In recent years, the Twin Cities' reputation as a wine market has improved markedly. Wholesalers have upped the ante on locally available offerings. More top-notch vintners visit than ever before, and it's not (usually) to go ice fishing. Great wine-centric retail outlets abound, and dozens of restaurants have greatly enhanced their wine lists.

Which makes the relative dearth, and recent deaths, of really good wine bars all the more confounding.

Scusi is one of five metro-area wine bars — along with Foreign Legion, Louis' Wine Dive Bar, Spill the Wine and Ursula's — to have called it quits since the beginning of last year. St. Paul still has Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar, which is a great stop for a pre-Saints game.

But there is some light in this tunnel, particularly in Minneapolis. In the past year Troubadour Wine Bar opened in Uptown and Stem Wine Bar was launched in beer haven Northeast, while later this summer Kim Bartmann will set up shop next door to her Cafe Barbette with a Champagne bar called Trapeze.

More good news is unfolding in the suburbs: New owner Amanda Wagner has upgraded Beaujo's wine list in Edina, and local-legend chef Ken Goff has made Sunfish Cellars' wine bar a true destination with his food and his vinous offerings in Lilydale.

Still, for the increasing bevy of local wine enthusiasts, "real" wine bars — with intriguing, ever-rotating wines, tasty small plates and an atmosphere that's both cool and warm — are few and often far-flung. Domacin in Stillwater, Nova in Hudson and Pour in Otsego fit the bill, but for most metro folks, they entail a long drive, especially back home after a bit of quaffing.

East vs. West

In a sense, this is a tale of two cities with wildly different scenes.

St. Paul always has prided itself as a neighborhood-bar, beer-and-a-shot type of place. Scusi turned out to be a not-so-great fit in a town with not only traditional bars but also taverns feeding the beer and cocktail crazes, said owner Stephanie Shimp.

"Beer is so much more approachable, and it's changing all the time," she said. "The same with the cocktail scene, which is also exploding. Wine is just a little too intimidating, and it can be unapproachable for some."

Scusi, she added, "was a little too special-occasion, and I don't think we fit the neighborhood perfectly. Had we put this in Minneapolis, it might have worked."

True, that.

For a decade or more, Riverview and Toast have thrived as the kind of neighborhood haunts that Scusi sought to be. Both fit their 'hoods (Longfellow and the North Loop, respectively) beautifully, offer up revolving menus of cool wines and provide welcoming atmospheres and strong customer service.

"First and foremost we have the best employees you'll find anywhere," said Riverview owner David Bernick in explaining Riverview's success.

"My wife [co-owner Mara] and I are hands-on, actively involved. And we are a neighborhood establishment. We used to live across the street, and now we live four blocks away."

Bernick, who studied winemaking in college, said he overhauls the wine list three or four times a year. "I look for stuff that's not easy to find around town, not stuff that people are used to seeing."

That list always includes close to 100 wines by the glass and lots of flights, which allow customers to sample small quaffs of several wines.

Toast's list is smaller but just as focused on wines that will provide "discovery" for customers, with free samples often proffered by super-nice owner Scott Davis, who regularly works the room after putting in a full day at his 45th Parallel distillery in Wisconsin.

At Terzo, another tireless good-guy cork dork, Charlie Broder, similarly serves as an ambassador for his fabulous all-Italian list. Another Minneapolis wine bar attached to a restaurant, Lucia's, has consistently strong offerings.

It should be noted that these are great destinations for serious enthusiasts. Those merely looking for a decent glass of malbec or pinot grigio and some ambience can find happiness at places with more limited lists such as Bev's and King's.

New and improved

Along with these holdovers, the (semi-) shiny new places provide hope that Minneapolis soon might rival wine-bar havens such as Portland and Denver.

Troubadour's list is outstanding, with 40 by-the-glass options that showcase stellar stuff from the New and Old World. It's a wine-geek Shangri-La, more for adventurous sorts than the "Oh, just give me a chardonnay" crowd.

Across the river at Stem, owner Ivy Taheri is building a similar list with a few more familiar brands. She's encouraging her guests to experiment, with categories such as "Not your average red [or white] varietals" and some 3-ounce pours of high-end stuff like the 2001 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904.

"Our whole thing is diversity, with some funky wines, some cheap wines and a no-pressure atmosphere," Taheri said. "Every week we'll have a unique special, like some cool cabernet from a small family vineyard in Tuscany. If people don't like it, we'll make some really awesome sangria with it."

She remains undaunted by some "what are you thinking?" reactions when she told people she was opening a wine bar in Northeast.

"I got a lot of funny sideways comments like 'Why there? It's all beer there,' " she said. "But Northeast people don't just love beer. From what I have seen, the Northeast community is very supportive of local places, and there are many wine lovers in the area."

Bartmann is similarly confident about her upcoming enterprise, which she is calling "a bubbles bar, because [in addition to Champagne] we'll have some amazing Cavas, pear cider and the fantastic local ciders from Sweetland Orchard."

She said Trapeze will have "a very select list that will rotate quite frequently and small plates; why don't the French have a word for tapas? But we'll be very much geared for people getting out and having some bubbly."

The owner/operator of several successful hangouts (Bryant-Lake Bowl, Pat's Tap) has been gearing up for this effort for some time now. "It's probably the dream of just about anybody in the business to open a tiny little wine bar," she said.

May there be many more such dreams fulfilled hereabouts in the near future. Even, or especially, in St. Paul.

The best, plus alternatives

Best combination of atmosphere and wine: Toast focuses primarily on small vineyards with sustainable, organic or biodynamic farming practices and has the kind vibe that says "cool" without screaming it.

Best place to experiment/explore: On Wednesdays and Sundays, Riverview offers a chance to build your own flights, choosing anything from among the scores of by-the-glass options. Moscato, vermentino and Barolo, anyone?

Most improved: Ambience isn't everything, but it goes a long way in explaining the long-running popularity of Beaujo's in Edina. Now, under the guidance of new owner Amanda Wagner, the milieu is getting the wines it deserves.

Best bottle list: With hundreds of offerings, Domacin rules the roost in this realm. The by-the-glass list, including some swell flights, has been improving markedly as well.

Coolest flights: It turns out that chef Ken Goff is also a lover of fermented grape juice. In addition to making super-tasty smallish bites at Sunfish, he creates fabulous flights every week (this week: signature whites from the Loire and garnacha-based reds from Spain).

Best wine-bar-hopping/hoofing: Lucia's and Troubadour are only a few blocks apart, and Trapeze will be part of that ambulatory circuit soon. Bonus points for not having to drive in Uptown.

Stop, sip and shop: Domacin and Swirl (in Afton) are attached to stores; the latter has an active club whose members can provide some bargains.

Wine-geek haven: Gyst's Jill Mott brings in some pretty out-there stuff, but it never falls into the category of what I call "wines that hurt." Definitely a destination for those who like acidity in their wine (which actually is a nice complement for the peanut-butter-and-kimchee sandwich).

Best respite for St. Paulites: It's not a wine bar — far from it — but the cafe at the Whole Foods Market on Selby Avenue has some astounding glass-pour values. This is especially true on Wednesdays, when everything is half-price and you'll be paying way less than retail.

Also, the wine vibe is on the upswing in the back room at Cafe Latte. Oh, and like many coffee shops, Lowertown's Black Dog is now doing the wine-bar thing at night.

Bill Ward writes at Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.