Wine bars are not like other bars. Bars are fun. Wine bars are not. Even the term “wine bar” is boring. Often, these places — the kind that are named the Cellar or A.O.C. — feel less like bars (places to meet people for a drink, good conversation) and more like tutoring rooms. Don’t get me wrong: I like drinking wine. I once ran a café where I peddled a small (but distinctive!) wine list. I even wrote a monthly column all about wine for McSweeney’s. But my goodness: Wine bars have got to get better.
There are exceptions: Terroir and Cavatappo in New York, for instance; the Barrel Room in San Francisco — places that are more like cafés than wine bars. But for every cool, non-pretentious exception, there are thousands of places trying to get their customers to care about tasting notes and proper swirling technique. So, what exactly makes wine bars so dreadful, and what can be done to improve them?
Problem 1: The vibe is usually awful.
In addition to whatever material things bars sell — wine, beer, cheese, whatever — they also peddle space and time in which to hang out. Owners of wine bars tend to clutter up that space with wine paraphernalia: barrels instead of tables, corks used as fork rests, and wine-inspired artwork lining the walls. Please, future wine-bar owners, don’t do this. You already serve basically only wine; your whole place will be covered with wine bottles and glasses by necessity. Leave it at that.
The Fix: Avoid any and all wine-themed decoration. In fact, pretend you are designing a living room (the Barrel Room pulls this off beautifully). Go with small comfy spaces rather than a long bar. Bars are for bartenders who are mixing drinks and tending to bar flies — they are not for pouring wine, which, let’s be honest, is not that exciting to watch.
Problem 2: The customers are just the worst.
The thing about wine bars is that they are full of wine people. And like a lot of collection-focused subcultures — car people, comic-book people — wine people are generally insufferable. They obsess over how this vintage is different than that vintage or whatever, and assume their obsession is shared by those around them.
A wine-first atmosphere attracts two camps: The eager student (“Oh, that’s interesting because I always thought Shiraz and Syrah were different!”) and the insufferable know-it-all ("The wine will get more oxygen if you really swirl it around”). A successful wine bar makes an effort to keep things casual enough that real wine snots won’t want to stop in.
The Fix: Put your staff in T-shirts, turn on some good music, and make an effort to talk to your customers about literally anything other than wine. A bar is an ecosystem, so make yours about more than just fermented grape juice.
Problem 3: You can’t talk about anything except wine.
Go to any wine bar — yes, even the cool ones — and you will overhear multiple conversations that sound ripped directly from Wine Spectator. “Now this one will be a bit funky at first,” the server will say. “But on the finish you should detect some dried fruits — apricots, persimmon maybe.” Then the customer will do as instructed and nod knowingly when they do taste that persimmon note.
Wine bars always threaten to create a sort of orbit where all conversation and experience circle back around to wine itself. What happens is that the wine is no longer there to aid the social experience; you are there to appreciate the wine. Drinking should enhance experiences and conversations in our actual lives; it should not enhance conversation about itself — that is weird and reflexive, like working out so you can work out better.
The Fix: Deal with problems 1 and 2, and this one will take care of itself.
Problem 4: Wine was not meant to be served by the glass.
The rule of selling wine in a bar or restaurant is this: charge for a glass what you paid for the bottle. It makes ordering wine by the glass unpleasantly expensive for customers. Think about it: Would you rather pay $13 for a glass of Valpolicella, poured from a bottle that costs $13 in its entirety? Or would you rather pay $13 for something like the Robert Johnson Swizzle at Death & Co.? There are, like, twenty ingredients in the swizzle, and it requires that someone actually do some swizzling in order to make it. That is worth $13.
I don’t blame the bars. It sucks to sell wine by the glass. You gamble every time you open a bottle because you have no idea if the whole bottle will sell. Spirits last basically forever and beer is optimized to be sold via kegs and individual bottles. Wine bottles, on the contrary, almost uniformly come in a size that is best for two people. This makes wine ideal for dinners, picnics, and reality-television-watching sessions on the sofa. It also makes it a good bet to buy when you’re at a bar, on a date. Yet wine bars continue to pride themselves on how many wines they sell by the glass.
There are new systems in place: Wine is increasingly coming in kegs, which is a good thought, but the selection is still really limited. And you have probably seen those rubber stoppers that allow you to vacuum-seal a bottle and, in theory, prevent spoilage. That is not a solution, it is a hack, a workaround. (Oh, and if you are running a wine bar and find yourself contemplating one of those plastic-card-based vending-machine things — you swipe a card and a machine from a dystopian future pours you a taste — just stop right now because nobody likes that shit.)
The Fix: Wine bars should just start serving mostly bottles, with a few keg selections thrown in. Everyone wins.
Problem 5: Wine doesn’t deserve all the fuss.
If we think of our alcoholic beverages as occupying a spectrum of variety, the variety spectrum of wine is super short. There are countless ways to mix a cocktail, and a wide array of recipes for beer, but wine is pretty much made and served in one way. Yes, that one way is cool and special and ancient, but it’s still just one thing, which means going out for wine is by default a less dynamic proposition than going out for any other kind of alcohol, because obsessing over the details and flavors and pairings isn’t a great way to spend a night out.
I realize that a Shiraz from the Barossa Valley will taste different than a Rioja Tempranillo. So what? Everything tastes different depending on where it was grown and made. That is not a trait unique to wine, it’s just how shit works. It’s silly for everyone to act like wine is uniquely complex and baffling. It is not.
Of course, beer and cocktail bars are also at risk of becoming shrines to the products they sell (and we all know about the advantages of single-serving businesses), but wine bars tend to reinforce lessons about wine that we really shouldn’t be learning: It’s mysterious, and ancient, and it requires crazy concentration and expertise to fully appreciate.
The Fix: Realize that the best wine bars are the ones that encourage people to drop the above ideals and just chill out.