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How Chefs Are Making Wine Bars Happen in America

From Wildair and the Four Horsemen in NYC to Bar Crenn and Verjus in San Francisco, America’s chefs are resetting expectations of what a wine bar can be

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The bar at Dame, in Portland, OR

Wine bars aren’t a new thing in the drinking world. They’re actually one of the oldest: The first probably opened several thousand years ago, and they’ve been a fixture in European cities for centuries. Even in the U.S., Americans have been heading to these specialist venues for afternoon tasting events, afterwork drinks, and blind dates since the 1970s.

But lately, it seems like every city has a chef who’s gone to Paris and come back with plans to open a wine bar in the spirit of the convivial cave a mangers like L’Avant Comptoir and neo-bistros like Septime that are thriving there — and subtly transforming the wine bar as we know it. This year alone, big-deal Portland chef Gabriel Rucker opened a wine bar, as did fine dining star Dominique Crenn in San Francisco, the Joe Beef team in Montreal, and several other chefs. More are on their way, including a new wine bar from Michael and Lindsay Tusk, of the hit restaurant Cotogna and the three-Michelin-starred Quince, in San Francisco.

These wine bars vary a bit in their DNA — some have attached shops, some have full dinner service — but share a few key characteristics. They all serve mostly natural wine and ambitious, French-inflected food, whether it’s fun bar snacks like foie gras dumplings at Rucker’s Canard and uni hummus at Mon Lapin or more old-school dishes like quenelles Lyonnaise at Bar Crenn and bavette steak frites at LA’s Oriel. They all claim to be casual (even when some are obviously not) and say they drew inspiration from the flourishing wine-bar scenes in cities like Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, and Copenhagen.

And together, they’re all playing a role in resetting expectations of what a wine bar can be; not a stodgy ’80s-throwback where you had a bad date once, but something that feels vital and relevant to the food scene in 2018. Like beer and cocktail bars before it, the wine bar is poised for a rebranding. The question is whether we’re ready to embrace it.

bottles of wine lined up on a table
A selection of natural wines at Dame in Portland, OR

One big problem with wine bars is that you have to get Americans to drink wine. Admittedly, this has gotten easier, but it’s still a fraught subject, full of hidden minefields of wealth and taste. “It’s this insane mindfuck,” says Helen Johannsen, who runs the beverage program at all the Johnny Shook and Vinny Dotolo restaurants in LA and her own small wine shop out of the back of Jon & Vinny’s. “It’s a really complicated and challenging and clubby world.”

The world gets even clubbier when it comes to natural wine, the cool-kid style of the moment and the star offering at today’s current crop of wine bars. These wines are made with minimal intervention and additives, and because of that, are often small-batch and, yes, artisanal. Many drinkers still associate them with the gnarliest, most unfiltered wines out there, but natural wines can be fruity or funky, cloudy or clear. Chefs and wine people love them because they’re fresh and different, often made with less-familiar grapes. And as they add these wines to their lists at restaurants like Dame in Portland and Husk in Nashville, and as shops like Johannsen’s and Lou’s Wine Shop in Los Angeles present them in a breezy, non-threatening way, diners are getting more comfortable with ordering them.

“We used to get bottles sent back all the time, and that wasn’t so long ago … We just had to wait it out a bit,” says Jeremiah Stone of Wildair, the natural-wine-only bar and restaurant that opened on the Lower East Side of New York in 2015. Now, people come to Wildair specifically to drink them. Like local ingredients and small plates once were, “natural wine” has become something of a secret handshake in the restaurant world, a way to signal to your customers exactly what you are. And, in turn, going to places that feature these wines — and Instagramming your experience — tells the world that you’re cool enough to be in on the trend too.

But, with a few notable exceptions (Cadet in Napa, Terroir in New York, Bacchanal in New Orleans all come to mind), the wine bar as Americans know it hasn’t always been a cool place to hang out. Many feel stuck in a perpetual ’90s twilight, even if they opened in the aughts: dark wood; velvet upholstery; backlit wine racks; and menus heavy on balsamic drizzles, baked goat cheese, bacon-wrapped dates, and other food-world dinosaurs. These preset expectations for what wine bars are (and aren’t) can work against would-be operators, as the Four Horsemen, the Williamsburg restaurant and bar, found out the hard way when it opened in 2015. It had a full kitchen (and a literal rockstar owner), but early press pigeonholed it as a wine bar, and customers didn’t consider it a place for a full meal.

“We did brunch and people were like, why would we come for a wine bar for brunch?” says Justin Chearno, co-owner and wine director. “We spent a lot of time redirecting the conversation.” (Their solution was, brilliantly, to start calling it “lunch,” and their reservations filled up the first weekend.)

A selection of plates and a server pouring wine at Dame in Portland, OR

The new class of wine-bar operators, from Portland to Los Angeles to New York, will likely benefit from the trailblazing done by Wildair, the Four Horsemen, and other wine bars like Ordinaire in Oakland, California; June in NYC; and Rootstock in Chicago. The trial and error from these early pioneers has made natural wine more mainstream and given places opening now license to push the trend forward; not only to serve natural wine, but also to recreate the casual, spontaneous, anything-goes vibe that attracted so many chefs to Parisian wine bars in the first place.

At Verjus in San Francisco, the Tusks want to blow up the staid dining conventions that worked so well at Quince and Cotogna. When they open in early fall, they plan to do away with a printed menu and wine list, offering communal seating in the connected wine shop, and serve food in unexpected ways, like a daily special fish stew ladled tableside from a tureen.

“When you’re at a pintxos bar in Barcelona or cave a manger in Paris or really fun bars in London, they strip away all the convention and you get this richer experience because of it,” says Verjus managing partner Matt Cirne. He sees these wine bars as analogous to the pubs of his British youth, where you’d stop by for a drink and not know who you’d run into or meet, or how long you’d be there. “I don’t think America has the cultural equivalent.”

That said, even with all their experience and accolades, they’re not confident the Verjus of their imagination — a social club as much as a wine bar — is going to work in San Francisco. “We’re looking at it as a bit of a social experiment.”

All bars and restaurants are, to some extent. When the first U.S. wine bar opened in 1974, only a few blocks from Verjus, Americans didn’t have a vocabulary for it either. The San Francisco Chronicle review praised the “uniqueness” of “a place to go for drinking rather than just tasting wines.” Nearly 50 years later, as more and more of these places open, Americans may finally be ready to move beyond thinking of the wine bar as exclusively “a place to drink wine” and more as a place to find great food and community, accompanied by a glass of something delicious — and maybe a little funky.

Anna Roth is a writer based in New York. Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, OR.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan