Posted on | January 21, 2016
Written by | Jason Wilson
With gimmicks and gusto, wine bars get more creative.
Last year, on a trip to Milan, I found myself in La Cieca (“The Blind”), a narrow, easy-to-miss neighborhood joint. It had an amazing list of hard-to-find wines from all over Italy. Beyond that, the real hook at La Cieca is a chalkboard called “Vini alla Cieca,” a series of mystery wines, priced from 5 to 9 euros. If you guess the region and grape of the mystery wine, the wine is free.
But there’s a catch. All the mystery wines are served in black glasses, making the game extremely challenging and huge fun. It also served another commercial purpose: Even though I guessed two of the lower-prices ones, I ended up dropping twice as many euros than I would have in a typical wine bar in my attempt to guess all five…and then more after. It’s no surprise that Gambero Rosso, the prestigious Italian wine guide, honored La Cieca for its “innovative formula” in 2015.
When I returned home, I began thinking about the state of wine bars—and I realized that one didn’t have to go to Milan to find innovation. Much of what is happening now in American cities—in both marketing and menus—represents, if not a reinvention of the wheel, then at least a reimagining.
Traditional marketing elements in play for wine bars are no secret—themed flights; food pairings; classes and events; happy hours; daily/weekly/monthly specials. But within the wine-bar tool kit, there is lots of room for creativity, and that’s on top of curating the wines themselves.
“It is something that’s spreading, but it’s a slow movement,” says David Foss, wine buyer at Anfora Wine Bar in the West Village, and a hospitality and wine consultant for projects across the country. There’s no single formula for success—and savvy wine bars from popping corks with success in cities large and small.
Take Philadelphia, for instance. Tria, with three locations, is arguably the city’s signature wine bar. But Jet Wine Bar, a quirky spot on South Street owned by a wine-loving professional archaeologist, is an example of how wine bar can also be a neighborhood hangout. “People can get wine anywhere,” Jill Weber, owner of Jet, notes rhetorically. “How else can you distinguish yourself?”
Here are a few ways wine bars are getting it done in style and with success:
Remember The Word ‘Bar’ in Wine Bar
“A wine bar is no different than a bar,” Weber says. It’s a simple idea that too many wine bars operators lose sight of. There’s always the looming danger of becoming too precious, nerdy, or… gasp…pretentious. Of course, almost every wine bar owner I meet goes to great length to tell me their joint “isn’t pretentious.” But we all know that’s true about half the time. A wine bar perceived as all tux and no jeans is probably not fit for the long haul.
At Jet, Weber has a neighborhood drinking crowd that comes not just for the wine, but also for DJs playing hip-hop, and for cocktails. “We strive to make it friendly but not dumb,” she says.
“You have to make it approachable, from really nerdy to mass market,” says Foss. “Balance is a word I use all the time.” His definition of wine-bar balance means offering a well-curated selection of beer, spirits and cocktails. He gives the example of four buddies: two are wine geeks, one only drinks craft beer, one prefers whiskey; if someone suggests a bar that’s too wine-centric, half the party immediately vetoes. “If you’re strictly wine, you needlessly narrow your audience,” Foss says. “You should offer a little of everything, and not do it half-assed.”
Drinking Off The Beaten Path
Introducing people to new wines has always been part of a wine bar’s bread-and-butter mission. But these days, the pressure to offer something offbeat is intense. Millennials—and everyone else—are drinking differently.
“At Anfora, 10 to 15 percent of my clientele comes in and says, ‘What do you have that’s interesting and I’ve never heard of before?’” Foss notes. “At the lower entry point, those should be the interesting, weird wines.” But he warns: “They have to be good as well as interesting.” For Anfora, that means orange wines from Georgia, Sylvaner from Franken, Teroldego from Trentino, and offerings from Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
Eastern European wines are being embraced outside of New York as well. The biggest seller at Jet recently was a Pinot Noir from Romania. How do you sell these kinds of wines to a Philly neighborhood crowd? “We don’t present these as anything unusual,” Weber says. “It’s always presented as just a good wine. It’s presented the same as Bordeaux.”
Coravin Is Now A Verb
Foss insists that, at least in New York, “Coravin has changed everything.” B.C. (Before Coravin), it was impossible for wine bars to pour older vintages or even just more expensive wines by the glass. Coravin solved that by allowing wine to be extracted anaerobically through a needle inserted through the cork. Anfora, for instance, can pour a Selbach-Oster 2005 Mosel Riesling, which lists at $80/bottle, for $20 by the glass. While those prices may seem high for a glass, today’s prime wine bar customer is often looking to splurge on a special—but affordable—experience.
“Coravin is a great tool, as long as you know how to use it,” Foss says. He estimates the Coravin allows him to pour from a bottle for almost three weeks. He even uses it as a verb: “Let’s say people are on the fence for a $60 bottle. You can say, ‘Look, I can Corvain you a taste, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy the bottle.’ You look generous and great.”
Sure, plenty of places still run the old, let’s-get-rid-of-wine-we-can’t-sell-at-happy-hour deals. But these days, creative wine bars are realizing there’s money to made by offering discounts at the higher end—encouraging customers to delve deeper into the wine list.
At Corkbuzz in Manhattan, all bottles of Champagne are half-priced after 10:00pm. That Cédric Bouchard Blanc de Noirs might seem out of most customers’ league at $290. But at $145, suddenly they might take the plunge. At Tria in Philadelphia, one of their three locations is experimenting with a “luxury happy hour,” offering Barolo and Savennières for $10 a glass.
“Gimmicks work,” says Foss, bluntly. Especially enticing for customers are interactive games like La Cieca’s blind tastings in black glasses. At La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, they also run a mystery wine promotion. But even more popular is the bar’s “Sommekase” option, based on the Japanese “omakase”—meaning “I leave it up to you (the chef).” With the Sommekase option, the sommeliers choose a “bespoke assortment of wine, tailored to fit your mood” with price points at $30, $60 and $90.
Beyond The Boring Lecture
People still love guidance. And classes still do work. But the old, dry lectures are out. Wine classes need a new hook. For her classes at Jet, Jill Weber draws on her experiences as an archaeologist to go far afield from traditional wine education. Recent classes included “On The Wine Trail of Hercules” as well as a Pope-themed tasting tied to Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to Philadelphia. “The general gist is to do something that not everyone is doing,” Weber says. “Jet’s clientele weren’t brought up understanding Premier Cru. They’re learning as they go.”
Foss insists that classes at Anfora—even basic classes on wine pairings—are an essential part of exposing new customers to the bar. “We find massive retention after the classes, but you got to have the personality for them,” Foss says. “I’ve been to so many led by people who very knowledgeable, but they’re so dry, I want to bang my head against