Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Ten Bells is as close to perfect as wine bars get; or, why other wine bars suck.
I love wine. I hate most "wine bars." Surprisingly, in our wine obsessed culture, a good wine bar - that ideal place where you can drink wine with friends, make new acquaintances, learn something from the proprietors and listen to interesting, carefully chosen music in a warm, personality soaked and laid back environment - is a rare breed, indeed. I admittedly don't get out much, perhaps because when I do go out I blow my monthly wine and entertainment budget in a night or two at one of my favorite go to spots (read: The Ten Bells or Terroir SF). However, I do occasionally venture outside my comfort zone for trade events, meet-ups whose meeting spots are outside of my control, or very occasionally, just out of sheer curiosity. What I continue to notice is a complete and utter lack of what I would describe as good wine bars in the US. Rather than define what a good wine bar is, I think it is easier to describe what a good wine bar is not:
A good wine bar is not a handsome bar area in a fancy 2.5-4 star, 60-200 seat, French, Italian, Spanish, "Mediterranean inspired new American," "Locavore," mixologist's lab, Indian, Chinese, or Vietnamese restaurant. A good wine bar does not have a buildout creeping comfortably into six figures or more. A good wine bar does not serve 40 wines by-the-glass, regardless of their wine preservation system. A good wine bar does not serve any export label garnacha imported by Sr. Ordoñez, Mr. Solomon, or, with all due respect, Mr. Steve Metzler. A good wine bar does not have a PR person on retainer for $5,000 or more a month. A good wine bar does not concern themselves too much with labels or their perception of what their customers may feel "comfortable" with.
For any people in the industry who would argue otherwise, that to run a business you need to take into account one or more of the above, I would freely admit that you may be correct. However, know that in so doing your successful business venture is likely a shitty wine bar. Or, to be generous, a mediocre one at best.
The Ten Bells, located in the lower east side of Manhattan, is an examplary wine bar. Above all, the wine selection, though not extensive, covers many bases, at least if you enjoy a primarily European wine list. A list composed largely of small production, family estates whose reputations for producing extremely interesting, minimal intervention, highly drinkable, and often benchmark examples of their styles. These selections will not likely lead you astray, regardless of whether you choose a glass, bottle or magnum of wine. The wines (both whites and reds - so often served too warm elsewhere) are stored at proper temperatures. Your decanter may be a beaker and the stemware may have thick walled, smallish tulip shaped bulbs, but know that they will be clean. Do you prefer good wine in cheap glasses or bad wine in Riedels?
There are other factors, of course, which make The Ten Bells a destination for both wine geeks and people who simply want to catch an alcohol buzz somewhere. The place is a perfect size - small enough to be intimate but with sufficient table and bar space to accommodate a good crowd. The music is usually upbeat; good salsa is a mainstay, as is dancehall reggae, pop and other genres of music. It's not the most experimental or adventurous play list in town, and you may have to suffer through a Bob Marley "Legends" selection like I did with "Buffalo Soldier" last week, but generally you could do much worse for bar music. Much worse. And as I mentioned earlier, you are not likely to find a more carefully selected and focused list of wines at any other wine bar in the city.
Up next will likely be a quick summary of some wines drunk at The Ten Bells last week. Cornelissen Contadino 7, Houillon/Overnoy Chardonnay, Ollivier Gras Mouton, and more.