Where to Sample Philadelphia’s Emerging Wine Scene
After languishing for years under the heavy hand of Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor control board (PLCB), Philadelphia bars turned their attention to wine. At the forefront are some well-known sommeliers: Rittenhouse Hotel’s Justin Timsit earned the Austrian Wine Marketing Board's best sommelier in New York (despite being based in in Philly) and is now set to head New York City's Gramercy Tavern; also, a.kitchen and a.bar’s wine director Mariel Wega was named best new sommelier of 2016 by Wine & Spirits. But there are more people, and wine bars, to know.
Philadelphia has traditionally focused on beer. A wide array of craft brews has been available here for decades, long before word spread to many other U.S. cities. As a closed state with some of the strictest liquor laws in the country, Pennsylvania can be tough on wine-lovers. All retail outlets — resignedly called “state stores” by locals — are state-owned: Restaurants and bars can purchase their inventory only from one of these PA-licensed spots, paying the same for their bottles that a customer would, minus a small tax break at year’s end — a setup that can render the price of wine at dinner unpalatably high. Consider, too, that customers have access to the same state-store inventory. Then, Philadelphia somms realized their way out was to offer customers varietals they couldn’t find at their local “state stores.”
They reached out to purveyors — who can sell to the state who then sells to wine bars — that specialize in unusual production areas and overlooked grape varieties. The result is a batch of globe-spanning, accessible, and affordable wine lists that roam from pleasantly familiar to adventurous and inquisitive, and offer a broad view of quality wine to thirsty Philadelphians and savvy visitors alike. Natural wines, wines by producers who made just a few thousand cases each year, hard-to-find styles like orange wines — wines made from white-wine grapes but with skin contact, the red-wine way — sit side by side with fresh versions of more recognizable offerings: pinot noirs from Oregon and France, Champagne-style sparklings, well-made pinot grigios and chardonnays.
The PLCB is starting to take notice. Starting in 2017, new laws will create some breathing room, including allowing private retailers in Pennsylvania for the first time since before Prohibition, but the state stores themselves are showing off a new craving for wine diversity, stocking select stores with a shelf or two of bottles that fit customers’ newly honed tastes. The sense of excitement driving this city’s new love of wine is contagious.
One of the first things you sense among these new wine bars is that you’ve been invited to share someone’s personal passion. In place of trendiness, there’s humility, something a little homegrown, refined yet approachable — something local. You’re in a place at once understated and polished, and you’re about to discover some things, or find a new version of an old friend. Here are five seats to grab for an accurate look at Philly’s exhilarating new wine landscape.
First, there was Tria. In 2004, Michael McCaulley and John Myerow opened their casual counterpart to the city’s then-more-formal wine venues just off Rittenhouse Square — one of Penn’s original five parks, surrounded by luxurious, old-money real estate — in Philadelphia’s Center City. Its cheese-and-charcuterie plates and extensive by-the-glass list quickly made it the center of Philadelphians’ wine explorations; there are now four locations throughout downtown.
A seat at the bar of the cozy, neighborhood-y Fitler Square outpost offers obstacle-free views of the park, perfect for contemplating a glass of the rotating happy hour offering, often chosen as an intro to a little-known wine. Recently France’s tart, herbs-and-hazelnut-y roussette de Savoie took center stage. Categories like Luscious Whites and Sociable Reds head by-the-glass options that include glasses of legendary López de Heredia rioja and Greek malagousia or Salento negroamaro and Chilean carménère respectively. A few blocks south, Tria Taproom is bottle-free, pouring its wines the same way it does its ciders and beers: via tap. Grape-based draft offerings include sherry, a cru Beaujolais, a nebbiolo blend from Piedmont, and, separately, a chardonnay and a petite verdot both made in Pennsylvania.
In the narrow sun-filled space catty-corner to Rittenhouse Square, wine director Mariel Wega earned her Wine & Spirits’ best-new-somm-2016 stripes only three years after opening this more casual companion to a.kitchen, whose wine list she’s crafted as well. To match a.bar’s raw bar, seafood salad, and grilled octopus small plates, Wega picked unusual whites, like Canary Islands aromatic native listan blanco (a gleefully briny companion during the daily oyster happy hour), and sparkling wines like a traditionally made fizzy Bordeaux and a clever Oregon crémant made of chenin blanc, cab franc, and gamay. To accompany a Swiss-topped burger, there’s an all-cinsault Languedoc or a blend of red-berried barbera and floral ruché from those grapes’ native Piedmont. Or, by the bottle, a biodynamic chardonnay from southeastern Sicily and a zinfandel rosé from California’s Broc Cellars will serve those dishes just as well.
