Thin line between love and hate

Cork is a promising wine bar that's plugged its excitement for the drink

I love Cork. Which is why I hate it. If Dallas has needed one thing for a long time, it's a no-frills, down-and-dirty wine bar. One that energetically trumps the numbness of most wine lists. One with sass. One with smarts.

Other places play around with the wine bar theme, though not very successfully. Mark's on Henderson claimed the title. But it pushed plonk by the glass, and its by-the-bottle selection, if interesting, was anemic. St. Martin's is a surreal thing all together. The list can be interesting, but the servers don't seem particularly knowledgeable and the glasses are sometimes dirty. And with the odd mix of characters hovering in its gaudy, hauntingly romantic surroundings, it's more like a David Lynch prop shop than a wine bar. You almost expect the staff to morph into dwarfs and start speaking backward as soon as the cork is pulled. Tony's Wine Warehouse is OK, I guess. Yet I've often wondered why every white wine I've ever sampled there has the syrupy, nutty taste of oxidation. Marty's is a wine bar, sure, and a damn good one. But it's a retail store first, and there's almost no way to escape the low-level noise of shoppers, transactions, and the rattle and "whompff" of the automatic doors as you sip your Burgundy.

No, Dallas needs a wine bar, one that's nothing but--a place that can take wine and vigorously cast it in a few of its countless personalities. This necessity is the mother that gave birth to Cork, a McKinney Avenue wine-and-cheese bar launched by Clancy Martin, owner of Martin's Custom Jewelers in Arlington, and Julie Stevens. The pair recently added some operational muscle by bagging Steve Naylor, former manager of Cafe Madrid, and gave him a chunk of the ownership along with his general manager role.

According to Stevens, Cork was crafted to resemble the wine bars of Paris. While it gushes with promise, Cork falls just slightly flat--for now. It's not because the environs are off. In fact, not much of Cork is off at all, which is why I love it. The sparkling copper-sheet bar is striking, and the sinuously muscular metal glass rack above with spear tips lunging into the sipping area is viciously delicious. Its Cafe Society-like mix-and-match hash of wood tables and chairs in a space with yellow walls and a blood-red ceiling is serenely provocative.

Just as diverse as the furniture is Cork's collection of antique water glasses: a luscious counterpoint to the simple (and appropriately shaped) wine glassware with elegantly focused bowls and thin rims that easily slip between the lips. Still, with all the hard surfaces, Cork gets blaringly shrill, drowning the full wash of wine's sensory pleasure in a carpet of noise.

Cork's little plates of wine accompaniments are good--fantastic, really. The selection of some 20 cheeses--everything from parmigiano reggiano to manchego to sage Derby--is as fresh as a slap-worthy remark and as tasty as sharp deadpan wit. The same goes for the salami and the slice of hearty country páte. Fresh fruits--blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, black and green grapes, are not only lushly plump, they reek with flavor.

By far the biggest disappointment at Cork surrounds its most important element: the wine list. A wine bar's list is its marquee, its seductive dressing. It's not so much that Cork's list of 170 wines, most of which is graciously offered by the glass (at excessive by-the-glass prices), is disheartening. The eclectic roster includes a good selection of Spanish wines, a couple from South Africa and New Zealand, a pair from Chablis, even a pair of California Cab Francs.

A great wine list need not be large, studded with older or high-priced wines and vintages, or cover a significant breadth of regions or varietals. But a great list does have to be enticing, rich, informative, and rousing, which is why I hate Cork. OK, maybe hate is too strong a word, but it's irritating that a wine bar in Dallas comes within a champagne bubble of successful execution and then chokes in the clutch. Cork's list resembles a page torn out of the phone book: the white pages actually, only not as scintillating. The type is tiny and cramped and impossible to read in dim light or the slurry of a modest buzz. There are no visuals or descriptions of any kind. The only organizational principle is "red" and "white." This is passion?

Give a novice wine-drinker a list from an otherwise inviting wine bar. If those green sippers find the list easy to hold and read, inviting to browse, funny, sharp, and informative, they'll come back. Present that same bunch with a list that has the sex appeal of a radiator hose, and they'll ask what's on tap down the street.

What if Cork had a wine list organized by flavor profiles (and a cheese list with pairing suggestions)? Or included simple descriptions of grapes, pithy blurbs on the historical significance of various wine regions (some colorful maps, maybe), and trivia sprinkled throughout such as the kind of ruinously expensive Bordeaux Mick Jagger used to slug backstage after a concert? What if it had a section of nothing but wines whose bottles are plugged with plastic corks and a brief description as to why they're used (some fine drink comes so dressed)? Or a page of stuff from wineries that once had their labels rejected by the government because they were deemed obscene--complete with reproductions of the allegedly offensive material and the reasoning of the censors?

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