31-03-2015

Defining “wine bar”

What seems like a century ago but was really just in 2008, I wrote a smacky little article on my personal website about my frustration with wine bars in San Francisco. Despite not being the most elegant of prose and some things being wholly incorrect, I stand by the break down of the wine bars at the time in the town. In the preceding seven years many things have changed. Some of these establishments are gone. Others have changed ownership and in general the “wine bar” craze that started in San Francisco around 2005 has leveled out a great deal a decade later. At the same time, the issue of what “wine bar” should actually mean remains quite muddy and frustratingly ill-used as its compatriot at arms, “sommelier”.

In talking with a wine bar owner in Girona today, I asked him if he served any cocktails and he echoed what I said back in 2008 in that his establishment is a “wine bar” first and foremost. He does serve some food, but it’s not the main attraction and anyone who passes through Catalonia’s second town usually stops in for a drink. And this is what I had said in that “Restaurant and Wine Bar” or “Wine Bar and Massage Parlor” are not acceptable. The minute you stick “and” in the name, you’re usually not really anything. As a side note, in France it’s insanely popular to put “salon de thé” on the awnings of restaurants for some reason but I’ve never had a cup of tea worth crap in any place that does this. I suppose I have to look out for “gran salon de thé”…

That digression aside it seems that restaurants who do this are just trying to cast a larger net and I avoid like the plague when in San Francisco. Upon visiting this wickedly expensive peninsula in the Fall of last year, I found that the places I used to go for an interesting glass of wine still held true in that The Barrel Room as well as The Hidden Vine are proper wine bars, the former being in the latter’s former space. Cav on Market street (from where the photo above originates) had closed as well as the original old school London Wine Bar which wasn’t really all that great to start with.

My article in 2008 stated that in Europe, “it’s a funny thing over there in that there are no wine bars” which is completely untrue. Yes, you can get wine in any café but the problem is that you’re probably going to get some crap 3€ a bottle Rioja wine that’s been oxidizing for the last week as opposed to something interesting or good. And in the current climate of wine re-educating the world over several bars have opened in Barcelona dedicated to wine.

Monvínic is probably the most well-known one although the fact that they have a heavy restaurant component tied in to it and while their wine cellar is gorgeous and stupendous, they seem to be slowing drifting in to the ‘and’ format of wine bars. Bar-à-Vins in the old Moritz factory I frequent often as well as they have interesting tastings and also a very worthy wine cellar, although the interior pales in coolness next to Monvínic. Then of course there is Tannat and MésDVi out in Vila Olímpica and Poble Nou respectively as well as the tiny Zim Bar in Gòtic. Both nice little spots to enjoy fermented grape juice as opposed to fermented/distilled grains (ie beer and liquor.)

That’s fine to rattle off a list, but what is it that makes these wine bars feel like the emphasize is on wine? Obviously having a large offer of wines is key as well as a comfortable furnishings, but it’s also having staff that are knowledgeable and curious. This is a tricky, tricky tightrope to walk though as knowledgeable can easily and very quickly slide in to trendy and asshole. This is the case with the “natural” wine bars in Barcelona, Bar Brutal and l’Ànima de Vi which are a drunken bottle toss from one another in the Born District.

There is no denying that these are both “wine bars” but they’re not the kind I’d take anyone I like to, well maybe l’Ànima de Vi as the owner, Benoît is just a curious and odd Frenchmen more so than asshole and I often find myself at his bar as it’s greatly preferable to the other, Bar Brutal. This bar is just all trend and invested in “natural wines”. If you don’t know what these are and are quite happy with the wine you’re drinking, you’ll want to stay away. They focus on cramming their opinions down your throat and being generally arrogant about the wines they serve as if they’re somehow superior rotten grapes in a bottle than all the other rotten grapes in a bottle. Then of course they are insanely overpriced both in terms of wines by-the-glass as well as their “small plates”.

It’s for this reason that a lot of people look at the “wine bar”, scratch their heads and say, “no thank you, I’ll have a beer”. That’s perfectly valid but it’s a shame that due to their ridiculous confusion or over-zealous approach to educating the customer as opposed to serving them that many people are turned off to drinking wine while out and about.

What seems to work best in all of this is an “onion approach” to wine service. You as the sommelier/wine director pick out interesting bottles that also happen to be tasty. You serve these. If people ask questions or are curious, you should be able to tell them about it. If they’re not, just let them enjoy their wine in peace and stumble home a little buzzed, but very content in the bath you’ve given their soul.