Including a luxe Midtown tasting room, a celebration of bubbly in the Village, and the latest spots from established Brooklyn restaurateurs.

By Georgia Kral
October 25, 2019
Liz Barclay

A growing interest in wine, and natural wine in particular, is bringing once-stuffy wine culture to a wider (and younger) audience. In NYC, wine bars from young-gun sommeliers and established restaurateurs are opening all the time. New perspectives, here and across the country, are redefining how we drink wine.

In compiling a list of must-visit spots, I realized that a truly great wine bar must strike a balance — like peppery charcuterie paired with a pet nat. A wine bar must take tasting seriously, but not too seriously. It should have a strong sense of identity, yet remain accessible and judgment-free. The bottle list should be thoughtful, of course. The by-the-glass offerings should never be static. The food should complement the pour. A great wine bar makes guests feel comfortable while taking them down a path of discovery.

I also thought about how we define "wine bar," an admittedly amorphous category. True, there are no hard-and-fast rules. That being said, this list would be out-of-control long if we were including establishments that — judging by how people patronize them — are more restaurant than watering hole. This is why you won’t find wine-focused favorites like Wildair, Frenchette, the Four Horsemen, and the Fly on this list.

But Joe Campanale, owner-partner of the newly opened LaLou in Brooklyn, put it this way: “Maybe it’s like art. If you say it’s a wine bar, it’s a wine bar."

Air's Champagne Parlor — Greenwich Village

For a celebratory atmosphere, hit up this chic, clubby spot in the Village. The varied list of bubbly extends from Champagne proper to sparkling wines and pet-nats from from across Europe (including Greece and Austria). The prices are extremely kind, too. Owner Ariel Arce makes a point to price bottles at retail value, without the usual restaurant markup; the current list features a $30 Spanish Brut and a $40 sparkling rosé from the Jura. And if you didn’t already know this was a party spot, the food pairing of choice here is caviar — on top of truffle fries, scooped up with potato chips and crème fraîche, or sandwiched between thick slices of brioche. Fancy! airschampagneparlor.com.

Aldo Sohm — Midtown

This wine bar, opened in 2014, is the brainchild of Aldo Sohm, chief sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin and author of the forthcoming book "Wine Simple." It’s located in the heart of Midtown — and with that comes a sheen that isn’t found in the bars that occupy certain corners of Brooklyn. This is a decidedly classy affair. Expect beautiful stemware, pristine wines, beautifully presented small plates, and careful service. aldosohmwinebar.com.

Anfora — West Village

The name is Italian for amphora, the ubiquitous earthenware vessel of the ancient world — used in the in the production and storage of wine since the Neolithic Period. Plenty of large-format bottles are available, and the constantly changing by-the-glass list leans Old World and all natural (orange wines figure heavily, with current pours including cult favorite Gut Oggau). The ambience, with flickering candlelight, is dark and intimate. It’s a great place to have a catch-up with an old friend, or perhaps a second date. anforanyc.com.

La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels — Nolita

This beloved wine destination straddles the line between classy and comfortable. There’s a stately mahogany bar, but also velvet couches, cushy chairs, and an accessible wine list. (While there are certainly some twists and interesting finds on the menu, wine director and managing partner Caleb Ganzer says they aren’t dogmatic about things like biodynamic production or minimal intervention — they just want good wine.) Glasses are reasonably priced; there’s currently a pouring of Loire Muscadet available for just $11. There is also a focus on wine education and outreach, with special programs each month — September, for example, was devoted to the study of grower champagne, and frequent Wine Boot Camp classes cover topics like the dry wines of Portugal and the natural wines of the Northeast U.S. compagnienyc.com.

Franks Wine Bar — Carroll Gardens

This is the latest venture of the pioneering Brooklyn restaurateurs known collectively as “the Franks": Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, of Frankies Spuntino fame. The bar, which debuted last year, occupies the neighboring space formerly home to their German-inspired restaurant Prime Meats. Like the Franks' other spots, this is a neighborhood joint: warm, friendly vibes and attentive-yet-casual service. The wine list, while constantly changing, leans towards Italy and France — though on a recent night, I found a biodynamic sparkling rose from Holly’s Garden in Australia, reminiscent of sage and ripe fruit. For food, you can order from a short list of wine-friendly shared plates — lemony arancini, house-made pistachio mortadella with slices of grilled bread — as well as some favorites from next door. frankswinebar.com.

June — Cobble Hill

June — a jovial spot for known for its skin contact wines, which make up a susbtantial portion of the menu — is a major draw for New York's in-the-know wine crowd. But it’s also welcoming to less experienced, but nonetheless curious, drinkers. On a recent visit, when a friend inquired about a bubbly rosé, the staff were happy to bring tastes of a couple different bottles for comparison. The goal here seems to be matching guests with a wine they love — and oh, it was achieved. (June’s playful, positive approach to wine is evidenced by a section on the menu titled "WTF?!?!?!," which also includes ciders and other co-fermented beverages.) junebk.com.

LaLou — Prospect Heights

This sunny wine bar is the latest project from Anfora alum Joe Campanale, whose Italian restaurant just down the street, Fausto, is already a neighborhood favorite. His new place focuses on natural wines, each with a story to tell. The bottles, all from small producers, hail from smaller regions in Hungary, Greece, and Georgia, as well as under-the-radar finds from France and Italy. The current by-the-glass list is even more off-the-wall; kind, attentive servers can introduce you to producers like Kabaj, in Slovenia, or the Czech Republic's Milan Nestarec. Don't skip the fried green olives — plump, crispy, and undeniably unctuous. laloubrooklyn.com.

Ruffian — East Village

This Manhattan spot is snug, to say the least — when all of the seats at the dimly lit concrete bar are occupied, there is almost no space for patrons to stand and wait. But no matter. The wine list, which leans natural, is so out-of-the-box that you won't mind. On a recent visit, owner and beverage director Patrick Cournot was drinking the St. Reginald Parish Tiny Dancer, an oaked Chardonnay that — he said —tasted unlike any other oaked Chardonnay he'd ever had. There was none left in the bottle, so he offered me a sip from his glass. (Note: it's a good sign when the owner offers their glass an unidentified, yet very interested, guest, simply for the fun of it.) In the spirit of sampling, Ruffian also offers a nightly tasting of four half-glass pours. ruffiannyc.com.

The Ten Bells — Lower East Side

Ten Bells has the feel of a rustic tavern — one that serves funky, cloudy natural wines instead of ale. This lower Manhattan standby has been a favorite since 2008, with customers circling the island-like bar that forms the centerpiece of the space. Tapas like boquerones and tuna-stuffed piquillo peppers are the perfect complement to the impressively long list of by-the-glass wines, and the team here is proud to showcase quirky selections from small producers. (A current best bet: a Crémant du Jura Chardonnay from Les Granges Paquenesses.) tenbellsnyc.com.

Terroir — Tribeca

The O.G. of au courant wine bars (read: an unstuffy approach to serious wines), Terroir was a punky, saucy, much-needed antidote to staid wine culture when it opened in the mid-2000s. These days, its approach can feel so jaunty it borders on goofy — but that's one of many reasons it succeeds. The crowd has a nice balance — no too-cool-for-school wine geeks; this is Tribeca, after all — and the service is warm and relaxed. The (very long) wine list is bound in a massive book, with pages that look like they’ve been lifted from zines: cut-out letters and pasted text, ransom note style, and lots of exclamation points. One section of the menu, which includes wines made from the obscure grapes Piculit Neri and Forgiarin, is simply titled "Crazy Italian Juice." What's not to love? wineisterroir.com.

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