When it comes to wine, Americans aren’t the most conspicuous consumers. In fact, a mere (and no doubt euphoric) 5 percent of the population drinks 75 percent of the wine. But you’d never know it from Manhattan’s recent wine-bar boomlet. More than a dozen have opened in the last year, all vying for the attention of that meager demographic, and hoping to wean the rest off their Cosmo and Diet Coke dependencies.
The best of this new breed express a true passion for wine and a desire to share that passion, preferably by the glass, the perfect way to sample unfamiliar varietals and vineyards. They pay attention to ancillary details like stemware (which does make a difference), high-tech wine-preservation systems (which might), and food that enhances the taste of the wine and vice versa. Another reason why ordering by the glass benefits the consumer, according to wine expert Kevin Zraly, who advocates unbridled tasting as the best wine education: “Everybody overpours.”
At Bar Demi (125 and 1/2 East 17th Street; 212-260-0900), none of the delectable wine-food flavor combinations are left to chance. In what used to be her takeout canteen, Verbena chef-owner Diane Forley has erected an elegant twelve-seat wine shrine named for its half-address, diminutive size, and devotion to hard-to-find half-bottles. Forley and her sommelier, Aaron von Rock, take the tasting concept to extremes with their ingenious seasonal “tiers” ($10 to $18), shareable tea-tray arrangements of flavor-packed finger food, matched with a choice of wines by the glass or half-bottle. The summer tiers are, as you’d expect, crisp and refreshing, or at least the wines are – the luxurious, buttery skewered croque monsieur terrine oozing with Fontina in the “Rosé” tier is anything but. Crudités meet their ultimate creamy match in a zesty tonnato dip, and the classic fig-and-prosciutto combo gets a sprinkling of Roquefort – tastes which work beautifully with either of the recommended wines, a Tavel or a Mendocino Sangiovese-based Rosato. You’ve got at least through Labor Day to sample Sauvignon Blanc paired with European mountain cheeses; Alsatian-style whites (including an Australian Riesling) with smoked-salmon, smoked-sturgeon, and duck-rillette toasts; and a Pinot Noir option that showcases a rich, velvety foie gras mousse. And you can always flex your own wine-pairing muscles by ordering à la carte.
The owners of The Tasting Room (72 East 1st Street; 212-358-7831) don’t so much dictate your order as gently nudge you in the right direction. The 340-bottle, all-American list reads part restaurant, part wine school; varietals are defined, described, and accompanied by suggestions from chef Colin Alevras’s smallish seasonal menu. Summer selections, including a roasted-eggplant-and-Vidalia-onion dip and molasses-glazed-barbecue pork ribs, come in two portion sizes, for hoarding ($6 to $14 for “tastes”) or sharing ($10 to $26). The guiding principle of the frequently updated wine-by-the-glass list is quality over quantity: Rather than bewilder with a half-dozen Chardonnays, Alevras and his wife, Renée, select a single Chard that expresses a particular style.
Simplicity isn’t what Morrell Wine Bar and Café (1 Rockefeller Plaza, at 49th Street; 212-262-7700) aspires to, and with a well-stocked wine shop next door, why should it? The 100-plus by-the-glass selections certainly make for interesting, if not exactly economical, reading. Where else can you taste-test a first-growth Bordeaux or savor a glass of Napa’s renowned Dominus without springing for the bottle? At $60 a pop, the latter may cost more than what most of us are willing to pay for a bottle, but for only $50, bargain hunters can try the Monday-night wine-tasting menu, which pairs five three-ounce tastes with three courses culled from the regular dinner menu. Not that hungry? A $25 glass of 1997 Etude Pinot Noir (which happens to be the per-person minimum for tables) will buy you a piece of prime sidewalk real estate. Just swirl and sip very slowly.
The knowledgeable young staff at The Bar @ Etats-Unis (247 East 81st Street; 212-396-9928) take their jobs so seriously that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a paying customer and a waitress perched on a bar stool, making sure the Collioure is up to snuff. (It is.) The bar shares an impressive cellar with Etats-Unis, the sister restaurant across the street, from whence comes the daily-changing menu of hearty, sophisticated French-American fare. You can’t go wrong with farmhouse cheeses and charcuterie, but there are also exceptional braised meats, roast chicken, and leg of lamb, from $8 to $16. With nearly twenty by-the-glass selections (from $6 to $16) – including some intriguingly unfamiliar numbers like Dôle (a light-bodied red Swiss stunner) and Scheurebe (a Riesling-Sylvaner hybrid) – a well-informed staff is key. But considering all the diligent on-the-job tasting, you may want to check the math when the bill arrives.
