It was a feeling of stillness, almost of reverence. Entering the space one felt like speaking in hushed tones. Tall ceilings and light polished wood with floor to ceiling bookshelves. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and few people were to be found inhabiting its spaces. But the offerings were intriguing and it felt like a private world we’d happened upon. This was in the early 80’s in the downtown business district of San Francisco. And I was mesmerized. I was newly into wine and into the wine business and THE LONDON WINE BAR had captured my imagination. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with The Wine Bar and the romance that it promised.
Everywhere I’ve traveled I’ve always sought to find the most interesting wine bars of the area….and to ponder why some are so magical and others so forgettable. Each time I encounter a new one, I hold out hope that I’ll discover something profound and captivating.
Years ago a friend returning from Paris brought me a wonderful poster from WILLI’S WINE BAR. It still graces my wall. Located in the 1eme arrondissement of Paris, WILLI’S has long held the title of one of the world’s most intriguing wine destinations. And I knew one day I would make its acquaintance. So when the opportunity arose several years ago to visit Paris, I jumped at the chance ! I wanted to drink in the sights and sounds and streets of the City of Lights and be enlightened by its infamous wine bars. So I set off with a list of the most recommended, with the highest of hopes.
High ceilings and warm grey walls that were lined with the original artists’ posters commemorating the legendary venue. Willi’s bar was long – sleek pale wood gleaming from the overhead lights which made the space seem wider and more open. I have no idea the offerings of that evening, as we were mesmerized by one poster – an amazing photograph that drew you back again and again.
And so our real adventure began….that led us to the Perfect Wine Bar.
Bit of a snooty phrase, isn’t it….perfect wine bar? Because there are so many possible manifestations and configurations. Let’s explore what is Essential to a great wine bar:
a. It should be inviting. When you gaze through its windows, it should whisper “come hither” and beckon you inside to partake of its vinuous delights.
b. It should offer an experience….
lead you somewhere you haven’t been before, or somewhere you wish to return. The selection should be well-chosen and appealing - equal parts comfort and risk, or familiar and strange. The risk is the daring to discover new grapes or new terroir. The comfort is you only risk a taste, or a glass. Too few wine bars even offer tastes…by which I mean 2 oz. servings. They tell me it’s too much effort and too much stemware…..which leads us to our third criteria:
c. Education. To quote Paul Grieco, owner of TERROIR, a wine bar in the East Village of NYC “If you don’t offer education I don’t think you’re a Wine Bar”. BINGO! Educating folks is essential to the success and continuation of any business, but the process needn’t be droll, it should be FUN! Encountering flights of wine (groups of 2 oz. servings) around a theme, or a build-your-own-flight, is my favorite way of discovering new wines. Some wine bars even up the ante by incorporating wine trivia matches and other games. Which brings us to our next, and perhaps most Essential criteria for a great wine bar:
d. A sense of Community. Ray Oldenburg writes in THE GREAT GOOD PLACE about the importance of “the third place (after home first, and workplace second), as informal public gathering places. They serve community best when they are inclusive and local. They provide neutral ground to come and go where one is always welcome….where the acceptance of newcomers is essential to the sustained vitality.”
And finally we arrive at that “Je ne sais quoi” component…that which can’t be easily quantified or defined, only experienced:
The space was teaming with people, noisily yet jubilantly chatting , filling the barstools nestled closely together down the length of the long bar and curving around in front of the window. Behind it was a vibrant, jovial young fellow who spoke with infectious familiarity to everyone in his presence. And he was speaking English in the middle of Paris! This was a place made up of Regulars…a gathering of folks who had found their home away from home, who came together to share their lives while imbibing the local Vin de Pays. We had discovered BOISSONNERIE, which is owned by the same group of expats that own WILLI’S and LA DERNIERE GOUTTE (which means the last drop, the shop where we found our coveted posters). BOISSONNERIE is cleverly named, as fish in French is poisson , and drink in French is boisson, inviting us to find the perfect marriage of the two within. And within we did. We had entered as strangers, but were immediately taken into the fold. And though only in Paris for a week, we returned again and again, happy to have found a place of fine food, great company and good libations!
Wendy Watts has been a wine professional scoping wine bars for 30 years. You can currently find her at Whole Foods in Mountain Brook. Send comments to email@example.com