A Wine Bar for the People

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In Paris, a lot of nights out start like this: squeezing into a small bar around an even smaller table and splitting a bottle of wine, likely French and definitely natural. Sometimes there’s a list, but often the wines are on display on the surrounding walls, their prices of just 20 or 30 euros scrawled in white chalk marker at the base of their necks. The wine is good: tasty, carefully made, maybe even important. But the real magic isn’t in what you’re drinking. In these tight spaces serving nothing but natural wine and little snacks — caves à vin — the vibe develops much like the wine you drink, the product of modern affectations toward old-fashioned practices, resulting in something organic, unpredictable, and deliciously specific to a time and place. On warm nights, patrons spill out of the small space onto the street, glasses in hand. Time grows as fuzzy as the bar’s physical boundaries. Maybe you end your night at a wine bar, too. Maybe you never left.

In major American cities, you can experience a night a little bit like this, but it’s never quite the same. Over the past five years, natural wine in America has become a trend, the beverage of choice for the kind of aspirational city dweller who thinks a lot about things like taste; it is to the beginning of the 2020s what the craft cocktail was to the onset of the 2010s. But most of the best places to drink natural wine in places like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, even if they call themselves wine bars, don’t behave very much like their French counterparts. (Many are in fact restaurants, if inspired by French neo-bistros.) The bars that do exist are so few and far between they become not a refuge but a scene, making the crowds competitive, rather than convivial. The wines tend to run at least 40 bucks a bottle, with glasses in New York starting at $16 or $18 (in Los Angeles, they somewhat more mercifully huddle around the mid-teens).

It’s sad to see something so ostensibly simple become another exclusive pleasure, so I keep looking for the neighborhood wine bar of my dreams — which is honestly just a cramped room with bottles of interesting, affordable wine on the wall and, like, a cheese plate? Yet this seemingly simple thing is stupidly hard to find. It’d be sort of funny that cosseted American wine bars struggle to attain the loose charm of Paris, given that France is stereotyped as the place that’s snooty, rules-bound, and tradition-obsessed, if the result wasn’t such a bummer. While yes, there are a lot of rules, France also has a more open culture of public life; you don’t need to make plans to go out to drink wine. And though wine signifies many things in French culture, an air of sophistication because you drink it is not one of them. The appeal of enjoying wine in France, at least as the kind of person who’s moved by wine but still needs bolds on the list, is that French wine culture feels so much less precious than in America.

The small kitchen of a wine bar in Paris.
The kitchen at Chambre Noir in Paris

Jon Bonné, the influential wine writer and author of The New Wine Rules, believes the under-supply of small, approachable wine bars in major American cities comes down to a simple question of costs. “In France, you can run a wine bar, a cave à vins, with bottles, glasses, and maybe a little bit to eat as a viable business, and in the U.S. you can’t.” There’s an interlocking set of reasons why (French wine pours are smaller, for instance), but the main issue is that commercial rents in American cities like New York and San Francisco are so punishingly high that they kill off lingering — and wine invites people to linger.

There has always been a culture of lingering in Paris’s dining establishments, especially its cafes. Lindsey Tramuta, author of The New Paris and the forthcoming The New Parisienne, says American friends visit Paris and leave smitten with the wine bar culture, but she doubts it could translate to the U.S., at least in its purely French form. “I think it has this element of fantasy because you associate it with something you do on vacation. When you go home, it doesn’t fit the behavior of the local culture.” The closest American analog to the French culture of apéro, which invites a certain kind of chill, unstructured, drinks-oriented hangout before dinner, is happy hour, the tonal opposite of apéro, built around American preoccupations with rigid schedules and deals. (Tramuta, who by coincidence grew up in the same Philadelphia suburb as me, pointed out that the main form of pre-dinner outing we experienced growing up was wandering around the Willow Grove mall after we put our name in at TGI Friday’s.)

Domestic natural wine culture is decades behind France, too. As America was only just rediscovering domestic wine culture, period, in the 1970s, natural wine was taking off in France as a rebellion against the paradigms of postwar winemaking, like pesticides and additives. Wine consultant William Fitch, who splits his time between New York, Paris, and Barcelona, believes that the culture of natural wine itself cannot be separated from the wine bars of Paris — the two grew in tandem starting in the late 1980s. “Because of the symbiosis between makers and bars, they could preach and pour the wines,” Fitch says. Natural wine bars here don’t have a nascent national movement to proselytize or grow alongside.

