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Are Americans Doing the Wine Bar Thing Right, and Does it Matter?

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With new natural wine bars opening, the U.S. is embracing European drinking culture.

Inside New York's La Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels.
Inside New York's La Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels.
La Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels

A wine bar is not a wine bar is not a wine bar. Many establishments that serve wine, often labeled "Enoteca" or boasting a "house special" on a sidewalk chalkboard, are places to bring an internet date to drink quickly without actually caring about where you are or what you’re quaffing. But a different, Parisian-style wine bar has been popping up in U.S. cities thanks to a rise in appreciation of wine—especially, natural wine.

In New York City alone, three natural wine bars have opened up within the last six months: June and Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, and Wildair in Lower Manhattan. All feature an extensive selection of almost exclusively European wines made with little or no sulfur (a common preservative), and many are produced from less common grape varieties often farmed without pesticides. Although all of these venues serve food, wine takes center stage, and menus are designed to complement the juice, rather than the other way around. The inspiration for these wine bars lies in Paris, where the first establishments devoted to serving unmanipulated, easy-drinking wine cropped up in the 1990s.

Justin Chung

Inside Brooklyn's Four Horsemen. Photo by Justin Chung.

... a different, Parisian-style wine bar has been popping up in U.S. cities thanks to a rise in appreciation of wine—especially, natural wine.

Amongst the debutantes was L’ange Vin, the Montmartre bar à vins of Jean-Pierre Robinot (who now makes wine in the Loire Valley), which opened in 1989 and served casual fare like rillettes and tartines. In the early 1990s came Le Baratin, a cozy bistro in the 19th arrondissement that is now more of a restaurant. Zev Rovine, who started importing French natural wine to the U.S. (including that of Robinot) in 2008, recalls that these early restaurants were the main source of business in the French capital for pioneering natural winemakers like Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, and Domaine Gramenon—all renowned estates today. For those winemakers, says Rovine, Paris' early wine bars provided a guaranteed market.

The Paris natural wine bar scene grew quickly and peaked somewhat with 10th arrondissement star Le Verre Volé in the mid-aughts, along with Pierre Jancou’s bar Racines, which he sold in 2007. Manhattan scored its own branch of Racines in April 2014.

Inside Brooklyn's June wine bar. Photo courtesy of June.

Right now, domestic natural wine bar culture is strongest in New York City for various reasons. Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at the wine bar Le Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, which hit Soho three years after its Parisian location opened in 2011, attributes Manhattan's wine scene to variations in state laws. "Given that each state has its own crazy liquor laws, that makes it very difficult for importers to operate in other markets outside the big boys," explained Ganzer. He continued on to mention that most imbibers just recently have begun to appreciate un-manipulated wine. "Natural wine has only been a serious player in New York City for less than 10 years," he said, adding that major New York natural wine importers have only in the last few years expanded to markets outside the city.

Beyond Paris and New York, the natural wine bar scene has flourished in Copenhagen, Tokyo, London and Sydney. But what, exactly, distinguishes these bars from other wine bars—aside from the emphasis on artisanal wine with fewer additives? Firstly, these bars embrace a casual attitude toward drinking, and a propensity to drink a lot—one of the oft-cited reasons for imbibing sulfur-free wine is that it doesn’t cause as much of a hangover. Also, these bars are typically tiny and intimate. Randy Moon, co-owner of the Four Horsemen, loves the cozy wine bars of Tokyo and Kyoto that might have as few as ten seats plus a kitchen with just one cook.

Wilder by Daniel Kreiger

Inside New York's Wildair by Daniel Krieger

... Americans have a different, and overall less casual, attitude toward wine, which defines how we experience it.

Another differentiating point is the type of food these bars serve. Jeremiah Stone explains that at Wildair he and co-chef Fabian von Hauske serve dishes that are more complex and robust than what one might find at a Parisian wine bar. "A lot of the food you see in [Parisian] wine bars is more concise, simple, based around nice products—but it’s kind of hard to sell that food in New York to be honest," he states. "So we have dishes that are a little more complete but still flavors that are fresh and light."

In Paris, says Rovine, the "apero" culture (short for apéritif) is a defining aspect of wine bar culture. "You could go with a friend, in the afternoon, walk into a wine bar, get a nice light fresh bottle of natural wine for 15 euros, drink it with two people, spend 8 euros on some snacks, move on with life and you just spend 15 dollars each," he says wistfully. Whereas at the wine bars opening stateside, the reality is different: the cost of importing wines and high restaurant overheads in general make it impossible to enjoy wine as cheaply. "The supply chain informs the way we drink wine a little bit. It becomes an expensive luxury experience as opposed to an everyman’s afternoon," says Rovine. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, Americans have a different, and overall less casual, attitude toward wine, which defines how we experience it.

Inside Philly's a.bar. Photo courtesy of a.bar.

This American view toward wine is a source of frustration for some, such as Bradford Taylor who, about two years ago, gave Oakland a small, casual natural wine bar called Ordinaire. Natural wine culture in the Bay Area, says Taylor, is "really nascent, in its early stages especially compared to New York or Paris. We’re the only natural wine bar in Oakland." Taylor moved to Paris in 2007 when the "natural wine scene was just exploding." In particular, he enjoyed Le Verre Volé, as well as the city’s various caves à manger, bottle shops that also serve food and sell wines either to go or dine in (this is allowed in some U.S. states, like Oregon and California, but regrettably not all). "I loved how in France there was a tight connection between the retailer, the caviste, and the vigneron, and the customers," recalls Taylor. "Winemakers would visit these shops, and they’d be excited to be there and see what else the shop was carrying."

Bar Ordinaire

Inside Oakland's Ordinaire. Photo courtesy of Bar Ordinaire.

So, how is apero different than that venerable American institution, the happy hour? As Taylor puts it, "When you have an aperitif it’s like the night is full of possibilities—you could turn the evening into a dinner. Whereas happy hour almost seems like a way to end your day; it’s after work and you’re like, "I’m gonna get slammed."

Inside Pairings in Portland. Photo courtesy of Pairings.

Regardless of whether apero culture ever catches on in the U.S., it’s clear that natural wine bar culture is emerging in New York Cityand slowly other parts of the country. Although it might take time for other states to gain access to the kinds of natural wines we see in New York.

Ordinaire is one of the few new examples of domestic natural wine bars outside of New York. Slightly north of Oakland there's two-year-old Pairings in Portland, Oregon, a retail shop and wine bar, which organizes its bottles by mood ("whimsical," or "serious"). Then back on the East Coast, also newish to the natural wine bar scene is a.bar in Philadelphia, a sleek, minimalist cafe also serving un-manipulated wine.

An unlikely champion of New York’s natural wine bar scene is former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, who happens to be a co-owner of Four Hoursemen. And his status as a rock star has unfortunately overshadowed the restaurant’s opening despite its stellar wine list. But, in Rovine’s opinion, that might not be an entirely bad thing: "People talk so much about organic in terms of ingredients, and their food—but then they buy horseshit wine full of chemicals. So if James Murphy helps get that message out, all the better."

The Four Horsemen

295 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 599-4900 Visit Website

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