Drinking Straight from the Tank

Bulk wine is burdened with all sorts of negative connotations. But the image is changing, particularly in Paris. Anna Brones argues for quality bulk wine as a way to slow down and reconnect with wine's most basic virtues.

en vrac paris wine bottles

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the brand Patagonia, once said that the solution for a lot of the world’s problems might be to “turn around and take a forward step.”

In Western culture, we’re chronically forward thinking; technology has often trumped tradition, scrapping old techniques for more efficient and economic ones. But as humans, it seems we’ve reached a point where we’re starting to feel the effects of moving too fast. We’re tired. We’re overworked.

The urge to turn around and move forward isn’t just a trend—it’s the human consciousness pleading for an answer to the modern stress we’ve brought upon ourselves.

In wine, this urge has played out in different ways. The continued move toward biodynamic and organic farming, the conversation around “natural” wine and even how we consume wine reflects the need to reconnect with tradition and place in a very basic way.

This comes as no surprise. Through food and drink we can seek simplification. We may be tied to a job that has us commuting, sitting on conference calls and juggling deadlines, but when we get home we can prepare a meal from scratch and sit with a glass of wine. We can breathe. Food and drink are among the slowest staples that we have left, and in an industrialized world, it’s no shock that we’re clinging onto them for dear life.

In Paris, the new and popular wine shop and restaurant En Vrac symbolizes this urge to slow down, providing a space where you not only have a better connection to what you buy, but are forced to think about consuming differently.

Started by Thierry Poincin in 2011, En Vrac—named after the French term for buying in bulk—began as a small wine shop in a covered market. A year and a half later it moved just down the street into a larger space where it’s now part wine shop, part restaurant.

To Poincin, young people don’t just come for the wine, they come because they’re truly trying to connect to wine without  any pretense. They enjoy seeing a drying rack of bottles next to the tanks and bread crumbs on the bar counter from recently sliced baguettes. En Vrac represents a sort of rustic simplicity that is increasingly foreign to a generation that grew up on the internet.

Here you can buy a selection of wines from tank, each offered without the addition of sulfur, that range in price from just under four euros per 750ml bottle up to eight. In addition, you can purchase from a selection of French artisan products or sit down for a simple lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch. You can even come and do a workshop on how to make your own wine, or rent a wine keg for a party.

“It’s a concept that touches two groups of people,” says Poincin.

First, the older generation, the “people who knew this concept through their parents,” and who lived during the time when buying in bulk wasn’t a trendy thing, but a part of everyday life. Poincin wanted to connect to that nostalgia and he points out that, beyond clients from the neighborhood, he has started to build a clientele that even comes in from the suburbs to fill up their bottles.

But he’s more interested in the second group—the younger generation. To Poincin, young people don’t just come for the wine, they come because they’re truly trying to connect to wine without  any pretense. They enjoy seeing a drying rack of bottles next to the tanks and bread crumbs on the bar counter from recently sliced baguettes. En Vrac represents a sort of rustic simplicity that is increasingly foreign to a generation that grew up on the internet.

As a member of that generation, I fell in love with En Vrac immediately. I had a few tastes and ended up biking home with an unmarked glass bottle full of pinot noir from Burgundy. I felt like I’d just discovered paradise. Other friends shop at En Vrac as well, and the empty glass bottle with the metal hinge top sitting by the door waiting to be taken out and refilled has become a common sight after dinner parties. It’s comforting to go and get your bottle filled, not only because the wine is both inexpensive and high quality, but because it fits into my more general life policy of being a conscious consumer.

Refilling a reusable bottle isn’t just about having a cheap bottle of wine for dinner, it’s about plugging into a system that isn’t solely driven by speed and industrialization. The experience is much different than the one of standing in front of a wall of bottles at a retail store. And while the staff at En Vrac is forthcoming about the producers, methods of production and farming, with no artful labels or hype to hide behind, the wines have to speak for themselves. This allows for a kind of democratization of wine and wine consumption.

“Even if we’re in a country that’s one of the largest producers of wine… it has become complicated to buy wine in France,” says Poincin. “We have a tendency to regard wine as sacred.”

Of course, consuming wine “en vrac” is nothing new, even in the U.S. Back at the beginning of the American wine movement, President Jefferson was given wine in bulk—two five-gallon barrels from the first American vineyard in Kentucky—and in regions like Italy and France, buying wine in bulk used to be the norm.

At a time when exporting was expensive and small winemakers were hard-pressed to make their wine profitable, they partnered up with others, establishing cooperatives to share the costs of business. In rural France 50 to 70 years ago this is where you went to get your wine—refilling your bottle just as you would go to the weekly market to stock up on the essentials like butter, flour and eggs.

These once normal, everyday habits are slowly making a comeback in new ways—and not only because we’re seeking to simplify, but because we’re more and more conscious of our overall environmental impact. The fact that the quality of the wines purchased in this manner has drastically improved makes it all the more appealing.

Filling up reusable containers with wine has also hit the American market in a notable way, from Gotham Project in New York (which has wine “filling” stations in New York, California and Illinois) to the Natural Process Alliance, which refills reusable Klean Kanteen bottles for both individuals and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. And just last year, the State of Oregon passed a law permitting the sale of bulk wine anywhere beer is sold on tap, and a similar bill has been proposed in Washington.

In Paris, En Vrac is one of the few places you can consume wine in this way, but it’s not alone. On the other side of town, the casual, neighborhood joint Le Baron Rouge is known for its eclectic and cheap selection of bottles, but it also serves up wine from barrel. A bar on the backside of Montmarte, called La Cave Café, offers natural wines in bulk, though not to take home.

These are the sorts of places that are making it easier to enjoy wine for wine’s sake. They allow us, for an evening or an afternoon, to leave the cultural baggage that the modern wine industry has created and relearn how to connect with wine as a grocery. They ask us, quite simply, to turn around and take a step forward.

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