What Is a Wine Bar?

Yes, a wine bar is an establishment that serves wine. But in a drinking landscape dotted with wine-focused restaurants and bars that happen to serve good wine, what does it mean to be a wine bar in America now?

At the beginning of this year, Netflix uploaded the entirety of the Friends back catalog, throwing chum in the water for cultural commentators (see: “A Look Back at Rachel’s Hairstyles,” “Smelly Cat” tributes, etc.). From a purely food and beverage perspective, though, the rehashing of Friends minutiae offered a look back at coffee houses circa the 1990s: the centerpiece thrift store couch, mottled wall paint in Southwestern colors, a performance space for open-mic nights, latte mugs the size of soup bowls.

What is striking about all that grunge-era décor is how it stands in contrast to the sleek industrial chic coffee shops of New York today. It’s obvious that coffee shops have changed, and what we want out of them has changed too.

The same could also be said of another 1990s-era phenomenon: the wine bar. Once home to themed tasting flights, kitschy grape-themed décor and, yes, that same mottled wall paint in Southwestern colors, the more innovative players in the American wine bar scene have (thankfully) evolved too.

Yet for all of the focus on wine at wine bars, with a few exceptions the cultural conversation around it today seems to largely be taking place in restaurants, like—in the case of New York City—Pearl & Ash, Marta and Reynard, while the nightlife zeitgeist belongs to the bar scene. It’s odd considering that other metropolises like Tokyo, Stockholm and Paris, to name a few, support a thriving wine bar scene that seems well-integrated in the of-the-moment energy of the city.

Why, then, is the wine bar still struggling to feel avant-garde in American cities that are arguably leading global wine trends? And further, what does it mean to self-identify as a wine bar in the U.S. today?

Whether it stems from a cultural insecurity about wine or something systemically reinforced in the way wine has traditionally been presented, one of the calling cards of the American wine bar seems to be a focus on education. From the now somewhat outmoded flights of wine to lengthy menu explanations, there is an underlying current of ambition to teach customers about wine that doesn’t seem to come across in either wine-centric restaurants or regular bars.

Oddly enough, the praise heaped on June is of the same sort that wine bars like the West Village’s ‘ino enjoyed when it first opened in 1998. “There was no proselytizing, no lectures. They simply served wine and let customers set the pace,” wrote Eric Asimov.

Sommelier Jeremy Quinn, of Chicago’s Webster’s Wine Bar and the recently shuttered Telegraph, says the concept of wine bar as study hall fills a niche left by there being “few places for the average consumer to learn about wines in ways that they can afford.” Restaurants and wine shops, with by-the-bottle inventory, represent an investment of both money and time, while the wine bar introduces a low stakes way of trying new things with wines by the glass or seminars.

For Matthew Kaner, owner of Bar Covell, a well-regarded wine bar in Los Angeles that has no wine list and instead encourages customers to talk through their preferences with servers, it’s precisely this feature that is a defining characteristic of a wine bar. “A wine bar is a place where wine is the focus; wine is something to be educated about,” he says, about what he looks for in a wine bar. “It is the reason why we’re there.” (Though, it should be noted, that Kaner welcomes those who are not interested in wine at Bar Covell: “Some people just drink beer.”)

But what does this educational focus do to our relationship with wine—and, maybe more importantly, other people? One of the potential drawbacks of having the wine bar space be associated so closely with education is that it doesn’t necessarily leave a lot room for the non-wine crowd, or people who don’t want a learning experience as a nightlife activity. In doing so it knowingly, or unknowingly, segregates the wine experience.

As we become more and more familiar with wine, the education-forward wine bar as the archetype of the genre is bound to become obsolete. A similar trajectory is happening in the cocktail world as the suspenders and speakeasy trappings that help legitimize the recent cocktail renaissance no longer feel necessary, or as relevant. The question then becomes, will wine succeed in making this transition, and how?

We could already be seeing examples of what the future looks like in a new generation of bars—think Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, Achilles Heel and June—that serve thoughtful wines at decent prices in a beautiful space, without an explicit emphasis on educating.

“I guess we didn’t want to create Achilles [Heel] in the wine bar model because we just wanted it to feel open to everyone,” says Lee Campbell, the wine director Andrew Tarlow’s collection of restaurants, which also includes Reynard, Diner, Roman’s and Marlow & Sons. “If you want a rich red by the glass, yes, we’ll pour you a little Côtes-du-Rhône. Wine geeks will notice it’s from the village of Roaix, and made by up-and-comer Elodie Balme, protégée of master Marcel Richaud. They might also know it’s organic, especially when they notice it’s imported by Louis/Dressner. But otherwise, it’s just a cute little spicy Côtes-du-Rhône.”

It’s through this layered approach—a Trojan horse of sorts—that fine wine may finally gain its entrance to a nightlife world inhabited by non-wine people.

For Tom Kearney, owner of Brooklyn’s The Farm at Adderley, the inspiration for June, a new natural wine bar in Cobble Hill designed by hOmE NYC—a design firm that all but owns the rights to the new Brooklyn design aesthetic—was simply to create a place he wanted to go and socialize. “I love to go to a wine bar and discover things,” he says. “[But] there’s a way to be compelling without being an instructor.”

Even though Kearney and his team call June a “wine bar,” in reality, he says, “it’s a mashup of styles,” with a solid food menu, cocktails and beer, almost verging on casual restaurant, that happens to have stand-out wine list. “I’m a big believer in under-promising and over-delivering,” he says.

Oddly enough, the praise heaped on June is of the same sort that wine bars like the West Village’s ‘ino enjoyed when it first opened in 1998. “There was no proselytizing, no lectures. They simply served wine and let customers set the pace,” wrote Eric Asimov about ‘ino and other Italian wine bar pioneers in a 2008 article. A year later, in an article entitled “A Place for Wine Without the Lecture,” he wrote: “Frankly, people in the wine business rarely spend time in wine bars or places that fit the generally understood meaning of the term. Why should they, after all? The last thing many people in the trade want to hear when they order a bottle is an unsolicited lecture…” And, he goes on to conclude: “People in the wine trade, it turns out, are pretty much like everybody else…”

Maybe the waves of arriving wine bars are meant to toggle between these poles of explicit wine education and pushing that educational aspect away—a city’s trend cycle on wash, rinse and repeat. Every few years, the energy will shift back the other direction. Or maybe with this new breed of bars that happen to serve good wine, we’re finally stepping into a promised land where every bar, if it wants, can be something of a wine bar.