Behind The Counter: Diane Gross of Cork Wine Bar


Good friend and one of the women leaders in the DC hospitality scene, Diane Gross, owns Cork Wine Bar & Market with her husband, Khalid Pitts. Cork Wine Bar and Market is now celebrating 16 years! In this business, that is a tremendous feat! A few years back, Cork Wine Bar joined under one roof in the former Cork Market space, creating a unique and innovative wine-centric dining, education, and retail experience. Upstairs is the neighborhood fave, Cork Wine Bar, where 50+ wines by the glass and 250 bottles from small producers worldwide are served. Downstairs, Cork serves up the Tasting Bar and Cork Market, which provide a casual environment in which to taste and buy wine. Whether sipping on the patio, supping upstairs, or perusing the market for wine and noshes to take home, Diane has always wanted to demystify the world of wine. Thankfully, she took some time to share the highs and lows of the last few years year, and …. there’s a bit of an announcement of what’s in Cork’s future at the end; read on ... 


Cork Celebrates our Sweet 16!


When did you open Cork and what made you leave a life as a lawyer to open a restaurant?

My husband Khalid and I opened Cork in 2008 as a neighborhood wine bar in our Logan Circle neighborhood.  We wanted to create a welcoming space, somewhere we wanted to hang out at and where wine and food were accessible coupled with knowledgeable service.  I left the glamorous life as a lawyer for the more glamorous life of a restaurateur!  I was working on Capital Hill right before President Obama was elected and if you look back at the time, it wasn’t so much fun.  So, we hatched a crazy plan to create a space all about wine, focusing on Old World selections, bringing in smaller family run estates from lesser-known producers.  That was 16 years ago and now we still have the same philosophy though many of those same wines have a cult like following today and are much harder to get.    When we opened Cork, there was not much on 14th Street, we have seen it explode in the last decade to become a dining destination. 


What has been your mission in operating Cork?

We wanted to create a not so serious space to enjoy wine, we are serious about what we do and who we chose to have on our list – but we do the work, so our guests don’t have to.  We wanted to demystify the world of wine, so we created descriptions for every wine, complete with country, region and varietal. Guests are free to experiment, our wine team will help them choose (if they want) and we keep the prices reasonable so trying different wines and exploring is still doable.  That has been really important to us and we are constantly sourcing new wines so we can stay true to that mission.


What have been some of the highlights of the past 16 years?

So many – Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, Stevie Wonder, being able to welcome them and share our dining room with them.  Watching people march down 14th Street in celebration on November 2008 and then in protest on November 2016.   The Cork team, many of whom have been with us for years and years.  The Cork guests, talking about wine with thousands of people.  Hosting them for first dates & engagements, celebrating weddings and anniversaries and being sad when people move away.  Feeling apart of so many people’s lives was something I didn’t expect to happen but has in the most surprising and joyful way.   Every time I get a little down about the restaurant world, a regular will stop in and tell me how they would not know what to do without Cork and instantly I am uplifted.  We are grateful for each of these experiences which defines Cork. 


What challenges do you think restaurants are facing now that were not around when you started?  It was definitely less complicated when we started and now it seems more difficult to do the same things.   Rising costs everywhere and the state of DC have really made operating challenging.  It makes it much harder to just operate one place successfully, I think that is why you see even smaller places expanding and after 16 years we have to think about what’s next!  But the adversity that we have all experienced in the past few years has made the community stronger and has developed new ways that we uplift one another.  For instance, women chef’s and food entrepreneurs came together during Covid to form RE:HER, a collective of women in the hospitality world supporting each other – I was fortunate to be on the Founding Board and the support and comradery has been amazing.  We know that we are not facing challenges alone. 


What are the iconic Cork dishes and wines that you serve?

Well definitely our avocado bruschetta (which we may have been the first in DC to do), our fried chicken and braised kale (yes, really!).  For wines, we change it up all the time but there are special wines that our guests keep coming back for Chateau Magneau Bordeaux Blanc, Otto Uve, Crochet Sancerre, Ameztoi Rosé, Vajra Langhe Rosso and of course Lopez de Heredia.  


How do you select wines for the Cork and Cork Spring Valley?

We have a core list that we have worked with for a long time, but we are always adding wines to the list.  We taste every producer that we sell, whether on the wine list or in our retail store.  We have always focused on old world wines from smaller family run estates that are doing sustainable, organic and biodynamic production.  Natural wine before it was a thing.  In essence the folks growing the grapes are making the wine.  Our tasting team is led by Anastasia who is our wine manager.  She takes the lead in finding new wines for our lists, putting together our epic wine flights each month and managing our store. 


What is next for Cork?

More Corks!  We are actively looking for new spots to do some additional wine bars and stores.  Coming to a neighborhood near you soon!