Eric Asimov has a blog post today on The Ten Bells, his favorite Manhattan wine bar. His advocacy of this place really hit a mark, as it has been tweeted and re-tweeted all afternoon. What makes Ten Bells so cool? Well, the headline says it's a "place for wine without the lecture." Asimov adds that "the Ten Bells is just a great place to hang out" and that "perhaps most telling, you can always find a few people at the Ten Bells with no interest at all in wine."
I share Eric's appreciation for the unpretentious. What he wishes for, as do I, is a world without "wine bars," per se. Instead: a world with great bars that also have great wine lists.
But in praising the Ten Bells, Asimov (who is a good friend, btw) is implicitly and, to my mind, unfairly dissing lots of other wine bars, which, I think, are in essence quite similar to his New York fave. I've been to Ten Bells, and it's a great place. But so are many other wine bars. There are the Terroirs (entirely different operations, one in NYC and our own one here in SF). In SF we've also got Yield, Uva, and Nectar--all cool places. And I've never received an unsolicited lecture in any of them. Certainly, I've had to have wines explained to me, since some of them are from obscure places and producers. But that happens at the Ten Bells too, whose list is admittedly (by Asimov) full of esoteric and obscure selections, "like Bereziartua, a wonderfully woolly cider from the Basque country that is a perfect aperitif." The Ten Bells' staff is more than willing to talk wine, writes Asimov, if you want them to.
This is the kind of customer service is about what I'd expect at any decent wine bar. My point is this: Ten Bells is cool because it's casual and busy, frequented by people who love to hang out and drink wine. Many of these also happen to be people who don't need much wine education (lots of industry types--sommeliers, wine bloggers, importers, according to Asimov), so the lectures are kept under cork. Why aren't there more wine bars like Ten Bells? Because there ain't enough red-stained wine geeks to raucously populate them all.
The problem with most wine bars is that they're often too quiet, too empty and too serious. But that has less to do with poor interior design and more with this country's wine culture. There just aren't enough (non-wine-industry) patrons who go out looking to party with fermented grape juice as opposed to beer or cocktails. Let's face it: most people go to bars because they're in one way or another looking to hook up. That's where a bar's energy comes from—social, sexual and communal energy powered by alcohol. Wine isn't really the catalyst for that in our culture. Lord knows, we're not Italy. But if you're into wine, you're probably spending less time at bars and more time cooking perfect lamb chops to go with that Chateauneuf you've been wanting to try. The fact remains: today wine bars are still places to which many people go for education. Perhaps these folks want the lecture.
Hopefully, this will change. What makes bars fun and cool is the energy in them as provided by the people who go there, the music, and the dynamics of the space (smaller=more fun). Wine bars are stigmatized. What we need is not more wine industry types or geeks to energize wine bars, but cute guys and gals. Not great wine bars, but great bars with lots of wine.
How can we get there? Per Asimov--it would be good for some wine bars to stop thinking of themselves as missionary outposts (sometimes the enthusiasm is worse than a lecture). I want a wine dive bar with a good juke box? Cut the evangelizing, cue the Ramones. It also would help if wine were cheaper and simpler. I'd love to see a good red and good white competing with beer; that is: on tap for $5 a glass. In the spirit of San Francisco's ubiquitous boutique pizzerias, I like drinking simple wine out of tumblers (my wife, however, does not). Wine biker bars? Wine pool halls? Hey, you build a wine sports bar, where I can watch my beloved Longhorns (#2, btw!), eat nachos and get a respectable vinho verde, and I'm there!