At Ruffian, an Antidote to Wine Bar Sameness

What makes the New York wine bar's list one of the country’s most exciting, in 10 bottles.

Once upon a time, in the dark ages before everyone took their wine advice from Instagram, a wine list had the ability to genuinely surprise you. A further shock: In these olden times, back about a decade ago, there were wine people who dared to break out of the roster of the same stay-in-your-lane sommelier choices.

They evangelized unknown wines from unexpected places, and haunted places like CAV in San Francisco and Kazimierz in Scottsdale, Arizona (both now gone), where eclecticism was the selling point—places to get turned on to New Zealand sémillon or pošip from Croatia. They lived, gleefully, on the fringe.

I mention this because today, regardless of which side of the natty-or-not divide you fall on, you could make a case that many outposts of natural wine have fallen prey to a sameness, one not entirely unrelated to the monotony of wine’s dark ages. While I’m endlessly thankful for the global call-and-response of Instagram bottle shots—yeah, we’re all guilty—a side effect is that the same bottles appear with bullet-train punctuality in New York and Paris and Copenhagen and Tokyo and you probably get my drift. Often they’re served in places that seem to hew to a single global template—what writer George Reynolds recently termed “wine bar Airspace,” after a similar trend in coffee joints. The same rough-hewn wood, the same cheese plate, the same roster of wines. Collectively, it leaves an impression that “alternative” no longer necessarily means “different.”

And then along comes a place like New York’s Ruffian, a thimble of a space on a stretch of East 7th Street more typically home to hair salons and Ukrainian churches, that proves that there’s still glorious opportunity to thrive out on the fringe—to settle a new wine frontier. In the case of Ruffian co-owner Patrick Cournot and his co-beverage director Alexis Percival, this frontier can be found by looking east, past their neighbors’ ancestral Ukraine and on to Georgia, enough that the bar is home to one of the deepest collections of Georgian wine outside of certain corners of Rego Park. But it’s hardly an express train; along the way, they’ve mined not just Croatia, but also Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and beyond, uncovering wines that represent an actual cutting edge.

Cournot, a veteran of such Manhattan restaurants as Bouley, Blaue Gans and Floyd Cardoz’s much-missed Tabla, opened Ruffian in the last few hours before 2016 with his wife Elena Hull Cournot, an artist whose painting of a horse dominates its back wall. They partnered with Percival, who’d worked with Cournot at Lelabar, as well as other Tabla alumni, including Josh Ochoa and Andy Alexandre, who together run Ruffian’s kitchen.

This fascination with Mitteleuropa could be little more than a gimmick, if not for the fact that central and eastern Europe are being increasingly populated by a generation of young winemakers who share the same notions of minimalism as their counterparts in what Donald Rumsfeld once called Old Europe. Percival and Cournot harnessed established importers’ newfound interest in the east, and found new importers, like Hungarian specialist Palinkerie, who have made these regions their focus.

And the Ruffian team is too smart to let the concept become one-note. They also explore unpredictable corners of France and the New California, including producers like Caleb Leisure, a Tony Coturri acolyte who works in the Sierra Foothills. One night I drank down a bottle of Craig Haarmeyer’s Wirz Vineyard Riesling from California’s remote Cienega Valley, the best domestic riesling I’ve had in years. And this summer they poured picpoul de Pinet by the glass from Julie Benau, one of the Languedoc’s emerging stars. In fact, their living on the fringe is as much pragmatism as anything. In 2018, an East Village wine bar doesn’t exactly have the budget to trade in things like Burgundy, today’s unofficial currency for Manhattan big spenders. “We can’t, and don’t want, to try and compete with Aldo Sohm,” Percival says.

Their quirky yet expansive approach is echoed on Ochoa and Alexandre’s menu, composed of a baker’s dozen of dishes that echo the wine list’s geographic spread: a rich dash of eastern Europe, a healthy dose of vegetable-curious Californian bounty and not a small amount of inspiration from Tabla’s spice-layered ways. Dishes like cauliflower-miso soup with lemon oil, a lamb samosa with yellow curry and a rabbit dumpling with scallions are both bright enough with acidity and substantial enough to be more wine-friendly than much wine-bar food.

Also, crucially, Ruffian succeeds because it never turns fringe into fetish. Its edginess is balanced with classic wines that cynics might shuffle into old-fashioned boxes: Foreau from Vouvray, Pradeaux from Bandol, Alzinger from the Wachau, even a bottle of 2001 Sociando-Mallet’s “Jean Gautreau” Bordeaux.

That last is filed under the “Bloody” category on Ruffian’s list, which is worth noting for its particularly novel subdivisions. Sparkling wines are categorized between “Central Park” (the fancy stuff) and “Tompkins Square” (the populist, pet-natty stuff), reds are not only split between “Perfumed,” “Savory” and so on, but further cataloged into “Smokey,” “Pungent” and the aforementioned sanguine word. A full page of orange wines is split between “Sativa” (Scholium Project’s Prince In His Caves), “Indica” (Radikon’s pinot grigio) and “Dutch” (Prinčič’s trebež blend), a taxonomy that might resonate even more strongly if New York finally legalizes marijuana. This sort of thing has been tried before, and can easily become trite, but Percival and Cournot have the wit to finesse it. More importantly, they’ve turned the list into useful guidance for customers who might be struggling to find wine language that feels comfortable.

