In NYC, The Wine Bar Is Back, Baby
Approachable, unpretentious spots like Niche Niche, The Four Horsemen and LaLou are becoming the new norm
A wine bar can be a scary experience for those who hear terms like “bung hole” and “choad” and immediately think of Beavis and Butt-Head, and not, well, wine. When Ariel Arce opened her Soho wine bar earlier this year, she wanted to give it a name that would poke fun at wine culture’s elitist reputation, something inviting and fun.
“We joke that wine’s so niche, it’s niche niche,” she explains with a laugh. “Like it’s the most niche. It’s almost like when you think about people that like really specific things, you’ve got coffee culture, you’ve got fashion, you’ve got vinyl culture, you’ve got anime — things that are in their own little category where everybody gets to come together and be really excited about that one thing, find your place that you belong. And so Niche Niche for us is kind of like making fun of the fact that people don’t feel like they belong in that box because it’s so specific, but for us, we’re like, ‘everybody belongs.’ You can be a part of that.”
Niche Niche is part of a growing number of wine bars in New York City that aim to buck the stereotypes by creating more welcoming, casual atmospheres, employing staff who can explain the nuance of any given bottle to a novice in a helpful, non-judgmental way and — above all else — creating cool spaces where people can relax with a glass and avoid the stuffiness often associated with all things corked.
For Joe Campanale of Prospect Heights’ LaLou, that means helping customers who may not be wine experts embrace the unknown. “For me, discovery is one of the most thrilling aspects of wine, and I hope that our guests come away having tried something new or different that has taught them something that haven’t already known before,” he says.
Arce, whose website declares that “wine should be fucking fun,” says she understands why the wine bar is often seen as snobby, but ultimately, a good sommelier should take the craft seriously without becoming completely devoid of humor.
“Working in the wine business is an interesting career progression, because on one hand, you’re doing something that is thought of as recreational and not very serious, like you’re a server, you’re a bartender, you work with wine, you work at night, all of that stuff isn’t taken very seriously,” she explains. “So I think a lot of people in this business, to justify the fact that they think what they do is valid, make it very serious. And of course, to study for very serious programs in wine, any form of somm certification, you’re studying like you’re taking a really serious test — like it’s a true dedication. But I think if you’re making that choice to do that and you get the luxury of doing it with a product that brings people joy and pleasure, you should understand that if you’re going to give that knowledge back, it should come from a place of joy.”
“I always say ‘we take ourselves seriously, but we’re not serious,’” she adds.
If you’re looking to unwind with a glass of wine at places that boast serious knowledge but aren’t, you know, serious, here are five places in New York City that are reimagining the wine bar.
295 Grand St., Brooklyn
Because The Four Horsemen is in Williamsburg and owned by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (and as of yesterday, now boasts a Michelin Star), it’s easy to assume a certain level of hipster pretension, but that’s not at all the case. It boasts a relaxed atmosphere and a wine list that’s extensive (to say the least) and full of quality natural selections without being overwhelming. “We weren’t trying to come up with a list that would make our moms feel dumb,” Murphy said back in 2015.
Part of having such a big wine list is the ability to offer a variety of price points, and co-founder Justin Chearno recently said that diversity is key to the wine bar and restaurant’s success.
“What we try to do — which is key for us, in terms of staff retention — is to be able to sell something like Cornas, and sell something like Michel Guignier. And be able to sell Babass alongside like Conterno or Rinaldi,” he said. “We like to be able to tell both those stories, and have people come in and be able to participate in your restaurant, without feeling excluded. I think it’s really funny when very serious classical wine people come in, and they realize they can spend the evening drinking Rinaldi or Clape and be perfectly happy. That’s exciting to them.”
581 Vanderbilt Ave., Brooklyn
Like The Four Horsemen, LaLou focuses on natural, biodynamic and small-production wines. “Organic, biodynamic and natural wines are better for the planet, better for the people who work in the vineyards and better for us as consumers,” Campanale tells InsideHook. “I’d also venture to say that they are usually more delicious. These wines tend to have a greater ability to translate the flavors of the place they come from since they use less chemicals and are oftentimes less manipulated.”
The decor at LaLou, which just opened this past summer, is minimalist and casual — whitewashed brick walls, untreated banquettes — and it reflects their elegant but approachable attitude towards wine. “LaLou isn’t a wine bar just for wine pros,” Campanale says. “We offer a wide range of wines by the glass and try to keep our bottles at an affordable price point. Our staff is highly knowledgeable so you don’t have to chat with me to learn about the wines on offer. Plus, our entire front-of-house team is skilled in delivering their knowledge in an approachable way. All of our food is wine-friendly, meaning each dish pairs particularly well with the wines on offer so you don’t have to worry about your meal competing with whatever you’re drinking.”
103 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn
This unpretentious Italian wine bar in Williamsburg understands that wine is meant to be enjoyed, and they’re unafraid of opening something special just for you even if you’re not able to throw down big bucks for the entire bottle. Have & Meyer offers over 100 wines by the glass at a variety of price points — you can get a glass for as little as $12 or as much as $70.
The atmosphere is warm and cozy, with antique decor and bottles lining the walls, and if you’re not hungry enough for pasta but still want something to snack on as you sip, they recently collaborated with Crown Finish Caves to make some orange wine-washed cheeses.
24 Harrison St., Manhattan
Owners Paul Grieco and Marco Canora clearly know how to have fun with wine. Terroir Tribeca features brick walls, community tables, a large by-the-glass menu and generally relaxed vibes, but Grieco and Canora aren’t afraid to get a little weird as well. Whether they’re celebrating the Summer of Riesling aboard a three-hour concert cruise with an ’80s cover band or posting a detailed explanation of why each character from Harry Potter could use a glass of wine, they’re doing it with an infectious passion.
You’ll want to learn from them, and fortunately Terroir Tribeca makes that easy, featuring handy explainers on their website like “How to Read a German Wine Label” and an extensive guide to all things riesling.
Each night at Niche Niche is an intimate 30-person dinner party hosted by a different wine expert, with each guest getting pours of carefully curated bottles throughout the meal. It’s educational, but it feels homey and welcoming — something very important to Arce.
“Over the last however many years in this business, I’ve amassed all of these friends from all over who are really well-educated in their own kind of wine that they love, and so I was like ‘well, that would be really cool if there was some way to get them to curate this place,’” she says. “But I also like to look at a traditional model and see how you can kind of evolve that to fit your needs, and for me, I like a communal atmosphere. I like when people have the opportunity to be non-passive during dining. I think it’s crazy that we live in the biggest city in the world and people feel lonely or like they can’t talk to each other, and so I wanted to create a space where that felt like the norm and when you were welcomed in you felt like you were coming to somebody’s home.”
“Honestly, at the end of the day, it’s how I was raised,” she continues. “My parents were really big entertainers, my father was a great cook, and he would make these awesome meals and the only thing people were told to bring was a bottle of wine. They weren’t drinking great wine, but they were just drinking all sorts of things, and again, always pulling the cork and always having a good time, and like, why can’t a restaurant feel that way?”
Don’t get it twisted, though — thanks to the expertise of Arce and her hosts, you’re always guaranteed to be sipping on something exceptional at Niche Niche. But the casual atmosphere allows them to have some fun with it, and at the end of this month, they’re hosting a special Clue-themed murder mystery dinner to celebrate Halloween. “We’re integrating wine and food and games and music and fun to create a night of murder, mystery and intrigue,” Arce says with a laugh, rubbing her hands together mischievously.