options, try Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District. The food is fresh and unfussy. The wine list is outstanding – give yourself plenty of time to work through it. Even the happy hour wine list is interesting. Arrive early on Fridays for a seat at its busy bar.

Abaco Wines is a high-end retail store with a small bar and regular tastings. Drop in if you need a bottle of something special.

Miami Beach

Miami Beach isn’t all noisy cocktail bars; there’s a different sort of hedonism on offer here, too. Macchialina is a tiny neighbourhood restaurant with flavoursome pastas and an Italian wine list to get excited about. Almost every bottle on the list is available in halves – they use Coravin – and bottles are marked S, O, B or N to indicate sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural. (Let’s not debate the definitions, please.) The after-dinner list of amari, liquors and fortifieds is extensive.

Drunken Dragon, a Korean BBQ restaurant, is a favourite among locals. It has a small but well-selected wine list and an excellent happy hour (5–7pm daily).

Should you require supplies of fine wine, the beach is home to Gulf Liquors, where you can browse Bordeaux First Growths while listening to lively salsa music. Photographs inside display famous former customers including Flo Rida and P Diddy. So don’t be put off by the bright neon sign above the door; remember, you’re in Miami.

(For a more traditional shopping experience, there’s Portofino Wine Bank at South Point which also has a comprehensive range of fine wine.)

A little extra

During Miami Spice top restaurants across the city offer affordable set menus. Three courses come in at $23 for brunch/lunch and $39 for dinner. It’s a bit like restaurant week, except it goes on for two whole months (August and September), proving that Miami does nothing in half measures.

And finally, to wrap up, we’re leaving Miami-Dade county. I couldn’t sign off without mentioning Wine Watch up in Fort Lauderdale. This is a shop, bar and restaurant rolled into one, with frequent fine wine dinners, blind tastings and a killer cellar with all sorts of treasures. Leave your better half at the bar with this instruction: ‘If I’m not back in 30 minutes, send in the Amex.’ You don’t need to be on Ocean Drive to have fun.

Miami skyline at sunset