This isn’t to say their curation is flawless. At times, Ruffian falls back too heavily on the Austro-Hipsterian Empire, and there are occasional sightings of some of those same ubiquitous labels that contribute to wine-bar monotony. Percival defends these as “signposts” that build trust with natural wine’s label-chasing contingent. As counterpoint, a careful eye might also notice a few bottles that sound suspiciously like mix-tape outtakes; these are unmarked, highly allocated bottles, hidden out of concern that “the nerds will strip-mine our list,” as she puts it. You only find out what it is after you order it. (Hint: Look for a Kim Gordon reference.)

And the thing about working on the fringe is that you’re bound to veer off track now and then. That’s fine—welcome, even. Because taking risks is way more important than playing it safe and pimping the same old bottles. That now applies to natural wine, too, and Ruffian shows how it can be done with flair.

Ruffian Wine Bar NYC

The Failsafe

Árvay Tokaji Hárslevelú 2015 | $58, or $15 by the glass
Hungary’s Tokaj region is best-known for its sweet wines, but it also has shown the ability to make epic dry wines (remember the name “István Szepsy”). Father and daughter János and Angelika Árvay run one of the region’s established if little known properties, and their focus on dry wine has paid off, including with this brisk bottle from the village of Mád.

Natty By Nature

Heymann-Löwenstein Mosel Riesling “Schieferterrassen” 2015 | $72
Reinhard Löwenstein is the master of the lesser-known lower Mosel, but the wines are scarce on these shores; when you see a bottle, grab it. Schieferterrassen is a perfect snapshot of both the exotic flavors found in towns like Winningen and the dense, savory style that sets Löwenstein’s wines apart.

Classic But Worth It

Clos Uroulat Jurançon Sec “Cuvée Marie” 2014 | $62
As I said, Ruffian isn’t afraid of the less-fashionable classics. Dry Jurançon is one of the great underappreciated wines of France, ripe with intense fruit but mouthwatering in its high acidity (it’s appropriately under “Succulent” on the wine list). The Cuvée Marie remains a benchmark, and as always, it’s one of the best values-for-money on a list.

Orange Crush

Clai Sveti Jakov Istria Malvazija 2012 | $80
If you follow the geographic path of orange wine up around the Adriatic, past Italy’s Friuli and Slovenia, you reach Croatia’s Istrian peninsula. This is where Giorgio Clai, a successful restaurateur in Trieste, biodynamically farms old inherited vines. Istria has its own subvariety of malvasia, which combines mineral power and floral bounce, and lends itself to skin maceration. Consider this an eastern extension of the classic orange wines on the Italian side of the sea.

Rosé Every Day

Donkey & Goat Mendocino Grenache Gris Rosé “Isabel” 2016 | $72
This is always a standout in the lineup from Berkeley’s Tracey and Jared Brandt. Made from century-old vines, and suave in its berry flavors, it’s rosé with a twist: when pressed, grenache gris ends up tangerine-colored anyways, so this is basically the grape in its most natural state.

B-Side Hit

Koutsoyannopoulos Nikteri Santorini White 2012 | $72
This is filed under one of my favorite euphemisms on the list: “Roasted,” which covers oxidative white wines. Even if you think you know assyrtiko from Santorini, you might not know the traditional “Nikteri” style, which is oak-aged with oxidative characteristics (albeit through relatively brief aging). Harnessing those Jura-like traits to Santorini’s intense mineral character makes for a rollercoaster ride.

Dark Horse

Milan Nestarec Moravia Pinot Noir “Forks & Knives” 2016 | $68
Milan Nestarec has been casting a spotlight on a new generation in the Czech Republic, and Ruffian has avidly supported his wines virtually since its opening. Forks & Knives is filed under “Autumnal,” and that feels right—it’s a pinot driven by its dried-leaf undertones. Not a showy wine but a contemplative one.

The End-of-the-Night Bottle

Skaramuča Dingač Red 2013 | $72
Plavac mali is Croatia’s great red grape, and a bit of a chameleon—it can come across more like light Beaujolais when made that way, or, along the seaside slopes of the town of Dingač, it can be extracted into a robust, zinfandel-like beast. (When I visited Dingač, we drank it with dessert.) Ivo Skaramuča makes arguably the best of that style; if you like broad-shouldered reds, this will be eye-opening.

Beyond Thunderdome

Shobbrook Barossa Syrah “Romanee Tuff” 2014 | $90
Bless Tom Shobbrook for making us rethink what we know about the Barossa. This in particular is his reconsideration of that region’s essential grape. It’s very syrah rather than shiraz, in its classic peppercorn spice and bit of green stemminess from whole clusters, plus meatiness without burly weight. A New Australian icon, for sure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Kalin Livermore Chardonnay 1995 | $98
Percival and Cournot tucked this under “Snow Leopards & Silver Foxes,” their passel of aged white wines. But for Kalin’s Terry Leighton, this is basically current release—a selection from the Wente estate that underwent fully oxidative vinification and nearly 20 years aging in bottle. It’s waxy and different but hardly old; if anything, the Kalin wines show astounding youth. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how Ruffian isn’t playing by any rules but their own.

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