UVA owner Mark Gambuzza knows this very well. He’s been there having commuted five days a week between Brooklyn and Manhattan just to make ends meet and bartending until 4 a.m. Then, as fate would have it, getting a lucky break as the bar manager for a famous steakhouse that would eventually lead him to start his own restaurant.
“There’s a different social element to it,” Mark says when comparing wine to cocktails. “I much prefer the social community of drinking wine. It’s less about picking someone up. Instead, it brings people together.”
Within the next few weeks Mark will be extending his current selection of 12 wines by the glass to over 200 wines by the glass thanks to a modern preservation system. This will allow customers to enjoy a high-end glass without committing to buying the whole bottle. It will be the only wine menu of its kind in the Florida Keys.The UVA collection includes a variety of limited production, estate-grown wines from both the old world and the new world. The whites range from a classic French burgundy to a rare Tuscan viognier. For reds, Mark prefers wines that have soft and earthy styles and can match up to the Key West heat or be paired with fresh seafood. He also likes to include esoteric wines from regions some people have never even heard of.
For him, choosing a wine is all about discovering and sharing and has nothing to do with being an arrogant wine snob. At the moment, one of his favorite wines to pour is from the Simcic Marjan family estate in Slovenia. The winery crafts classic varietals such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon but with a seductive character that is like no other wine in the world.
“They make these big, bold reds, but with lower alcohol so that all the subtle nuances of the wine come through a lot more clearly” Mark explains, “and they are phenomenal for the price.”
Mark first learned about wine with his job as the bar manager for a famous steakhouse. During the time he was working there, the restaurant was recognized by The New York Times as having the best wine list in all of New Jersey. When that happened, Mark started getting exclusive invitations for winery tours and sommelier tasting groups. It was all that he needed to never look back.
“I caught the bug,” he says, “and got a free education.”
Mark took his newly acquired knowledge and opened a tapas restaurant called Echo just two blocks from the steakhouse. He admits he had to learn wine all over again now that he was buying his own and no longer working with a list already created for him. After 11 years of late nights and early mornings, he finally called it quits, married the woman of his dreams and moved down to a place that kept calling him back every time he would come for a visit. It’s where they got married and the place they are happy to call home.
Upon arriving in Key West, Mark settled into island life as a bartender at Blue Mojito in the Hyatt Resort & Spa before deciding he was not yet finished with the business of wine after all. So, in June 2011, he started his search for the perfect place to open a wine bar, He found it that December in a little storefront on Fleming Street. UVA officially opened its doors in February, 2012. The name UVA pays respect to his Italian and Spanish heritage and translates to grape in both languages.
“I loved that it wasn’t on Duval,” he says of his off-the-beaten-track location “and that it has these big old school windows.”
The whole room is bright and inviting. Decorated with nothing but a row of wines to one side and a sleek bar to the other, UVA is designed to give people a place where they can drink wine and forget about what is happening on the other side of the glass. A few pieces of art hang on the walls, but other than that there is nothing else to distract you from simply just hanging out with someone. That is exactly what Mark wants. It’s almost like a secret hideaway, an underground of the Key West bar scene that just so happens to come with your own personal wine expert.
“There’s no pretentiousness here. You can come in and have a nice conversation with someone. It’s not a place people go to drown their sorrows,” he says, “If you tell me what you like to drink, I’ll give you recommendations based on what you like to branch out. I never default to the most expensive. I’d rather show people a wine of good value.”
UVA is open every day from Noon to 10 p.m. (except for Sundays) serving wines by the glass or bottles to go as well as gourmet cheese plates. Follow Mark on Facebook at Uva Key West for meet and greets with famous winemakers and other events such as trunk shows and jewelry sales. ¦
UVA 519 Fleming Street 305- 735- 4871