Manhattan Misadventures, and a bunch’a good wine
Each of the great cities in the world has a different wine culture. In some it is non-existent, in others burgeoning, and in the greatest it is flourishing and diverse. New York’s wine scene is much like the city itself: a multi-faceted hard to pin down and ever changing explosion of experience.
It is easy to move from village to village and happen upon endless wine bars, restaurants and wine shops, each with a different vibe and selection. Me being who I am, I searched the city for stores and restaurants with a passionate and means-conscious approach to wine.
East Village: Of Amphora and Rustic Italian
My journey began in the East Village, surely one of Manhattan’s most exciting neighbourhoods, at Il Buco restaurant. Il Buco has a Wine Spectator award winning wine list – not something that would draw me in given a recent scandal exposing serious flaws in the awards process and given the Spectator’s monolithic palate. Il Buco, however, goes beyond all that nonsense. While the food is very good but not truly outstanding, the wine list offers many exciting finds.
My decision came quickly upon seeing an entire page of the wine list dedicated to Cornelissen, the Belgian wine maker who moved to Sicily to start making wines fermented in amphora, like the Romans used to do. I chose the Munjebel 6, a wine fermented in a clay pot buried in the ground. You might expect such a wine to be rustic and flawed, to say the least. My shock was at the profound precision and cleanliness of the wine, which possessed both lightness and very serious structure.
How a wine can be closer in colour to a Rose and yet possess tannins as hefty as a barbaresco is something I still do not understand. The wine, like many wines I’ve had with extended maceration, played chameleon to the food and worked with everything from burrata and pickled onions to gnocchi to slow roasted pork. Quite unlike any wine I’ve had thus far and one worth seeking out.
Unfortunately, I later found out the restaurant charged 2.5x the retail price of the wine, which in a city like New York is a travesty. The experience, however, was well worth the price and the atmosphere of the restaurant was more romantic and lovely than anything available in Vancouver.
East Village Part 2: Terroir
Those who regularly read the blog will know that I adore San Francisco’s Terroir Wine Bar and Merchant – a singular place that specializes in wines made with as few chemicals as possible.
Terroir in Manhattan’s East Village purports to follow the same concept, but is in fact not at all related to Terroir SF. This turns out to be an unfortunate reality as Terroir NYC does not rise to the same level.
Yes the wine bar pours some very good wines by the glass, but the atmosphere is cramped and filled with a bunch of wine-likers but not that many truly obsessive types. Of course, your tastes might dictate that you prefer a wine bar with a more straightforward atmosphere and some good wine by the glass, but this place tends to be cramped and somehow seems to disappoint in a city like New York. But all is not lost in a city with an unparalleled level of experimentation.
Financial District: North America’s First ‘Natural Wine’ Store
Manhattan has a mind boggling number of wine stores. It would be easy to walk into a dozen and never be impressed. At the same time, Manhattan’s diversity has given rise to a few of the best wine stores in the entire country.
Chambers Street Wine is pretty much the first wine store in North America to champion so-called ‘natural wines’. This means more that the store is fanatical about knowing everything there is to know about the producers it carries, building personal relationships with them and with importers in the U.S. and ensuring perfect provenance for all their wines.
West coast aficionados will find an incredible array of Italian wine at this shop that extends far beyond what you find in California or the rest of the Pacific North West. I was personally greeted by a wonderful sales person who talked my ear off about all her passions and thoughts about the wines in the store. Completely unpretentiously, I was directed both to rare treats like the $150 Cornelissen Magma and to an inexpensive small producer Aglianico for a mere $20.
The store also boasts an amazing selection of old German Rieslings, Italian Barolos and Loire Valley Cab Franc. I walked away with a 1997 Breton single vineyard Bourgueil for less than you would pay for a current vintage in Vancouver.
I could wax poetic for a long time about this store and its staff, but the best example I can give is that after an hour long conversation I was directed to a favourite China Town stop for lunch and sent off with a 1995 Barolo for a mere $25.
China Town: Duck and Barolo
In New York one can easily spend a fortune dining at highly regarded and Michelin starred restaurants. This is the easy path towards a memorable experience. But I imagine that such lavish moments pale in comparison to something as simple as a tucked away Peking Duck restaurant in the heart of Manhattan’s China Town and a $0 corkage for a 15 year old Barolo.
Clearly Peking Duck House mastered the art of Peking Duck decades ago. A perfect spice rub, immaculate carving of superb quality duck and home made hoisin sauce provided the best Chinese Food I’ve had in ages. That I paired it with a 1995 Rocca La Pira Barolo? That the pairing was one of the best I’ve had? Well that was perfection.
Greenwich Village: Corporate Batali Shows the Goods
There is something particularly irritating about super chefs who franchise their brand across the country. Batali is one such chef that brings the ire to my eyes. However, a quick stop off at Otto after an inspiring modern jazz concert at Cornelia Café convinced me that at least this man understands quality and value.
Huge artisanal pizzas accompanied by 1/3 bottles of small producer wines from Piedmont, Campania and Tuscany for $12-$16? Yes, that works. The food and wine were both outstanding and, much like Greenwich Village itself, Otto shows that even the upscale and slightly vanilla experiences in New York can yield great results.
Lower East Side: Manhattan’s Best Wine Bar
Despite the many fine experiences I had in Manhattan, my last night in town at The Ten Bells at Orchard and Broome (recommended, once again, by the amazing staff at Chambers Street Wines) was pure New York. Perhaps it was the dingy surroundings, or the fact that I had just seen the mind-blowing 7 hour play Gatz (a word for word rendition of The Great Gatsby), or possibly the superb list of wines from the likes of Movia, Breton, etc. (including an amazing sparkling Gamay from the Loire), or the expertly crafted small plates and carefully selected cheeses – whatever the reason, The Ten Bells stood out to me as the best wine bar in Manhattan and the NYC rival to SF’s Terroir.
Both places are passionate beyond the realm of normalcy, both located in slightly off the cuff areas, and both are – to a fault – true to the place they inhabit. Terroir’s rustic wood interior and retro vinyl collection are matched by The Ten Bells’ inspired avant-garde interior, perfectly executed small plates, and passionate, thoughtful clientele and staff.
It strikes me that the particularity of wine does not only need to arise from the glass itself, but can also find expression in the setting. The greatest testament to both Terroir SF and The Ten Bells NYC is that each is authentically grounded in its milieu, much like the wines they pour. I can think of no higher praise for a wine bar.
This article has offered but a mere sampling of the great wines and wine experiences available in Manhattan. It is also easy to forget the bevy of crappy wine available in the city and the reams of faceless and soulless wine bars. However, Manhattan is near immune to such things. With its endless variation and diversity, there is no need to stick around somewhere that sucks. This is something that Vancouver (and, honestly, most other cities) completely lacks. But perhaps it is such juxtapositions that give us pause and make us realize why experimentation, entrepreneurship and passion are far more effective drivers for an industry than nanny-state government regulation.
I would be remiss to not mention that the ultimate purpose of my trip was to attend one of my closest friend’s wedding, which was a beautiful event in rural Maryland with clear skies and dappled foliage. That my friend is a beer geek? Well that led to the consumption of a few special mid-west and east coast brews, my favourite of which were probably the Founder’s Harvest Ale and the Shlafly 2007 Reserve Barley Wine. Oh, and why don’t more people make stouts brewed with honey and aged in Whisky barrels: