Wine doesn't have to be an intimidating experience—that's the crux of Toot + Kate's, the new self-serve wine bar in Verona that's giving imbibers a little breathing room to enjoy a glass of vino.
Kate Biechler and Megan Clark are not wine connoisseurs, and they want people who come to their wine bar to know that. You'll get the laid-back vibe right away when you walk into this Verona boutique bar—casual twosomes and groups sip on small pours in the comfortable 1,075-square-foot space, refilling their wine glasses at will from a serve-yourself dispenser.
"We are very upfront that this isn't a high-pressure, upscale, snooty sort of place," says 39-year-old Clark, nicknamed "Toot" since before she can remember. Clark co-owns Toot + Kate's along with her sister Biechler, 30, and Katie's husband Ryan, 33. The self-serve model is on the rise—Biechler and Clark got the idea from two Wisconsin self-serve wine bars, Milwaukee's Black Sheep and Wauwatosa's The Ruby Tap. But Toot + Kate's is the only independent wine bar of its kind in the Madison area. "We were like, ‘Why is there nothing like this in Madison?'" says Clark. "We just decided to pull the trigger and try it."
The process at Toot + Kate's is simple: Exchange your credit card or driver's license for a wine card preloaded with $100 (Note: You don't have to spend $100—your balance is run like a tab once you cash out.) Grab a glass from the shelf and browse a selection of 16 wines at your own pace. Slide your card into the Enomatic wine dispenser, put your glass under the spout and choose your pour—2.5, 5 or 7.5 ounces. "We like the concept of it. You don't have to worry about ordering off a menu and not knowing if you like it or not," says Clark. You can sit there and read a description of the wine, take a sip and move on to another wine if it's not your taste without wasting the $7 or $8 you might spend on a full glass at a restaurant.
"It's very noncommittal—it's relaxed," says Clark.
A menu of local cheese and truffle trays and a Mediterranean olive mix are available in case you want something to nibble on, but the emphasis here is on the wine, which the sisters switch out frequently from their primary vendor, Frank Liquor in Middleton. "We want to have different varieties from different countries and parts of the world, but we also try to have a local option in at all times," says Clark.
And variety is good when it comes to serving the millennial-rich Verona area (thanks, Epic Systems), because according to a survey conducted by Wine Opinions, a California-based wine research group, 86 percent of millennials said they would buy a bottle they'd never tried before or a new wine by the glass. When I stopped in at Toot + Kate's, I watched young patrons excitedly reading the names and descriptions on the dispensers, trying wines they probably would never have tried otherwise.
While Clark says Toot + Kate's attracts a variety of patrons, millennial wine drinkers are an important demographic to cater to, as they drank 42 percent of all wine in the U.S. last year, more than any other generation, according to 2016 research from the Wine Market Council. A Wall Street Journal report using the Wine Opinions study also found that millennials don't like traditional wine rating systems, a majority are staying within the $10-$15 price range and it seems millennials are more interested in the narrative of a wine as opposed to its luxury or price point.
Self-serve wine bars seem to speak to all of these findings. I walked out of Toot + Kate's having spent less than $6 for two 2.5-ounce glasses (which is a bigger pour than you might think). I wasn't nervous that I'd pronounce a fancy wine name wrong, because I was the one doing the pouring. I scribbled down the name of one of the wines I tried, thinking maybe I'd try to track down a bottle at Frank's for a future get-together with girlfriends.
The wine would forever remind me of the cute, laid-back wine bar well decorated with pineapple accents and a wallhanging behind the bar saying, "This is our happy place." It truly is Biechler and Clark's "happy place," as the adventure of opening a wine bar came in the wake of a difficult family time. "I lost my husband in January 2015," Clark says. "This was really healing for us and something we wanted to do, because it was fun and it made us happy."