There’s something that seems so much more natural about wine versus other alcohols. Somehow, when it comes to enjoying an eco-friendly buzz, the harsh burn of vodka – no matter how organic it is – doesn’t compare to the fruity and smoky undertones of a wine from upstate.
As luck would have it, I’ve found myself at four different wine bars over the past month or so. Perhaps I’m just turning into an old fogey, but suddenly I think I like wine bars way better than fratty sports bars that reek of PBR.
Let’s be clear: I know next to nothing about wines. If you gave me a blind taste test, I could identify Riesling, Chardonnay, and…”Red,” and that’s the extent of my expertise. But who doesn’t want to learn more about wines? A wine bar is the second most fun way to do so, behind visiting the winery itself and before ducking into a knowledgeable wine shop.
Bar #1: The first wine bar I visited was when I first started dating Mike. We spent the day at Brooklyn Botanic gardens, and in between that and going to his friends’ barbeque we stopped at Total Wine Bar on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. It’s a simple layout, with bench seating in the front, and u-shaped bar at the back. It was in the afternoon, so every seat was filled at the bar while the rest of the place was empty. I suspect we would have gotten the full experience if we could have fit in at the bar (where everyone seemed to know each other) and chatted with the sommelier, but alas Mike just got a couple glasses and we were relegated to the loser bench at the front to have a party with ourselves. We finished our glasses and moved on.
Bar #2: About two weeks ago my mind was wandering at work, and I realized something. I texted Mike. “We’ve never gotten drunk together!”
How did that happen? What a change from college, where it seemed guys would only talk to you if you had been prepped with three cups of warm Natty Light. And now here I was, six weeks deep into a new relationship and we hadn’t even had a “What happened last night,” moment. I mean, it’s not like we hadn’t drank together, but we hadn’t been taking shots together either.
I wasn’t sure whether I felt lame (what happened to the party girl??) or proud (I can get a guy to hang out with me when he’s sober!) [Clarification: I have, in fact, dated other guys who not only take me on dates when they are sober, but don’t drink at all. My standards aren’t that low.] Either way, it was time to remedy this lapse. After all, you never really know a person until you’ve seen their drunk side, in my opinion. So we decided to get wasty-face together.
True to form, Mike sent me an email with the link to The Castello Plan, a wine bar only a couple blocks from his apartment. At first I was taken aback, and told him so. “I was thinking some place, with, you know, shots?” But he insisted it is a great place and promised if we started slow we could kick it up a notch later at other nearby bars.
Mike managed to recruit a couple friends to meet us. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All I do is drink with Bobby and Danna. They’ll be the perfect company for the night.”
So Mike and I showed up at The Castello Plan at eight on a Friday. His friends were running late so we went ahead and waved a guy over to our table who looked like he worked there. “Hey, my name’s Ben,” he said. “What can I get for you?”
“We’re not sure what we want,” I said. “Can you recommend a red?” (I’ve been really into reds lately.)
“Sure, would you like something really fruity and and full-bodied? Or something lighter?” We asked for lighter, and he left and returned with three bottles and three big glasses. “I’m going to have some with you,” he said. He lined up the bottles in a row. “Fuller to lightest,” he said, indicating left to right. As he set about uncorking the bottles, he started telling us about how he had just shaved his beard off that morning. Random, I know, but he seemed nice (ok, and cute) and I complimented him on his fresh look. He pointed to the large round table in the corner, where an older guy held court telling a story to a rapt audience of five other people. “That’s the borough president,” he said. I was duly impressed.
“You live near here?” he asked Mike. Mike said yes. “And you two..don’t live together?” Ben said, arching his eyebrows, sliding his glass in a circle over the wooden surface of the table to swirl the wine.
“No,” I shook my head, blushing. Mike told me later he was convinced Ben was hitting on me, but I told him he was just making conversation.
Ben poured the three glasses. “This one is medium-bodied, with a fresh berry flavor,” he told us. Mike and I dutifully put our noses in the glass to smell, but Ben had already knocked his wine back. I was surprised by his short description and short work of the wine.
He poured the next glasses, again gave a short description, and then poured it into his mouth. Ok, now I was convinced he had been smoking or drinking beforehand. I shot Mike an amused look. Ben waited for we slow pokes to finish our glasses, poured the third wine with another curt description, and finished it. “The second one,” I said. Mike agreed, and Ben filled our glasses and left us with a delicious bottle.
Soon Bobby and Danna joined us. We ordered food, a cheese and charcuterie platter with high quality sausages like wild boar. Wild boar! Just like Michael Pollan! Mike and I also ordered a duck spread, whose fatty deliciousness melted over the crackly bread and in our mouths. We tried I bite of Bobby and Danna’s sweet potato dish – delicious – and then a dessert of chocolate tulips.
