Your Next Low-Key Wine Destination? Lawrence, Kansas

Laura Klein (left) and Samantha Waeckerly (right) of Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar / Photo by Adam Smith
Laura Klein (left) and Samantha Waeckerly (right) of Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar / Photo by Adam Smith

Venture into a bottle shop in Lawrence, Kansas, and you’re bound to see a wine likely not found anywhere else: LFK Malbec. A collaboration between local distributor Ad Astra Selections and LFK Press, it’s made by Argentine winemaker Pablo Durigutti. The wine is a celebration of the vibrant Midwestern city and its intense local pride (LFK meaning “Lawrence F*****g Kansas”).

It illustrates the city’s growing interest in wine.

Lawrence, situated just 30 miles southwest of Kansas City, is home to the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!) and Haskell Indian Nations University. With nearly 100,000 residents, this Midwestern town embraces a smorgasbord of food and drink options, creating a boon to the city’s wine scene.

Free State Brewing Company opened in 1989 as the first legal Kansas brewery in more than a century. Thirty years later, Lawrence has experienced an explosion of new breweries, restaurants and bars. Some point to the local beer culture as a jumping-off point for wine.

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“The beer savvy, beer literate people in this town have worked through new styles like sours, and I think that’s kind of opened their mind to trying different types of wine,” says Laura Klein, owner/front of house manager of Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar. “We have people who will come in and are predominantly beer drinkers, but after a conversation, they’re willing to try [whatever wine] that we throw at them. What’s really dope about Lawrence and the Midwest is that because we’re not geographically close to a huge growing region, there isn’t that kind of regional closed-mindedness.”

Al Spencer, owner/sales representative for Ad Astra Selections, says the 2008 recession  took a toll on restaurant wine lists, but the availability of smaller labels and less mainstream varieties is increasing quickly.

Location and lack of visibility within the larger wine market remains a challenge for Lawrence. According to Klein and Samantha Waeckerly, Fish House bar manager, city advocates have adopted a viral approach to the problem.

“Social media really helps to convince producers that we’re a state worth supplying to,” says Waeckerly. “You have to demonstrate that you’re hungry for it.”

A number of restaurants and cafés are doing their best to showcase a variety of wines, from Old World classics to modern favorites at price points that rival those of the East and West Coasts. Here’s your guide to Lawrence’s wine and food scene.

715 Restaurant / Photo by Adam Smith
715 Restaurant / Photo by Adam Smith

Wine-Focused Restaurants

715 Restaurant

Tucked inside a historic brick building along the city’s main drag, Massachusetts Street (known locally as “Mass Street”), 715 Restaurant is both cozy and modern. It features an exposed limestone wall, open kitchen and simple yet effective design.

The bistro opened in 2009, focusing on New American cuisine with Tuscan influences peppered in, and was one of the few downtown restaurants to place an emphasis on wine. It’s expanded its offerings over the years, though there’s still plenty of Italian fare like pizza and housemade pasta that feature local ingredients. Choose from 20 wines by the glass or approximately 100 bottles with prices that start below $30.

“Our wine list is extensive because we want the options to be there for whatever sort of dining experience our guests want to have,” says Katrina Weiss, a partner and the beverage director. The list ranges from approachable options like the house Sangiovese to more obscure Italian varieties.

Stop in for an amaro flight or a glass of Cava, or pair your meal with a bottle of something rich and spicy, like the Il Borro Pian di Nova from Tuscany coming soon to their spring menu.

Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar / Photo by Adam Smith
Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar / Photo by Adam Smith

Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar

Fresh oysters and crab cakes may not come to mind when you think of Kansas, but Mass St. Fish House has embraced that incongruity since it opened two years ago. The wine list, which leans heavily on natural labels, is equally alluring.

“Our wine selection is more focused on sparkling wines and white wines because of the nature of our food,” says Waeckerle. It features a range of Old and New World wines, from skin-fermented rosé and sparkling Gamay to Californian Chardonnay and Carignan.

“Hopefully in two years, none of these labels are still on our list because we’ve found things to fall in love with and introduce to the Lawrence market,” says Klein.

Don’t miss the daily happy hour where you can get a dozen oysters and a bottle of Cava for $30, or two cans of craft beer and a crab cake for $15.

