What's with this wine bar phenomenon, anyway? Surely, people aren't patronizing these places just to drink wine and chow down; they could do the same at many restaurants. True, wine consumption in the U.S. is up - 40 percent in 2003 from the previous year, according to the "Wines Northwest" Web site - and wine bars generally offer multiple wines by the glass, or even by the sip. Plus, they often offer small plates rather than full meals.

Still, the buzz surrounding wine bars is as much about their engaging scene as what they sell. Atmosphere is their stock in trade, and customers perceive these establishments as hip hangouts to impress a date or chat up some captivating character ensconced on an adjacent stool. Lord knows who a person might encounter comparing the bouquets of Oregon and Italian pinot gris or sipping the hottest new wine from Walla Walla.

Wine bars may not have originated in the Northwest, but they flourish in Portland and Seattle. Now they've taken root in our region. Here's a look inside a popular one.

MANZANITA - Even though it's situated just off Manzanita's main drag, you have to look for pint-sized Vino Manzanita (it's behind Bread and Ocean Bakery). Yet this wine bar is hardly nondescript, especially inside, where the decor is bold, stylish and functional, accentuated by track lighting and cool jazz.

Four owners - Gary Brown, Pawel Michal, Craig Nern and Terri Desaro - make this place tick, lending lots of personal attention and wine expertise. Recently I spoke with Nern, who along with his wife, Desaro, divides time between Boise and Manzanita. They plan to relocate to the coast soon.

Nern believes wine bars are here to stay. "They're about a place to be, as well as the wine," he asserts. "People strike up a conversation, and others are likely to join in. A wine bar is a phenomenon that has a social aspect to it."

At Vino Manzanita, comfy surroundings contribute to that gregarious mood. Some pieces of furniture are fashioned from refurbished roughhewn timbers, including the bar itself, a massive fir beam that Nern suspects once served as part of the foundation for a Portland-area dry dock. The floor is unfinished cement, the ceiling stark white, and large paintings dominate two walls colored black and steel blue, respectively. A mirror covers a third wall, lending the appearance of additional space. Be sure to smile when entering, because you'll be looking at yourself.

These are intimate quarters; chances are, you'll end up in close proximity to other imbibers who may be occupying the two tables (with chocolate-colored suede chairs), the cushioned benches (one fronts a table created from the center cut of a tree) and six or so bar stools.

Overflow customers spill out onto the patio, just outside the front entrance. As Nern suggests, with minimum effort you might become involved in other patrons' conversations.

Vino Manzanita's wine menu is weighted toward Oregon and Washington, Nern says, but wines from around the world are represented. "We seek out smaller producers, and we want to help people experience boutique brands," he adds.

Although not deep in any category, the selection is nevertheless intriguing. Listed next to a red blend from Andrew Rich Cellars, a well-regarded Columbia Valley (Wash.) producer, is Territorial pinot noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley, certainly not a well-known name.

All wines are served in fine stemware, and the current lineup includes 18 bottled wines and a dozen by the glass, ranging in price from $5 for a pour of Italian pinot grigio from Montevento to $98 for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Reserve Rose Champagne.

Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, brunello, chardonnay, semillon and additional sparklers, along with merlot-cab and tempranillo-grenache blends can be had. And while the breadth of wines is commendable - France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Australia, Portugal and California also are represented on the wine list - more choices by the glass (or flights of three or more, by the sip) would be welcome.

"We assemble food instead of prepare it," Nern says about Vino Manzanita's fare. Sustenance revolves around arrangements of meats, cheeses and sundry finger foods ($3 to $12). An antipasti plate showcases slices of white cheddar, wine-cured salami and French bread, two types of olives and irresistible Marcona almonds that taste like candy. Try the antipasti with a glass of Mayol malbec from Argentina or the Bodegas Muga tempranillo-grenache blend from Spain's Rioja region.

Exceptionally creamy French brie sided with dried apricots, Manchego cheese accompanied by dried pears and smoked salmon matched with that same white cheddar are other winners. A glass or bottle of the Sonoma Valley (Calif.) Murphy-Goode chardonnay would make a fine accompaniment. Australian late-harvest semillon from Elderton is a smashing dessert wine and pairs well with Vino Manzanita's flourless chocolate cake. Also look for lemon cheesecake, chocolate truffles or other delights. "Chocolate goes well with red wine," Nern asserts. If you dine somewhere nearby, you should consider Vino Manzanita for post-meal beverages and treats.

"At first we thought we'd just be serving wine and a few beers," says Nern about Vino Manzanita's beginnings a year and a half ago. "Now we're content to tinker with the (food and wine) menu, and it will continue to evolve. We're always experimenting."

Vino Manzanita

387-D Laneda Ave., Manzanita

(503) 368-8466

Hours: Thursday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to whenever. Extended hours after Memorial Day.

What's hot: The scene and the surprisingly broad wine selection.

What's not: More choices of wine by the glass, or some by the sip, would be welcome, along with additional food and dessert picks.

Recommended: Many wines (Mayol malbec, Andrew Rich red blend, Elderton late-harvest semillon, to name three), French brie with dried apricots, antipasti platter, Manchego cheese and dried pears, flourless chocolate cake.

Other info: All major credit cards accepted. The entrance and restroom are accessible to people in wheelchairs. Minors permitted on the patio, only.