This post is not about taking a dump on the best restaurant in Albany. That said, there are a couple things I need to get off my chest.
Yesterday you may have picked up a copy of the Metroland 2012 Best of the Capital Region issue. They got a lot of things right, but there are some notable lapses. Mostly these go to their heritage selections, the things they crown year after year as being The Best, like Emperor’s for Best Chinese and Antipasto’s for Best Vegetarian.
They also named the Lark Street Wine Bar and Bistro as the Best Wine Bar.
All of these are wrong. Obviously, the right answers are Ala Shanghai, All Good Bakers, and The Wine Bar in Saratoga Springs. There was recently some debate as to whether the Wine Bar and Bistro was actually a bistro, but I can tell you one thing right now. It’s not a wine bar. And even if it was, it would be far from The Best. Now, like I said, that does not diminish its status as an amazing place to eat in Albany.
A while back I hashed this out in person with Chef Kevin Everleth, the owner of the Lark Street Wine Bar, because this has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. But today I’m keeping it positive, so let me tell you the things that make a great wine bar.
I love wine bars.
Wine bars are where I nurtured a nascent love for wine. They provide a convenient, safe, and comfortable place to learn more about wine the only way anyone can, by drinking the stuff. It’s great to have books and read magazines. And you can study how the flavor of a Zinfandel is affected by its growing region. But there is no substitute for seeing, smelling and tasting these differences in your glass.
Really, that should be glasses. Because the thing you can do at wine bars, which is difficult to do at home, is set up structured flights. That means placing three to five identically shaped stemmed glasses (with thin rims and large bowls) in front of you, and pouring two to three ounces of similar, but different, wines into each glass.
This is the best way to learn about wine. And the flights can teach you different things.
You can experience how one wine from the same producer changes year after year. You can understand how several winemakers coax different flavors from the same grape. You can taste how one wine changes depending upon where it is grown. The list goes on and on.
Even drinking through four three-ounce pours in this kind of tasting takes time. And if you have a bunch of people engaged in the activity, you also need space. Not to mention plenty of glasses and comfortable seating. These are the easy things.
The harder things are a well cultivated wine list that is dynamic enough to keep up with changing vintages and to allow for new finds to make it into the tasting rotation. It’s also challenging to train a staff so that they both have extensive wine knowledge and an ability to share that knowledge without pretense.
But the biggest trick of all is inventory management: most importantly, keeping the open bottles of wine that are being poured by the glass tasting their best. And that’s hard, because wine fades. I’ve seen vintners sniffing above the neck of the bottle to identify whether the wine had been open too long, but they are the ultimate experts in their own wines. Still, that is totally badass.
Wine comes to life once exposed to air. But like all things that are alive, it too must die. A wine bar selling faded wine is like a butcher selling expired meat. This has to be a top priority. The six-day shelf life of wine at Ruby Tuesdays is totally unacceptable. If it were my wine bar, unless I had a wine tap system I’d make sure bottles didn’t stay open for any longer than 24 hours. And even then, most of that time they would be vacuum sealed.
To make the economics of it work, I would simply moderate how many bottles I had open at any given time so that the operation didn’t bleed money. Having 40 wines available by the glass is only a good thing if all 40 of those wines taste the way the winemaker intended.
I’d much rather go to a wine bar that had a rotating selection of eighteen wines by the glass, knowing that each one of them would be great.
Given that wine bars are about discovery, it’s also great when they can seal the deal when you’ve found something you love. I’m not sure about the laws of New York State, but there are some wine bars elsewhere that will give you discounts for off-site retail purchases. That way you can go home with a case or mixed case of your new favorite bottles.
This is extra important because wine bars shouldn’t be simply stocking the same stuff you can get from the supermarket. Restaurants have access to wines that can’t be found elsewhere, and I expect great wine bars to demonstrate their acumen in finding delicious bottles I haven’t seen in the local wine stores. That includes a selection of half bottles as well.
Sure, there should be food, too. But the food isn’t the focus. It should complement and not detract from the wine. That means asparagus, artichokes, vinegar and other acids will be looked upon with great suspicion. Verjus is the friend of the wine bar chef. Simple cuisines that pair well with wine are welcome, like bona fide Spanish tapas or actual French bistro fare. Cured meats and pates with good bread and well-dressed olives are great.
Cheese is fine too. But cheese also opens up a whole ’nother can of worms.
So, yeah. The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark Street has an incredible kitchen. For the most part their wine list is really interesting too, and they sell plenty of wines by the glass. Still, chef Everleth told me they just don’t have the glassware or the space to offer people flights. Plus the focus of this establishment is clearly on the food. And I’m glad it is. Truly. But the Best Wine Bar in the Capital Region? I don’t think so.