The Platonic Form of the Wine Bar

(Originally published March 2003)

Hanes fully realizes how anal retentive he is. Pair this tendency towards outrage with the ever-increasing number of "wine bars" in New York City and watch the pot boil! While there are certainly a few nice wine bars around, to Hanes, the vast majority of these wine bars are just riding what's hot and trendy without really giving two sheets about what should make a wine bar worth the name. While understanding that any alcohol slinging establishment is at base a for-profit enterprise and thus labors under certain constraints, here is Hanes's take on why one should open a wine bar and his utopian vision of the perfect wine bar.

First, one has to ask why one would want to open a wine bar versus a regular bar that serves all kinds of hootch. Perhaps surprisingly, it appears that most wine bar proprietors do not ask themselves this soul-searching question before opening their doors for business. One gets the impression that their answer would be along the lines of "It would be fun to own a wine bar!" While Hanes doesn't want to piss in anyone's corn flakes, fun really isn't the best of reasons. For better or worse, wine appreciation can be a serious matter. Especially when you are paying $10 to $15 or more per glass! A good proprietor of a wine bar should know wine fairly inside and out, including how to provide the appropriate environment in which to not only derive immediate pleasure from that glass of vino but also analyze it and learn. Wine is "hot" right now and many people want to increase their knowledge of the vine -- it's a gosh darn shame to lure innocent folks into a purported wine bar and then leave them with their wallets much lighter and their level of knowledge the same as before.

OK, Mister Know-It-All, what should a wine bar have to provide a casual and enjoyable atmosphere and yet maintain the potential for an edifying and uplifting experience?

Well, you start with everything outside of the bottle. The most important starting point is attitude. If ownership and management are not committed to really spreading the gospel of the vine, things will go nowhere fast. This means attention to detail and realizing that cutting corners translates in the end to debasing the wine -- the "star of the show" is the wine and anything that doesn't underscore this fact has gotta go. How does this cash out in terms of forming the appropriate environment?

You need good lighting. Many bars are so damn dark you're lucky if you can see if there's red wine or white wine in your glass. A wine bar should have bright lighting and as many white surfaces as possible over which to analyze the wine's color. If management wants "mood" then use focused halogen light beams that leave intimate darkness surrounding them while providing bright beams of light when and where you need them. If you cannot judge the clarity and color of the wine, it ain't a wine bar.

You need to be able to hear yourself. Sure, it's hip to have DJ Von DJ spinning hot tracks in the corner but part of any educational experience is being able to talk about what's happening, here the wine in the glass. Music is a part of any bar experience and you don't have to necessarily play soft classical music. But wine appreciation requires thought and conversation. If you have to shout at someone two feet from you, it ain't a wine bar.

You have to be able to smell the wine unimpaired. To most wine aficionados, smelling the wine is at least half the fun if not more. As a result, any true wine bar needs to be ever-vigilant about eliminating other scents that can interfere with enjoying the wine's bouquet. This mainly means cigarette smoke, public enemy #1. No way in hell you can tease out the subtleties of that $30 glass of Sauternes when the room is so smoky your clothes reek of it for days. Thankfully (says the non-cigarette smoking Hanes), New York City is soon to ban smoking in all bars thus alleviating this concern locally. Another major offense to one's olfactory sense is cologne/perfume. Dumping half a bottle of "Obsession" on your rump and then heading out to a wine bar is a no-no people! In the interest of general well-being go unscented that evening -- let the bouquet of that fine Chianti or Ribera del Duero get your special someone all hot and bothered or take a nice scented bath together when you go home. If you smell much of anything except wine, it ain't a wine bar.

You must have proper storage. Wine is a sensitive beast and should be treated with care. Once you have taken cases of vinous delight into your hands it should be stored at as close to 55 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. Stacking cases by the boiler or radiator is bad policy. That's when the bottles haven't been opened. After they have been opened they should not be allowed to oxidize unnecessarily. If your wine bar is serving esoteric wines or it's a slow night you may only serve two or three glasses from a particular bottle that night. Since it's wasteful to pour the rest out, you need to employ one of the many professional systems that keep wines fresh (vacuum controlled, CO2, etc.). It adds expense but respects the product. And there will be times when some wine gets poured down the drain so that the next day of business will start with a fresh bottle. Just as there will be times when you'll have to deny a customer's request to open a fresh bottle of an expensive wine at 2:30 AM, knowing it's not worth letting the remaining wine fade overnight. If the wine is not stored in a manner aimed at maintaining freshness, it ain't a wine bar.

