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What Makes a Wine Bar a Wine Bar?

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Chef Jody Williams, who recently opened Gottino, a fabulous new “gastroteca” in NYC’s West Village, has strong feelings about what exactly makes a wine bar a wine bar. (Note that she calls Gottino a “gastroteca” and not a wine bar). After a terrific experience that included delicious bigné (warm, savory beignets) and ciambottini (a vinegary stew of vegetables and soppressata) as well as a blood orange salad, cheeses and a few different wines, I have to disagree. In my mind, her latest project embodies everything a wine bar should aspire to: a cozy atmosphere; a laid-back rather than bustling vibe; a wine list that offers new experiences via small producers and esoteric grapes or regions at a range of price points; a knowledgeable staff that can guide you through the choices; and delicious food that can be shared with friends or selfishly enjoyed on one’s own.

I can understand Williams’ distaste for the “wine bar” label, considering the recent abuse of the term. Since January, new spaces seem to be opening weekly and declaring themselves wine bars, while their personalities could not be more distinct.

Tucked away in Hell’s Kitchen is the newly opened wine bar Xai Xai. It hits so many of the right notes: Bob Marley and Sublime set a mellow mood in the tiny, candle-lit space; the wine list is exclusively South African, so my friends and I truly got to experience the range of wines coming out of that region and were particularly impressed by Tumara’s earthy Pinotage from Stellenbosch. The South African theme is carried over to the small plates menu, but unfortunately the biltong (a variety of dried meats that include ostrich) and garlic droë wors (dried, coriander-seed spiced sausage) and mimi “bunny chow” with lamb bredie (a type of stew) – while interesting – left us hungry and in search of a spot for dinner afterwards.

Superstar chef Daniel Boulud’s new Upper West Side wine bar, Bar Boulud, will hardly attract a laid-back crowd with its location across from Lincoln Center, but on a recent visit I found it less stuffy than I anticipated. A hip playlist gave the sophisticated setting an air of fun, and as expected the food was spectacular. I shared a plate of charcuterie with friends but wouldn’t give up a bite of my mushroom-stuffed skate. And the sommelier’s wine suggestions were spot-on.

The half-block long Accademia di Vino, the Upper East Side offshoot of ‘Cesca across town, has an extensive wine list and versatile menu  – you can snack on salumi and cheese or make a meal of thin-crust pizza or pastas - but the vibe is the antithesis of what I want in a perfect wine bar. The downstairs restaurant is cavernous and busy while the street-level bar portion has the air of a sports bar, with TVs playing football and hockey on my last visit and a raucous noise level. I left feeling a bit defeated, but then realized perhaps there is no cookie-cutter mold for today's wine bar. As the popularity of wine expands, more and more spots are opening to cater to budding oenophiles. I have friends I wouldn't dare bring to a Daniel Boulud establishment, yet Accademio di Vino would be the perfect non-intimidating place to introduce them to the sometimes daunting world of wine. And sometimes it's nice to have a glass of Rioja while watching the game....I wonder if they'll be showing the Super Bowl this weekend?

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Run with chefs and wine experts in the Celebrity Chef 5K and dance all night at Gail Simmons’ Last Bite Dessert Party during the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, June 20-22.