Merchants Pub & Plate / Photo by Doug Stremel
Merchants Pub & Plate / Photo by Doug Stremel

Merchants Pub & Plate

This unusual space on the corner of Mass Street & E 8th used to house a bank before it became an expansive farm-to-table eatery. The open-tiered space accommodates a spacious dining room and an oversized bar nook with 30 beers on tap.

The wine list, however, is Merchants’ crowning glory, with more than 50 labels that range from Sancerre to Carmenère. Annie Wade, the front of house manager and wine list curator, focuses on offerings from overlooked regions.

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I get excited when I see wine lists around here with something from Lebanon or Georgia,” says Wade. “That’s why we have the Adventure Wine section of the menu. It has varietals that people often forget about or haven’t experienced, like an old vine Carignan. It also has wines from locations not usually at the front of the market like Greece, and wines that undergo interesting techniques, like a carbonic Merlot.”

On the Rocks / Photo courtesy On the Rocks
On the Rocks / Photo courtesy On the Rocks

Where to Shop for Wine

On the Rocks

While restaurants educate residents about new and exciting wines, local shops are equally important for wine lovers looking to explore new categories. Matt Easley, owner of On the Rocks, strives to help people find the wines on shelves that they enjoy in restaurants.

“The restaurant scene in Lawrence is very good, so when people try something new, we then have it on our shelves,” says Easley, who says he to stocks about 2,400 labels from around the world. Natural wines have become more popular, as has high-quality boxed wine. Vinho Verde is also a popular option with customers. Easley aims to have wines from regions all over the world, from Grecian Retsina to semisweet local wines.

Cork & Barrel
Cork & Barrel

Cork & Barrel

Cork & Barrel has two locations in Lawrence and boasts 2,200 labels that range from under-the-radar U.S. regions to Old World staples. The shop hosts free weekly tastings and a monthly Wine Share, where customers can subscribe for themed flights of higher-end wines in a casual, community setting at nearby 1856 Bar & Grill.

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City Wine Market

While larger Lawrence retailers focus on a wide range of wines, smaller boutique-style shops have entered the scene as well. City Wine Market has two locations. The West Lawrence store stocks more than 500 labels with prices that range from $10 to more than $1,000, and a focus on small-production fine wines. The Downtown Lawrence location keeps a smaller inventory of 300–400 labels, with a particularly well-curated selection of craft spirits.

Lark A’Fare / Photo by Jen Young
Lark A’Fare / Photo by Jen Young

Out & About Neighborhoods

Lawrence’s downtown is packed with a variety of bars, restaurants and shops. There’s not much need to venture beyond the main strip for food, drinks or entertainment.

Mass Street and two adjacent streets, New Hampshire and Vermont, offer a wealth of options. Grab brunch and a cocktail at the recently opened Lark A’Fare, or a milkshake and pie at Ladybird Diner. Grab a beer a few blocks over at Free State Brewing Co. or a drink at John Brown’s Underground. Next door sits Liberty Hall, a movie theater and concert venue that boasts a small bar and excellent movie rental shop.

Lawrence also offers plenty of fantastic dive bars. Don’t miss Horsefeathers at Eighth Street Taproom and schooners of local brew at Louise’s. Have a bite at mom-and-pop ice cream shop Sylas and Maddy’s before you shop at Edgar Award-winning bookstore The Raven.

Decade / Photo by Amanda Thompson
Decade / Photo by Amanda Thompson

A few blocks away, East Lawrence is one of the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. Start or end your day at Decade, an East Lawrence café that offers top-notch espresso drinks and teas alongside a tightly curated selection of cocktails, spirits, and natural and biodynamic wines. From there, find Mediterranean eats at Culinaria, unusual suds at the bustling Lawrence Beer Company, or cocktails and wine at Bon Bon, renowned for its Winter Sangria. Be sure to visit James Beard Award finalist 1900 Barker, a bakery and coffee bar.

Bike trails encircle the city and can be used to access the Baker Wetlands nature preserve. Museums on the University of Kansas campus like the Spencer Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum are great for afternoon entertainment. Also, the Lied Center offers a full slate of touring musicals, ballets and orchestra concerts.

Published on March 7, 2019
Topics: Wine Destinations


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