Thursday, 09 August 2018 14:07

What happened to the wine bar?

Written by  Lee Suckling
One of the few dedicated bars dedicated to wine – Scotch Wine Bar in Blenheim. One of the few dedicated bars dedicated to wine – Scotch Wine Bar in Blenheim.

Go back a decade and the city wine bar was all the rage. Why aren't they today?

In the three main centres of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, they were plentiful. The Viaduct and Ponsonby Road, Cuba Street, Sol Square… all were destinations to try new wines by the glass that consumers mightn’t ever have heard of. 

In 2018, it’s somewhat of a different story. The traditional wine bar, one where you can order by the glass from a large range of local and international wines and where the food menu isn’t the primary incentive to enjoy the hospitality, has become a rare sight. 

They still exist – for example Auckland’s Jervois Road is still home to mainstays such as Dida’s and the Jervois Road Wine Bar + Kitchen, and Christchurch there’s Social Wine Bar at the Crowne Plaza hotel, but you don’t hear the public or media talking about them often anymore. 

They serve their loyal customers well but the focus in popular culture has largely gone to the craft beer scene, or the likes of boutique gin and whisky bars. 

In part, this owes to the change that the hospitality industry has been through in terms of interior design. Think of your ideal of a wine bar: it is dark and moody, probably inspired by a French bistro, with lots of dark wood and maybe even some opulent velvet curtains.  

There’s some jazz playing lightly in the background, the crowd is mature, and it’s the perfect place to cosy up to try some new Pinots in the middle of winter. Nationwide, however, this sort of aesthetic now seems outdated, like the traditional English pub look did before it. 

Restaurants, cafes, and bars tend to lend themselves to light, ventilated, youthful environments – they are a breath of fresh air, not a hole in the wall. Consumers angle for windows, sun, rooftops, and greenery, and the hospitality industry is giving it to them – a great example is the Hipgroup in Auckland, which incorporates an IKEA-like Scandinavian aesthetic (i.e. lots of beechwood and glass) into many of its venues. 

Across the nation, craft beer bars tend to go for light-coloured interiors too – plywood is extremely popular in these establishments. This isn’t a uniquely New Zealand experience. 

The Balls Brothers chain of wine bars, which was established in the UK 150 years ago, fell upon particularly hard times around 2010 ns believes the company’s troubles were in part affected by a younger generation of customers who didn’t want to drink in dark bars anymore. 

“[As a] general rule we’re not interested in opening any more basements”, said chairman Richard Ball at the time, as the Balls Brothers brand was known for its below-ground watering holes. 

Noble Rot in Wellington is the capital’s only dedicated wine bar. It seems to have taken on board changing consumer preferences in atmosphere and operates in a clean, modern space complete with adequate lighting, pale blue walls, and light-coloured timber.  

“We definitely want to make wine cool, without being too pretentious,” said co-owner Maciej Zimny when the wine bar opened in 2016. Another of Noble Rot’s co-owners, Josh Pointon spoke on Monocle radio in March to discuss the dearth of the Kiwi wine bar. While the craft beer industry had undergone substantive modernisation with new flavours, methods, and ways of marketing to a wider audience of consumers, he said the wine industry had largely stayed the same (save for the new methods that have emerged on the natural wine scene).  

This illustrates one way the hospitality industry could learn from craft beer for more successful wine bars: innovate. That means adding untraditional wine types to the list for a new wine drinking experience, so it’s easier to try a New Zealand Albariño or Grüner Veltliner in a wine bar, for example.

“More and more, we’ll start to see some of these “fringe” varietals coming through,” Pointon said, noting something the industry can do to boost local interest and attract new customers on site, as per the craft beer bar success story. 

Dan Gillett runs the Scotch Wine Bar in Blenheim, a favourite amongst the wine industry. He took over Scotch three-and-a-half years ago and has been going steadily since. “Our focus is towards locals who work in wine who want to come in and have a drink, we’ve never really targeted tourists,” Gillett says.

“Our busiest time of the year is around harvest, April-May, so I acknowledge we are in a bit of a bubble.” 

Were Gillett to open a wine bar elsewhere in New Zealand, he would need a different approach. “If we were to open in Auckland or Wellington, it would have to change the service style typical of wine bars... something fun, approachable, and easy to understand,” he says, noting customers outside of the industry assume wine tasting is a snobbish affair. 

“You’d basically need to take the focus off the wine, while keeping that your sole focus… Almost where wine is the highlight without customers knowing it.” 

In Australia and Europe, it’s enough for a wine bar to just serve wine, and people don’t necessarily eat, Gillett adds. 

“But we don’t really have a culture of popping into a wine bar after work for a bottle, so the best wine bars in New Zealand tend to offer great cuisine too.”

By the glass, Scotch’s offering starts at $10 and the typical pour will be $12-20, with occasional special bottles reaching $300+ a glass. Noble Rot follows a similar model, incorporating the Coravin system in its sales method. 

In modern, prosperous wine bars such as these, it’s those on the floor who can ensure customers try new wines at every price point. “That’s the role of the staff,” says Gillett. 

“People aren’t necessarily going to try something new just from reading it on a wine list. A good sommelier needs to help them find something that appeals.” Unfortunately, finding such staff can be a challenge in New Zealand.

“But a good sommelier can dictate the success of a place,” Gillett adds, “and in New Zealand there are only a handful.”
If we look to the successful European wine bars operating today, they don’t just allow customers a drink-in experience – they also serve as off-licences.

The Guardian cites Vinoteca, the flourishing London wine bar chain that operates in six locations around the city, as the best new wine bar in London. Vinoteca was inspired by “the wine bars of Spain and Italy, which often also function as wine shops” – something Scotch in Marlborough sees value in, as it also operates an adjacent wine shop. Punters revel in the ability to buy a bottle from the shelves and either take it home, or open it then and there. All of this helps in creating a new vibe for wine bars. “I see wine bars going in a more inviting, more welcoming direction,” Gillett says. 

“They shouldn’t be dungeons, they should be warm, approachable and casual. That means changing in delivery and space. Because nobody hangs out in dark sleazy nightclubs anymore.”


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