By that time other tables had come and gone as we drank and talked and laughed. We paid our bill and wandered down the street to another bar, the Solo Lounge to get a shot, and then dispersed for the night. I was a little bit disappointed that we didn’t stay out past 2 in the morning on our drunk night, but c’est la vie. Anyway, I can assure you we did reach our goal, because neither of us remember that picture being taken.
Bar #3: Agatha (@alutoborski) tweeted this last week:
This place looks like it’s up @AldenWicker’s alley. Wine + eco + UWS. Trifecta! http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/the-tangled-vine/
I agreed. Agatha, who works with me at Ogilvy, lives on the Upper West Side too, so by the next Thursday we were there.
It’s a fairly large place but was pretty crowded, so the hostess put us at a communal table. The wine list was printed on computer paper and housed in a cheap picture album, but at least it was extensive, going on for pages and pages. I scoured it for a biodynamic wine, but failing to find one by the glass, I settled for an organic red.
We were so close to our neighbors and the the place was so loud that at one point Agatha had to apologize to the older ladies to our left for talking too loudly. Every time someone had to get up, everyone had to climb down from their stool and stand to the side to let them pass.
We ordered a couple light plates, meant to be shared, of asparagus and pea risotto and organic veal meatballs. “If it’s organic, does that mean it’s humanely raised? Or just that it was stuff with organic corn?” I asked Agatha. She is just as into this stuff as I am.
“Who knows,” she said, spooning the last of the risotto onto my plate while I unsuccessfully tried to wave her off. “I feel like none of these labels really mean anything.”
I shrugged and waved down the waiter to refill our glasses. At least the food was delicious. After reading the reviews on Yelp, I concluded that the best experience would be at the bar, where one could have a conversation with the sommelier about wines. The check came and our eyes bugged out a little. I realized it was my organic wine that did it, at $14 a glass. Ouch.
Friday Mike and I went to Angelika to see MicMacs by the director of Amelie (See it! Adorable!!) And afterward we casted around for someplace to go for dinner. I looked through my long list of saved emails from Tasting Table, Refinery 29, Daily Candy, and Thrillist. (I like email lists, so sue me.) “There’s a pizza place that’s supposed to be good near hear,” I told Mike. “You read my mind. I was just thinking I wanted pizza,” he said. So we walked to Otto Enoteca.
I wasn’t expecting such a fancy place! Dark wood, a fully stocked wine bar, menus printed on heavy stock recycled paper… Turns out it is Mario Batali’s “cheap” place.
It was almost ten, and the hostess said it was a forty minute wait. We balked a bit, but it looked so nice we decided to stay. She gave us a card with an Italian town, and told us to watch the train station-style flipboard at the front. We walked over to the bar and stood there for a moment, wondering what our next step was. A waiter noticed us and informed us that we could get service at one of the communal standing tables, so we set ourselves up at one and immediately had someone ready to take our order.
Mike ordered a bottle of red from Sicily, where his family is from. I looked up the reviews on Yelp, and saw several mentions of truffle honey that came with the cheese platter. So I picked out two New York cheeses and Mike picked an Italian one that means “drunk.” After only a couple minutes, our waiter was back with four plates. On one he poured the truffle honey, a deep golden liquid with flecks of dark brown in it. On another he poured the cherry honey with three whole cherries, and on the third he poured honey with small chunks of apricot.
The cherry honey was so tart it was like Starburst candy. The apricot honey was delicious. But the truffle honey. Oh the truffle honey. It was sweet with a smokey, musky undertone. We had barely started when our town came up on the flip board 15 minutes early. A busboy skillfully gathered up our plates, balancing them up his arm, while Mike went to pay the check.
“The service here is out of this world,” he said when he got back. “I went to find our waiter and this guy asked me if I wanted the check, then another guy right behind me just handed it to me. It was amazing.”
We were led to our table through two dining rooms. There were a lot of pretty people there and I felt myself tense up a little. I wore little makeup, and just a simple dress with Jack Rogers and an old Longchamp. But as soon as we got to our table I relaxed as I dove back into the cheeses. Mike and I debated the merits of each pairing of cheese and honey and vowed not to be rushed through our dinner. We wanted to do it truly Italian style: slowly and with relish.
Well, we couldn’t go as slowly as we wanted, as the waiter stopped by often to check on us and as soon as our plates looked empty a busboy appeared to whisk them away and replace them with our four cheese and black pepper pizza. But oh-my-god-was-that-pizza-good. It had a thin, crispy crust with a melange of white cheeses that were just thick and gooey enough, while the pepper gave it a gentle kick.
“This place really is Sicilian,” Mike said as we walked out. The decor and food and ambiance all vividly evoked Italy to him.
That won’t be my last wine bar, for sure. I want to learn more about wines, and Vicki said she’s down for a wine class at Otto. Are there any other wine bars you would recommend in New York?