You have to know the right serving temperature. This is close in spirit to properly storing wines. Customers are on the whole drinking glasses, not full bottles. They don't have the time to let the wine reach optimal drinking temperature. This means the white wines should not be served too cold nor the red wines too warm. If this means that the servers have to be vigilant about taking bottles in and out of coolers, so be it. But there's little worse than, for example, stopping in a wine bar for a quick glass and having to wait 10 minutes for your Pinot Grigio to warm up to the point where you can taste it. If the wines are not served at a temperature that maximizes flavor and scent penetration, it ain't a wine bar.

You need signage and wine menus that provide the necessary information in choosing wine. Hanes cannot tell you how many wine bars he has visited that do not list the vintage date of the wines or the grapes used in the wines. Err, Hanes just told you. Anyway, it's a basic wine appreciation fact that vintage variation can be vast. Tell the customer if that Californian Cabernet is from 1997 or 1998. Let the customer in on the fact that the Bourgogne blanc is made from Chardonnay. These are not arcane secrets. If the wine menus are not clear and informative, it ain't a wine bar.

You should have appropriate stemware and know which wines are served in which glasses. This can get expensive, yes, but the value of serving wine in the correct stems cannot be stressed enough. It can be like night and day in appreciating a wine. Sure, it's "cute" to serve wine in jelly jar glasses or tumblers. But if you want cute go buy a "Hello Kitty" lunchbox and keep wine glasses out of it. Keep the glasses clean, make sure you get all the soap residue out before serving and ensure the glasses are stored in such a way that they do not capture too many musty scents when not in use. If the establishment doesn't serve their wines in the best stemware they can afford, it ain't a wine bar.

You have to know how food interacts with wine. A full kitchen is not required (and in some cases may be a detriment or too costly) but a fairly broad array of finger foods, cheeses, sliced meats, olives, etc. is a plus. There are so many wines that cannot fully shine without food and any wine bar proprietor should know this. And keep it cheap too! There's no need to act like all your clientele is drinking on an expense account. Keep it simple, keep it savory. If there's no food to embellish the wine, it ain't a wine bar.

The above covers most of the basics in setting up a kick butt wine bar that respects the wine and goes the extra mile to make sure it receives every opportunity to perform most excellently. But there's two more very important things to consider to conclude our utopian vision.

Management needs to be fair in pricing and selection. Not everyone who saunters into a wine bar is an investment banker. It's a real turn-off to want to learn more about wine and get sticker shock when you see the wine menu. If it's fair to pay, say, $4 for a pint of Guinness beer then why can't you find some decent wines you can serve for $4 per glass? It's disheartening to say the least to see a bottle you know retails for $10 being served for $7 per glass (particularly if they are stingy with the amount poured). There's nothing wrong with a healthy profit margin but keep it real. In an ideal world, at least half the wine menu would be priced at $6 per glass or less. The wines are out there and it doesn't cost that much to pour a glass of wine. Especially if you're not paying for a stinking DJ!

The selection should be as broad as possible, with some easily recognizable brands or varietals and some more unique offerings. Make the customer comfortable and slowly get them to move from Merlot to Mourvèdre to Zweigelt. So many people want to experiment when drinking wine but you need to help them overcome any fear factor and not look like a clod in front of their date by ordering a Grüner Veltliner. And take things a step further by finding out from your distributor rep where people can buy the bottles you serve -- small customer-focused touches like this count!

The last point leads into the most important aspect of a wine bar. Please, please, please, only hire people who genuinely love wine. We don't need to be served by some pretty mannequin who doesn't take the gum out of her mouth as she tastes her Chardonnay. The staff should be friendly but also know their shit and not be afraid to disagree as unobnoxiously as possible. No canned banter, listen to the customer and if they know what they are doing leave them alone. If they are clueless, make some suggestions. But definitely have the skill to assess the wine sophistication of a customer fairly quickly. And beyond that know when things aren't right. Like when the wine temperature isn't good. Or when a bottle is corked or cooked. No customer should have to point out to a server that the wine is flawed. You don't just open the bottle and start pouring, you inspect the wine to ensure it is as it should be. If you wouldn't serve frozen french fries, you shouldn't serve corked wines.

OK, that's a lot of requirements! If they are met, Hanes suspects it is still possible to turn a profit and create a fun drinking hole in the bargain. It doesn't really matter if you want to serve nothing but Merlot and Chardonnay or nothing but Syrah and Muscadet. The key is to keep the spotlight on the wine, not on how cool you or your clientele are. Once you have to fight for space on some velvet banquette with B-list models and actors holding flutes of Cristal, it's time to pop a bottle in peace at home and wait for the next martini craze to empty the wine bars of those idolaters with cell phones surgically connected to their ears.