After patronizing Ford’s Filling Station and nothing else in Culver City for months, I finally opened my eyes wide enough to catch a glimpse of Vinum Populi, a high-tech wine bar located next to Ugo’s. Amazing since I had unwittingly passed by it every time I headed to Ford’s from the public parking garage; and it’s been around since December. But finally I was able to duck in Saturday night. However, since it was crazy-busy and I didn’t have the elbow room to explore or the help of the staff to walk me through this innovative, albeit initially intimidating, setup, I decided to come back on an off-night with Dre in tow. And I’m glad I did because there was so much more to see and learn.
Monday was the night to go as the place was virtually empty with only a sprinkling of winos. Laura, our guide through the process in a jaunty tweed cap, greeted me and Dre when we walked in and gawked at our surroundings. “Is it your first time here?” she asked. I wanted to play dumb and say yes so that I could hear the spiel about the bar but Dre ratted me out. So Laura explained how things work to her and I listened in. Vinum Populi has 17 Italian wines and 15 Spanish wines…and some other ones that I couldn’t hear her say because some people nearby were talking. The wines are changed frequently so you’ll probably have a different wine every time you visit. And there are about 48 wines you can sample by the ounce via the fancy-schmancy Enomatic dispenser.
How it works:
- Purchase a debit card putting whatever amount you want on it from the bar, where you’ll also pick up your wine glass. In my two visits, $10-$20 was a good amount for me as my tastings ranged in price from about $2 to $6 an ounce. The wines here run anywhere from about 65 cents an ounce to $22.87 (this was for the $528.24 bottle of 1998 Gaja Costa Russi Langhe, zowie!).
- Check out the wines. The two Enoround carousels near the door contain Spanish and Italian red wines while the white wine (chilled) is located along the wall alongside the premium reserve wines which require a special larger glass to allow it to breeeathe. Each wine bottle is accompanied by a card listing the wine’s stats as well as a helpful description of what it tastes like.
- Pick a wine. The price of each pour an ounce is displayed in the digital readout over each bottle. If you actually like the wine you choose and want more, keep pressing the button till you get the amount you want. (If you want a whole bottle you can take it home for 30 percent off.) But just remember to place your wine glass under the nozzle before you press the button as Laura said that there are times when people have actually forgotten to do that. Easy to believe since you can easily get sloshed here if you don’t watch out.
- Pay per pour. Each carousel comes with two slots on either side where you can insert your card. One slot covers one half of the stand while the other covers the other side. You can tell you put your card in the right slot when the button for the dispenser you want glows red.
- Keep your glass. Just like wine tastings, you hold onto your glass. No turning in your used one for a fresh one here. As each glass is hand-washed and hand-polished to prevent spots (no dishwashing machine!), they’re rightfully stingy about that. A pitcher of water and a rinse bucket as well as a stack of napkins are available if you want to clean out your glass between tastings. But Laura said that if she’s going to stay in reds she usually doesn’t bother cleaning out her glass. I’ve heard this before from my wine expert friends who say that rinsing the glass will make the pH level in the water affect the taste of the wine…or something like that.
- Turn in or keep your card. If your card is all tapped out, turn it in. But if you still have some money on it, you can keep it and add to it later. It never expires. Just don’t lose it.
This is such a cool concept…once you get the hang of it. When I couldn’t find someone available to help me on crazy Saturday night I felt like a lost tourist in a foreign city. Maybe VP should print out guides for newbies. Heck, maybe you can print out this post for your first trip there.
Every adventurous wine lover should check this place out. It’s a great way to explore varietals you never heard of or sample expensive bottles you don’t want to bounce a rent check for. And if you want something to nibble on with that wine, there’s a menu with tidbits like paninis and salads as well as cheese plates and salume. Designated drivers can enjoy the yummy-sounding desserts and a cappucino or Italian soda.
Even though Vinum Populi is right next door to Ugo’s and connected via an archway, the two are separate entities. Meaning, you can’t order food from Ugo’s and enjoy it with your glass of wine on VP’s patio. Although you can bring your VP wine to your dinner table at Ugo’s.
With candlelights and cozy seating areas, this small wine bar would be perfect for an intimate night out or with a small group of friends. Maybe even wine bar hop with BottleRock on Main and Ford’s around the corner.
3865 Cardiff Avenue
Culver City, California 90232