When I see the Tommy gun prominently displayed behind the bar—the trademark drum magazine, the handsome wood grip—it reminds me, oddly enough, of a story from my grandmother’s European travels. One day at lunch in a French cafe, the waitress asked her where she was from. “Ah, Chicago!” the waitress exclaimed, happily making her pointed fingers into a gun: “Rat-a-tat tat-tat-tat!” Grandmother, who grew up during the 1930s, was not amused.
Prohibition is not happily remembered in wine country, either. Blind-sided by the 18th Amendment, believing themselves to be producers of a near-temperance beverage in comparison to demon rum, the local wine industry was in denial until too late. Casks were axed, and it’s said that the creeks flowed red. While some growers did well shipping grapes to home winemakers, Prohibition had the effect of popularizing more potent spirits, setting the stage for the cocktail culture of the 1950s.
All of which makes for an unusual wine-bar theme. But gangsterism plus time equals the fun stuff of lore, after all, and the Speakeasy’s celebratory flouting of the Volstead Act is stylishly executed. The “front” is a gift shop—winey knickknacks and boozamabobs—nothing to see here, officer. Those in the know are directed to an antique phone booth in the corner. As in clandestine speakeasies of old, a disguised wall is a secret door leading to the debauchery within.
Speakeasy boasts 16 gas-driven wine taps, and a selection of wines mounted above the “Chicago typewriter.” While tasting flights are not offered, servers will gladly pour a sample for the try-before-you-buy set in a shot glass. By-the-glass offerings include Williams Selyem, and a George Wines 2008 Sonoma Coast “Sonoma Coma” Pinot Noir ($12.50 glass) with simple and fun bright cherry and vanilla-oak flavor. It’s also easy to get primed on the cheap from a keg of Mas Cuvée 2007, a sturdy, brambly red for just five clams. There’s bubbly Toad Hollow Amplexus ($7 glass), or for those who get no kick from Cremant, suds both cold and apropos from San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers.Seated around barrel-head tabletops or at the bar on haute modern gas-cushioned stools, club patrons can gather around a bottle, sans cuisine besides crackers—so far, this is strictly a juice joint. Thematic cocktails are made with mixers and liqueur, but no hard stuff, and all the wine here is strictly on the level. Hey, it would be swell if garage winemakers itching to unload that stash of bootleg Barbera could just knock three times on the back door. But keep on knocking.
Prohibition Speakeasy Wine Club, 340 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. Open daily, 11am to 9pm. 707.473.9463.