In his gentle 1946 essay Moon Under Water, George Orwell describes the merits of his favourite London public house. Qualities important to Orwell include atmosphere, barmaids who know their customers by name, the ability to walk freely without being hit in the head with darts and that it’s quiet enough to talk. Though I am sure there are modern versions of Orwell’s ideal pub, these days it’s just as likely to be one of the dozens of new wine bars that have flourished recently. Which made me wonder, what qualities make the ideal wine bar?
Location is important, of course. One needs to want to go there. The best wine bars are located in big cities or emerging neighbourhoods, such is their cultural currency. If a wine bar is on a main street, as so many are, it should be set just back, below or above the main thoroughfare to avoid the hustle of the city while basking in its energy. A visit to a wine bar should provide relief from whatever is left outside.
I’m not offering much when I suggest the best wine bars serve food, but what they serve makes all the difference. My favourite bars offer a short list of classic appetisers. Slithering anchovies picked up with a toothpick as if being sutured, then rested, glistening in oil, on a slice of fresh bread. Bowls of briny green olives are always appreciated. Their crunchy flesh can be nibbled from the pip between sips of wine. Charcuterie is a pleasure in all its forms, flopped on the tongue for when the palate is salivating. I’m not fond of fried chicken, burgers or any other gentrified junk food. Such dishes make me feel like I’m on an adolescent date. My favourite wine bars keep things a little bit special.
A good wine bar invests in glassware and offers a range of pour sizes for greater exploration, or moderation, if that is your intention. Increasingly a Coravin system adds excitement by allowing access to a wonderbox of rare and special bottles, albeit at a cost. The role of music should never be overlooked. Music’s ability to speed up how fast we drink is used in some establishments to urge patrons to drink more, faster. But pace has no place in my favourite wine bars. The best should play music at a level that allows you to talk or, if alone, think, read or admire the wine in your glass.
That’s another thing a good wine bar offers: a sanctuary for aesthetic appreciation. In a culture where active appreciation of sensory pleasures is rapidly being replaced with accumulation of digital ones, taking a moment to ponder, admire or discuss a glass of wine with company is something closer to important than pleasurable.
A good wine bar is also a hub of cultural insights. Talking and tasting with locals when exploring new cities is a wonderful way to learn about a country. Each wine is a collection of stories about the local culture, history, customs and evolution just waiting to be shared.
Designwise, I prefer my wine bars to exude warmth over modernity. Wood over metal, floorboards over concrete, small wooden tables over shared glass benches. A book shelf offers intrigue, a bag hook under the bar is appreciated, chairs with backs are essential.
As wine lends itself to certain intimacies, so too should the design of a good wine bar. Whether it’s a small table, a corner booth, an open fire or soft couch, my favourite bars have spaces to harbour private moments. Should a hand reach across a table, a secret be shared, or a thigh press back when touched by another’s, there is a place to do so.
It goes without saying a good wine bar has knowledgeable staff, but they’re invariably good humans too. I’ve enjoyed some of my finest conversations with the many well-educated, interested and passionate people who run my favourite wine bars. Some of these conversations were even about wine.
It might seem late in this piece to mention the wine list but, without the aspects listed above, I would barely make it to the wine list or bother to return to explore it. Like a good book I like to know where I am in the story, so a sensible order listing is welcomed. As much as I like to explore, and am happy to be led, I’d prefer not to be experimented on. At least not unwittingly.
Yet for all of these prerequisites, it’s what happens off the script where the best wine bars shine. On a visit to Noble Rot bar recently, a friend and I were gifted a glass of 1985 Château Poujeaux and told of a small run of 2004 Dauvissat Chablis tucked by a certain rack in the cellar, should we come back. We did, it was found and it was beautiful. There was the bar in Athens where I was offered my first glass of the ancient Cretian variety Dafni. As a warm wind blew up the laneway and the wine’s aromas engaged my senses, I listened to stories of Greece’s long and complex wine history. I can’t remember the number of special pours I’ve had at Gertrude Street Enoteca. Or wines shared with Chef on the deck of The City Wine Shop as the late night crowd marched by. Or tasting discussions enjoyed at the 28-50 Marylebone I adopted as my local while in London. The connections we make when wine and minds collide are essential to a good wine bar.
Sadly, for Orwell, the Moon Under Water was a fictional pub. The closest he came to his ideal was knowing one that met eight of his ten criteria. Happily for you and me, there are many wine bars offering this magical combination of connoisseurship, gastronomy, atmosphere, conversation, culture, education, companionship, music and wine.
When you put it like that, it’s less a surprise they’re flourishing now, but that they took so long to do so.
Image courtesy of The City Wine Shop/The European