There are currently 237 wine bars spread across the city's five boroughs, 69 of which opened last year alone. There are wine bars that specialize in the wines of South Africa or the wines of Italy or only of France. There are wine bars that pour only organic selections—with a bit of proselytizing served alongside. There are wine bars where champagne is the focus (and the prices are accordingly high) and wine bars that refuse to serve any white wine but Riesling by the glass. There are wine bars that offer little more than pretzels or bar snacks and wine bars that serve steak dinners from menus so expansive they might as well be restaurants.
But the best part about wine bars—besides the wine—is the sense of intimacy they inspire, offering a glimpse of a neighborhood, a life.
Take for example, an encounter my friend Stephen and I had at Bin 71, a wine bar on the Upper West Side. We were drinking some good Muscadet (the 2009 Domaine de la Pepiere) when a woman next to us struck up a conversation. First, she asked if we were a couple.
Just pals from college, Stephen and I replied.
That was nice, she said, in the hurried fashion of someone who just wants to tell her own story.
She launched into her dating life in detail—all the undesirable men she'd met working "every possible Internet dating site" until she finally decided that trying to meet someone in a wine bar might be better.
How was that going?
Nothing so far, she admitted. The only single man she had met was drinking water and eating a salad. He didn't want to talk. But she remained optimistic—and had a good glass of Sauvignon Blanc at her side.
Even the people on the other side of the bottle tend to talk more with wine as a prop. At inoteca in the East Village, the waitress actually kneeled next to our table as she described to my friend Bruce and me what she liked about the 2009 Bisson Rose from Liguria.
"It's light and juicy—a really pretty wine from a top producer that's perfect for the summer."
She seemed every bit as intent on sharing her delight as she was making the sale.
But when did this conversation begin? Exactly how did this golden age get its start? Did New Yorkers suddenly develop a collective craving for Cabernet by the glass? A desire to talk about aromas and tannins? Paul Grieco, who operates two of the city's best wine bars, Terroir and Terroir Tribeca as well as Hearth restaurant in the East Village says the phenomenon has as much to do with wine as it does the economy.
"Anyone who wanted to open a restaurant in Manhattan in the past 24 to 36 months has opened a wine bar instead," said Mr. Grieco. "A white-tablecloth restaurant costs a million dollars but you can open a wine bar for only a few hundred thousand dollars." And since many wine bars, including Terroir, have sizable menus—their owners can still "act like they're running a restaurant," he said.
Wine bars have also been showing up in neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Long Island City in Queens. They're a marker of gentrification, a latter-day Starbucks of sorts. They are also a so-called attainable luxury, offering wine and food that is reasonably priced.
At Terroir Tribeca, for example, a plate of "funky beef balls" costs only $7 and sandwiches cost a few dollars more. At Hearth, a main course is under $30. And the food at all three is overseen by same chef, the talented Marco Canora.
Of course, there are reasons beyond cheap eats and small checks that draw people to wine bars—and reasons beyond attenuated ambition that people open them, too. Mandy Oser, who runs Ardesia wine bar in Hell's Kitchen with two partners (and works at Le Bernardin during the day) opened a wine bar last year because, she said, she thought it would be "fun."
Fun would certainly seem to be a reason why people show up at bars (wine or otherwise) though a wine bar also offers the possibility—or the guise—of an education.
At Ardesia, for example, there are 30 wines by the glass and any one of them, or all, can be tasted for free, accompanied by a mini-tutorial. My friend Christina tried three different wines at Ardesia and received three different disquisitions before settling on a Pinot Bianco that the bartender said had an "ocean air quality."
There's just one place bypassed by the golden age: Staten Island. The borough only has one wine bar, the Cellar. (There are three in the Bronx.) Although the Cellar has been open for three years and owner Stephanie Perno said business was solid, she had no plans for a second location.
"I don't think Staten Island can support another wine bar," she said.
On the other hand, Mr. Grieco is looking to expand into other boroughs. Including Staten Island? Mr. Grieco demurred, "I wouldn't rule it out."