Since London Wine Bar in San Francisco opened in 1974, Americans have been discovering the wine bar as a satisfying way to enjoy a glass or share a bottle. A special quality accompanies a place devoted to wine; this comes both from the managers, who are inevitably enthusiasts thrilled to share their knowledge, and the clientele, often open to discovery. As Myra Ghattas, owner of Slate Street Café, explains, “A wine bar is not just a wine list. It’s an experience.” I recently visited three of them to sample some of the variety offered in the greater Albuquerque area and to talk with the owners and wine managers.
The wine loft at Slate Street Café invites intimate conversation. One evening I sat with a friend sipping a glass of Cline Cellars Cashmere, a silky California southern Rhône–style blend, and taking in the ambience: people enjoying their wine over quiet conversation, jazz playing in the background, paintings of vineyards on the walls, the casual attic look that could pass for bohemian if not for the sleek, contemporary touches. It’s the kind of place you go to hang out in a mellow environment, try a new wine and have an appetizer or even a full meal. (The restaurant is on the main floor.)
Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro has an aesthetic impact as soon as you walk through the door. If the long bar’s zinc countertop consciously evokes Paris of a bygone era, the décor speaks of cosmopolitan chic. High ceilings give an open, spacious feeling, while mustard colored walls create warmth. Walls adorned with modern art and paper globe chandeliers contrast with old oak plank floors and wood chairs. It’s a fun, inviting place to hang out, have a glass of wine (try one of the Roessler varietals, from their very own family vineyard!) and indulge in creative cuisine.
The upscale setting of Prairie Star Restaurant and Wine Bar feels like New Mexico. Brick floors, rough troweled walls with Santa Fe–style sconces, and dark wood ceilings with thick vigas all contribute to the wine lounge’s classic Southwestern ambience. As I sipped a glass of a beautiful Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Cristom Vineyards, I took in the attractive bar with wine glasses hanging overhead and, outside the wall of windows, a spectacular view of the looming Sandias.
In spite of their differences, these establishments have plenty of qualities in common, not the least of which is the owner or managers’ passion for wine. Myra Ghattas, who worked in food and beverage for Hyatt Hotels for 14 years, opened Slate Street Café in her native Albuquerque to share her fervor for wine. Kevin Roessler—whose father and uncle own and manage the well established and highly regarded Roessler Cellars and the newer R2 Wine Company—has been living and breathing the world of wine for most of his life. And anyone who knows Sam McFall, longtime wine buyer at Prairie Star who managed his first commercial wine program at age 22, is familiar with his boyish enthusiasm, discriminating palate and commitment to fine wine.
All three wine bars opened because of the serendipitous intersection of love of wine and market need. “I completed the entry-level coursework for a sommelier at CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in Greystone while working for Hyatt,” says Myra Ghattas. I wanted to use that knowledge, education and passion.” Besides, she adds, “I felt there was a void in Albuquerque. We didn’t have a lot of wine bars, and there was a surge in wine bars in other areas.”
Not that the Duke City had none. When Zinc opened in 2003, partner Kevin Roessler had a similar perception. “You have to think about when this place was in its inception,” he tells me. “There weren’t a lot of places offering flights or anything off the beaten path. We thought it was innovative to pair American food with a French influence. People come in looking to try something outside the box.” Even though Zinc has only a small bar area, wine is so infused into the concept of the eatery that it accounts for 25% of sales.
Bernalillo may seem an out-of-the-way place for a wine bar, but Prairie Star is on the grounds of the Hyatt Tamaya Resort and regularly draws diners from Albuquerque and Santa Fe as well as locally. It also features the irrepressible Sam McFall. “Our restaurant has had a wine focus since 1986,” he explains, “but it lacked a bar. We always wanted to add one and I desired to promote our wine program.” A 2008 remodel project added the charming room in which we were sitting.
The focus of these wine enthusiasts results in experiences you won’t find in a general bar, on the one hand, or a typical restaurant, on the other. All three put on wine dinners. They offer wine flights (usually a selection of three wines making up a theme—for example, Oregon Pinot Noirs, or selections from the same producer) and half glasses, so you can experience more variety without overdoing it. They all serve wine in large, properly shaped glasses, which improves the flavor of the wine.
Furthermore, Ghattas, Roessler and McFall all see themselves as educators. Slate Street lists 20 to 30 wines by the glass at any one time, and Ghattas occasionally offers introduction to wine classes. As Kevin Roessler and I sipped vintage champagne, he estimated they offer a minimum of 20 wines by the glass and up to 300 different bottles. Prairie Star has a Cruvinet, a wine preservation machine that pumps argon gas into the bottles and keeps them fresh, resulting in a whopping 60 wines by the glass and an even larger list. Both Slate Street and Prairie Star have chatty, informative by-the-glass lists that describe the wines, and the Zinc staff all participate in regular tastings with the owners so all the waiters can tell you about them.
Wine bars have existed in Paris since the late 1800s, but why have they taken off in the United States? McFall has a theory that it’s our evolving consciousness and appreciation. “America started making wine that was recognized in the 1970s, and Robert Mondavi drew attention to California as a serious producer. There’s so much great wine being made here now; it develops a level of interest.” Roessler adds that when you expose people to wine, it becomes more familiar, especially when “we help people break through barriers” of intimidation. He also he sees local neighborhoods—in Zinc’s case, Nob Hill—as a contributing factor to the success of wine bars.
In Paris, you’re apt to find wines paired with simple food—typically rustic fare or cold cuts and cheese with bread. These three restaurants are upscale, offering what Kevin Roessler calls “casual fine dining,” with the wines and cuisine enhancing each other. (But in another nod to France, Zinc offers a “European-style happy hour,” serving appetizers and a cheese plate.)
As to the future of wine bars, all three aficionados interviewed see room for growth. Myra Ghattas points out, “Wine consumption is growing every year,” along with the public’s increasing sophistication and willingness to try new wines. Roessler noted a downturn in fine wine spending that began with the recession in 2008 but is now reversing. And McFall views the world of wine as so vast and alluring that appreciation of it is bound to grow: “No matter what drives you to wine, once you catch that bug, you’re drinking it the rest of your life.”
Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro is located at 3009 Central NE in Albuquerque. 505.254.9462. zincabq.com.
Slate Street Café is located at 515 Slate Avenue NW in Albuquerque. 505.243.2210. slatestreetcafe.com.
Prairie Star Restaurant and Wine Bar is located at 288 Prairie Star Road in the Santa Ana Pueblo adjoining the golf course. 505.867.3327. newmexicogolf.com.
Story by Barry Fields