Natural wine in France also began as a movement to make wine by and for the people, not the big corporations and international wine speculators. It doesn’t always live up to this, but hanging out in a natural wine bar in Paris doesn’t cost much more than splitting a bottle with friends at home. In the U.S., thanks to post-Prohibition laws requiring alcohol to pass from producer to distributor to retailer before it comes to the customer, known as the three-tier system, all alcoholic products are hit with taxes and markups at least two different times before they get to the consumer. Another reason wine tends to be expensive in the U.S., especially by the glass, is the practice of marking up wine by 200 to 300 percent from retail for bottles, and even more by the glass. French bars and restaurants don’t do this for a very simple reason: “French people would riot,” Bonné says. Not that bars and restaurants here mark up wine out of greed; the cost of doing business is much higher, and wine is one of the few places restaurants can attempt to turn a profit.

The best hope for a more relaxed and open wine bar culture in the U.S. might actually lie in smaller cities, where rents are cheaper and there’s still space to linger. New natural wine-focused spots have opened over the past few years everywhere from Milwaukee to Kansas City to Houston. In Detroit, over-three-year-old wine bar the Royce is thriving under the direction of Ping Ho, who left New York in part because she saw more opportunity for a wine business away from the cultural capitals. Because Michigan’s licensing rules can allow shops to both serve alcohol and sell bottles at retail prices, customers can buy any bottle off the shelf at Royce and open it for a $10 corkage fee, a good deal in the United States. Ho credits serving affordable bottles, as well as the shop’s focus on organizing wines by whether they’re light, medium, or heavy-bodied (rather than by region), with making the Royce a welcoming neighborhood hub. “Many people in the Midwest are used to shopping for wines at the grocery stores, and I make a point not to carry the big-producer wines you find at Whole Foods,” she says. “Laying it out by body weight encourages people to taste beyond their usual comfort zone. I definitely saw guests become curious and … willing to try small-production wines.”

Wine shops have been a more approachable means to get into the emerging Los Angeles wine bar scene, too. Psychic Wines is a hip, scrappy Silverlake natural wine shop decorated with ceramics, clusters of houseplants, and furniture pulled off the curb; wines are marked with their prices in the French style, in white chalk marker. Co-owner Zach Jarrett says that he and his partners are hoping to open a wine bar in the near future, but don’t want to lease a spot where the rent is $9,000 a month, on top of half a million to build out the space. “A wine bar is great for a neighborhood, but you need accessibility,” he says.

There is a type of casual, loose drinking space already common in cities and towns throughout America that can have this approachable, communal feel: the craft brewery. Around the country, small-town and rural breweries are offering the kind of destination business that wineries have in only a handful of locations. Maybe the mistake people like me make by mooning over natural wine bars in a city halfway across the globe is that we’re ignoring the drinking culture that is already working here. Beer is much more welded to American identity than wine is; it’s also much cheaper (the opposite is true in France). The number of young Americans whiling away afternoons playing board games and hosting parties and catching up with friends at craft breweries, drinking beers that cost $6 a pint, suggests that there’s plenty of room for a looser wine-drinking culture to grow here.

Or maybe the future of the wine bar in America lies in an even more obvious place: the bar. Recently, in Philadelphia, I met a high school friend at a bar called Fishtown Social. Unlike most bars on the rapidly gentrifying stretch of Frankford Avenue, which signaled an expertise in beer or cocktails, everything on offer at Fishtown Social was good — the beer, the cocktails, and the wines, which were mostly European and definitely natural. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Fishtown Social a natural wine bar; there was a wine tasting that evening, and the bar houses its own bottle shop to fuel an evening at one of the city’s many BYOB restaurants. But people huddled around the bar were drinking beer and cocktails and glasses of wine; I got an orange Georgian wine and my friend got a tequila, neat, and neither felt like a more or less correct choice.

Maybe hanging out and drinking wine in America works best when not everyone is drinking wine. Our drinking culture’s biggest strength is its hybrid vigor, one that wine has often stood apart from. Maybe the great American wine bar will be a place for drinkers pining for something as funky as a sour beer or as comforting as an Old Fashioned or as surprising an amphora-aged wine from Portugal, tasting of a place they’ve never been to but served in a bar that feels like home. That’s the bright side of American individualism, right? Everyone can drink what they want, how they want it. But I’d still kill for a stripped-down, hidden-away cave à vin to open in a strip mall near my house.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent