What is the Real History of the Wine Bar?

In 1979, Decanter covered a new British wine bar, “called Fagins Wine Bar, it harks back in atmosphere to the time of Dickens: The lighting is subdued, the decor Dickensian and pleasing.” This was a shift, because the 1965 Guide to London Pubs reported that “all wine bars” catered to “serious drinkers who don’t want to be bothered with entertainment or comfortable surroundings.”

The trouble with Decanter’s reporting, too, is that despite false romantic images of Victorian vinous culture, Charles Dickens never visited a wine bar. It’s modern form was, all evidence suggests, an invention of the fabulous Seventies. That’s the 1970s, not the 1870s.

New York magazine clocked the first Manhattan wine bar in 1978, following the recent fashion in “London, in a few other European cities, and, more recently, in California.” Consulting Google’s Ngram Viewer (see below) shows that wine bars really took off first in the US and then in Europe (as represented by mentions in French and Spanish) in the 1980s.

The Trendy Wine Bar and the Wine Bar Trend

Today, also according to New York magazine, wine bars are again “taking over the city.” Punch tells us that “the cool new modern wine bar” is not only a trend but also a category; the article describes the new wine bar as “bafflingly flexible” and therefore defines little. The common denominator is that the clients want to have a “good time.” That marks a change from the “serious drinkers” of 1965, but wine bars have been cool, modern, trendy, and magnets for youth for 50 years, as far as I can tell.

Since its inception around 1970, the trendy wine bar has stayed with us, although it’s a business form that seems to always puzzle the experts. In fact, many must ask, What is a wine bar? “The wine bar can feel like a nebulous concept: not quite a bar, not quite a restaurant,” says San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov had to ask in late 2022, “What is a Wine Bar, Anyway?”

What need or purpose does it fulfil? Is it only about great wine?

Defining the Wine Bar

In 1978, Seymour Britchky defined wine bars as “establishments at which wine is the principal alcohol served, where one may order single glasses of wine, or bottles, from more or less broad selections” on the wine list. The Wine Bar—yes, that was the name of New York City’s first wine bar—had a “list of almost 100” selections “annotated with quotations from Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopaedia of Wine.” It offered “around 30 wines” by the glass. “Most of the list is silly,” Britchky opined. The Wine Bar was “just a management in search of a gimmick.” It offered “SoHo cliché” and “no style,” but nevertheless patrons could “find decent young wines” on the wine list served by “waitresses in civvies; they are young, cheerful, and learning just as fast as they can.”

Wine bars have always offered fashion, great wine, and a modicum of comfort, like that Dickensian atmosphere Decanter acclaimed. People just forget what went before.

Trying Different Wines

In 2007, budding wine blogger Alder Yarrow took his shot at the wine bar in Vinography. At that time he could refer to wine as “pretty trendy” and note “the growing interest of the Millenial generation in wine.” So-called wine bars were proliferating at that time too.

Alder despaired, however, that “many of these places aren’t really wine bars.” Thus he sought a definition, providing two criteria: First, an “extensive list of wines” must exist, offered “by the bottle, by the glass AND by the taste, or by the half-glass (usually a 2 ounce pour).” The wine list could not remain the same forever, either. Second, there had to be a place to sit “while you enjoy your wine,” preferably on something comfy or at an actual bar.

Importantly, Alder Yarrow wrote, “a restaurant that happens to have a list of wines by the glass (no matter how long or how great) is not a wine bar, no matter what they say on the sign outside.” Britchky in 1978 agreed, serving food was common but not essential to defining a wine bar.

Has Alder’s viewpoint on the wine bar changed in the past 17 years? I asked him.

“I have always believed the point of a wine bar was to create a place and an opportunity for people to try different wines.” He thus sticks resolutely with the importance of a wine list offering small pours or optional tastings. The capacity to offer a breadth of wine experiences is essential. “Sadly,” Alder tells me, “this seems to be less and less common.” So, we are moving downhill from 2007 (and 1978).

A Wine Shop???

He also noted a fashion for the combined wine bar and retail shop, which is not satisfying, in part because “most such venues don’t have a nice atmosphere, being more wine shops than wine bars . . .” They also offer very few wines by the glass. The Chronicle’s Mobley agrees, writing last year that “the genre’s lines are blurring . . . as nearly every new wine bar doubles as a bottle shop.”

What Wine Bars Should and Shouldn’t Be

Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, tells me she loves wine bars. She offered one bit of advice for management, obviously based on some distasteful experiences: “I really think that a self-righteous attitude should never be present in a wine bar. I don’t want to be preached to or frowned upon or have my selection questioned.”

Relatedly, perhaps, Alder Yarrow pinpoints “the major trend of the last 20 years”: “the explosion of natural wine bars.” Here morals get mixed with wine. “They’ve crowded out the ‘traditional’ wine bars, which is a shame to me,” says Alder. “Sometimes I’m in the mood for something funky, but I’d really like to have a place where I could just go get a nice cheese plate and a glass of excellent Chenin Blanc.”

He is undoubedly correct. New York magazine refers to the “supercharged” wine bar trend stemming from the “natural wine” phenomenon, “keeping pace with the natural-wine boom.” Eric Asimov in the New York Times wrote that “the best new wine bars focus on selections especially popular with younger wine drinkers: natural wines, skin-contact or orange wines, pétillant naturels, and the like. You won’t find a lot of places with classic Napa Valley cabernets or Bordeaux.”

No Deductive Analysis, Please

Karen MacNeil doesn’t want morals or analysis with her wine; she wants a human angle on the wine. This meshes with Asimov’s observation that wine bars with an “educational pose” fell out of favor. “I want,” Karen says, “a story of sorts. Don’t recite the tech sheet to me and don’t pretend that you’re taking a WSET exam by hammering on with your deductive analysis. Tell me a story about the people who made the wine and the place where they made it. Like lots of wine drinkers, I’ll probably fall in love with the story.”

Indeed storytelling about wine, much as in Mark Oldman’s virtual wine classes, works better than that educational wine pose. Punch suggests wine bars today must be “built for spontaneity,” offering an “effortless” experience that enhances “the romance of going out.” Of course, there must be great wine.

Here’s a toast to another 50 years of trendy wine bars.

Charlie Leary

A member of the Circle of Wine Writers, Charlie Leary has directed restaurant wine programs in the US, Canada, Costa Rica, and France. In the mid 1990s, while earning a PhD from Cornell University, he made artisanal cheeses and counted among the first North Americans inducted into the Guilde International des Fromagers; he later planned, planted, and managed an IGP vineyard in Andalusia.

His book-length guide to worldwide wine education programs (Leary’s Global Wineology) was first published in 2022, in part based on his experience earning numerous wine certifications. His feature articles have appeared in Decanter magazine, Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux, JancisRobinson.com, Sommelier Business, Hudin.com, and Tim Atkin MW’s website, among others. He recently consulted for the wine metaverse startup Second Winery and wrote a detailed report on the history of wine sensory analysis for the Wine Scholar Guild. Charlie now lives in Panama, where he offers wine classes, and is writing a book on the philosopher Montesquieu as an eighteenth century winegrower. IG: @bacopty