Opened in 2012, on the parlor floor of a brownstone just off Rittenhouse Square, Vernick features chef-owner Greg Vernick’s full-fledged menu — including fast bites like chanterelles and charred eggplant toast and a dinner-size rye spaghetti topped with smoked pork, cabbage, and apple — matched with a wine list notable for both its playfulness and its breadth. The food’s mixed influences translate to no limitations on pairing possibilities, and wine director Ray Gadzinski casts his net wide, choosing elegance over power to match the fare’s more delicate, complex side. Gadzinski is after the hard-to-find, tasting every day and touring the city’s state stores to see what his customers can buy there. “There’s been this game for the somms in the city to find those things that the state hasn’t purchased,” he says.
His personal tastes lean Italian — including Radikon, Gravner, Paolo Bea by the bottle; a pinot grigio ramato, or orange, from Friuli, a Piedmontese grignolino by the glass — with an expanded lineup of orange wines for the cooler weather. He balances those with unusual French choices (on a recent visit, a subtle, earthy Gaillac) and American cult picks (an expansive sparkling list includes pet-nats from Broc Cellars and some of the Numbered Series from Minimus — tiny one-time-only batches of experimental takes on Pacific-Northwest-grown grapes from turiga nacional to gewürztraminer). The goal is to both introduce and satisfy, especially for guests looking for a glass of their tried-and-true. “They say, I’ll have a sauvignon blanc, and then we can step in and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have that but here’s this interesting white from Gascogne, with similar qualities.’ In a lot of ways, it’s finding alternatives to things that they’re comfortable with,” Gadzinski says. Basically, it’s drinking well, while learning, too.
Vintage Wine Bar & Bistro
Dimly lit and open late, Center City’s Vintage offers around 60 wines by the glass, ranging from a stimulating lemberger from Washington’s Yakima Valley to a respectable California old-vine zinfandel that will introduce you to the grape’s other, dry and full-bodied, side. A recent list of employee picks — on the blackboard over the bar — included a lemony, herbaceous pinot gris from New York Finger Lakes cult estate Dr. Konstantin Frank and a light-colored sangiovese with sour cherry aromas from a small Tuscan winery. There’s food too: Sturdy classics like brie en croûte and a country pâté made in house are fortifications for making your way through the hard-to-choose list. After 10 p.m., the menu expands to include more urgent fare like mornay sauce cheese fries and triple crème crostini — perfect for a glass of the sweet, acidic Rhone Beaume de Venise Muscat, too often overlooked by other places.
Opened in March 2016, in the rapidly un-blighting Fishtown section, just north of Center City, Root is an elegant take on a neighborhood restaurant. Chef-partner Nick Kennedy’s shareable dishes range from rich steak tartare to Moroccan-spiced fried chickpeas, all smart sustenance for the far-reaching wine list. “We want to have a balance between approachability and obscure; we want to have something for everyone, from an outstanding, unoaked chardonnay from South Africa, to a dry scheurebe from Germany,” says owner Greg Root.
To create their list of 65 wines, with 21 poured by the glass and changes made along the way, Kennedy and Root tasted 600 wines, settling on bottles that can be as much an exploration for them as they are for guests. “We have a baga, a red wine from a Portuguese grape,” says Root. “For a while that was our number-one-selling red wine. Then I tried to take it off our lists and our guests got upset so we kept it on.” Happily, it’s still there, alongside pours including an emir grape from Turkey, many of which are quietly sustainable, too. “We were never going to be exclusively natural or biodynamic. While we have some wines on the list that are, we don’t really advertise that, only if guests ask.” By the bottle, there are picks like an ansonica from Italy’s Elba, a franciacorta, a Chablis, a cab franc from Chinon, and a Champagne, all for $100 or less.
Also in Fishtown, a few minutes by foot from Root and opened in March, too, there’s Vanessa Wong’s local hangout. “Think of Fishtown Social as the typical wine bar's fun younger sister: laid-back, not afraid to try new things, and always ready for a good time,” she says. The intriguing selection of wines, focused on small producers, many organic or biodynamic, from better-known areas like Germany’s Mosel (a classic style, kabinett riesling) and Piedmont (the other native red grape, ruché), as well as ones worth finding out about like Greece (showcased by a naturally vinified local black of Kalavryta grape from Achaia), bears out Wong’s mission statement.
“We do our best to balance Old Wworld, New World, traditional, and unique. I don't want anyone to feel intimidated by our offering. and we want everyone to be able to enjoy everything on the list,” Wong invites. To that end, there are $10 flights, too. A recent curated lineup featured a red, a white, and a crémant from Bordeaux, but you can also pick your own three to try, say, a white Roero from Italy, a natural Austrian blaufrankisch, and a sparkling gamay (who knew?) from Beaujolais. For help making it through the flights, there are small dishes including lamb sliders, house-pickled vegetables, and, on Sundays, fondue.