Given a cultural model that takes between-meals snacking so seriously, it’s unsurprising that Italian wine bars excel at simple, tasty morsels and the wines that best suit them. Enoteca i Trulli (124 East 27th Street; 212-481-7372) has the formula down pat: a spare menu of first-rate cured meats, cheeses, and olives, and 42 Italian wines available by the glass or the flight – a three-glass grouping of two-ounce tastes, fastidiously served on demarcated place mats. Compare three Chiantis back-to-back, pit the north against the south, or simply unwind to the low-decibel opera soundtrack and relish the perfect match of a piquant Parmigiano Reggiano-Zanetti with Amarone, the raisinated knockout from the Veneto.
Bar Veloce (175 Second Avenue; 212-260-3200) and ’ino (21 Bedford Street; 212-989-5769), in the East and West Villages respectively, squeeze considerable style and substance into tiny spaces, where well-crafted panini are washed down with easy-drinking wines that sell for less – typically much less – than $10 a glass. And in Alphabet City, the same harried crew behind the popular Il Bagatto have opened Il Posto Accanto (190 East 2nd Street; 212-228-3562), literally “the place next door,” their homey, low-key tribute to Italian wines. Nearly 100 are sold by the bottle, the half-carafe, and the quarter-carafe, which measures about a glass and a half – enough to accompany a cheese plate, a panino, or a rustic crock pot of warm vegetables drizzled with truffle oil. This is a place to while away an evening, the way you might at a friend’s house.
Like Italians, the French consider wine the ultimate flavor enhancer; it’s as familiar a presence on their tables as Heinz and Gulden’s are here. Such is the case at Chez Bernard (323 West Broadway; 212-343-2583), Bernard Eloy’s butcher-shop-cum-café turned bistro à vins, decorated with walls of wine shelves and antique viticultural equipment like the grape press standing sentry by the door. Across the street from the SoHo Grand and a short block south of the frenzied nexus of SoHo’s café society, Bernard’s is a laid-back, untrendy anomaly, the perfect spot to enjoy a chilled glass of fruity Brouilly from the selection of 40 or so wines by the glass ($5 to $14) listed on chalkboards above the bar, and a plate of Eloy’s superb homemade ham from the nosher’s menu of infallibly Gallic bar food.
A very different sort of Gallic ambiance – the relentlessly chic sort – can be found at Rhône (63 Gansevoort Street; 212-367-8440), a sexy new bar in the meatpacking district. The hard industrial edges of this former garage have been softened somewhat by knotty wood furniture and low-slung fifties-era Artifort chairs. The owners are erstwhile sommeliers who’ve embarked on the curious mission of introducing New Yorkers to wines from the Rhone Valley, which they offer in 33 by-the-glass selections ($5 to $20). If you’ve ever confused a Côte Rôtie and a Côtes du Rhône-Villages, now’s the time to clear things up, to the accompaniment of Gramercy Tavern alum Payson Dennis’s sophisticated version of French country cuisine. Splurge on caviar and lobster-truffle salad, or keep things simple with cheese and charcuterie, but don’t expect to rely on your waiter’s expertise. Judging by the copy of Robert Parker’s Wines of the Rhone Valley on the zinc-topped bar, and the blank expression we got when we asked for food-pairing suggestions, training is ongoing.
For an independent tutorial in sherry and Spanish wines, there’s no better place than the seven-year-old ñ (33 Crosby Street; 212-219-8856), a bustling sliver of a tapas bar, to conduct your own tasting of finos, manzanillas, amontillados, olorosos, and palo cortados, $3 to $6 per copita. The Spanish wine list is just as affordable and appealing, whether you stick with Rioja or venture into the terra incognita of Penedès and Ribera del Duero. Regardless, fuel your research with classic tapas like a Spanish omelette and garlic shrimp, and newfangled grilled manchego sandwiches or bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers. Our enthusiastic young British bartender impressed us so much with her knowledge of sherry that we wanted to taste them all, and we tried not to look askance at the couple next to us blithely downing vodka tonics. You can bring the crowds to the wine bar, after all, but you can’t make them drink the wine.