Grape, Meet Grain

How wine and cocktails are finding a cultural common ground
Dec 3, 2012

At first glance, it may seem like the cocktail movement is from Mars and wine is from Venus. Despite the growing diversity of the cocktail world-and the highbrow/lowbrow factions that have formed within it-it's still associated with a certain edginess and energy that may appear at odds with the more buttoned-up, bourgie image that wine has been stuck with.

But are these two worlds really at odds? Or, better question: Do they have to be?

"When you look at the cocktail movement, you realize that wine people could benefit from drinking a little bit more wine without all the baggage," said Levi Dalton, a longtime sommelier and the host of the I'll Drink to That! podcast. "I think wine people sometimes get more into the thing than actually enjoying it."

A new generation of sommeliers, bartenders and restaurateurs is trying to find common ground between the two cultures.

For proof, look no further than the changing identity of wine bars. The image of the goofy, earnest wine bar hawking cold cheese plates set to a soundtrack looping commercial pop has been replaced by places like Bar Covell in Los Angeles and Ten Bells in New York, among others. These bars are continuing to establish that wine doesn't have to have its own sanctimonious setting, and that it fits in just fine at bars that are loud and dark and unceremonial and (gasp) fun.

Meanwhile, cocktails have achieved a whole new level of braininess, whether it be through the use of liquid nitrogen and centrifuges at Booker and Dax in New York or the dedicated study of cocktail history on display at most cocktail bars worth their salt. In the spirits world, the word terroir is being used far more than it used to be, whether it's to describe St. George's line of gins that seeks to embody the flora of San Francisco's East Bay or the growing popularity of single-variety, single-village mezcal from the likes of Del Maguey, which is truly about terroir in the wine sense of the word. Vintage spirits, like decades-old chartreuse or gin, are becoming, as Robert Simonson recently reported on for the New York Times, an obsession among a small but influential crop of bartenders.

"You see the generational divide between bartenders," said Dalton. "The old bartenders were dudes that you come in and hang out with, and it wasn't about the drink. The new bartenders are looking for something. When a bartender holds up a bottle of potato vodka and says to me, 'You can really taste the terroir in this,' I know what they are looking for."

Turns out it's the same thing that the wine crowd is looking for: a connection of the beverage to tradition and place, and—more than anything else—distinction and authenticity. To say it another way, the ethos that has driven the resurrection of classic cocktails via quality ingredients is not mutually exclusive from the growing interest in, say, cru Beaujolais. Or, for that matter, any number of food trends that are driven by the same values. These trends hinge on the will to discover something that has been lost or underappreciated.

This crossover is evident in restaurants like Maison Premiere, in Brooklyn, with its funky, but ambitious list of mostly French wines—which includes 17 different Muscadet bottlings—served alongside some of the best craft cocktails being made in New York, all in that sort of re-imagined saloon aesthetic that Brooklyn all but owns.

"Sommeliers, to a degree, discounted the seriousness of cocktails initially," said Eamon Rockey, the former bar manager at both Atera and Compose in New York and the current beverage director and partner in Brooklyn's Aska. "But more and more somms have begun to feel comfortable with spirits as a larger study. It's starting to diversify."

According to Rockey, the reverse is also true: Bartenders are becoming more comfortable with wine.

The changed repertoire of ingredients used in cocktails—some of them revived from the heady days of late 19th century cocktail consumption and some original—has been an integral part of bridging the palate gap between wine and spirits. Rockey is using ingredients like Sherry or Pineau des Charentes—an apertif wine from France's Cognac region—to cut alcohol down and introduce a vinous element to the cocktail.

Not only are these cocktails appealing to wine lovers, but they are even changing the cocktail culture, claimed Dalton.

"I do think that it is entirely possible that a bartender who works at a restaurant and learns about wine will go on to make drinks that are more bitter, because he's used to tannins in wine," said Dalton. "It lines up historically; as people got more into wine, drinks have become more bitter."

It's an interesting theory, but one that is difficult to prove. In my experience, drinks—at least in urban areas—have become less sweet and more bitter. The growth in the use of quinquina wines (quinine-based aromatized wines) like Bonal and Lillet, as well as Italian amaro and Sherry, has changed the median flavor profile of popular drinks.

A lot of factors—taste, ideology, image—are working together to shrink the divide between grape and grain. But it's still complicated, especially considering that both the wine and cocktail worlds have their own internal culture wars to deal with. What is exciting, simply put, is that as more restaurants and bars begin to embrace both, we're drinking better and broader. 

"I think these two worlds will continue to bridge their gaps," said Rockey. "There are so many different areas where you can bring them together, but you can't do it from the top down. They have to grow together and, if that happens, something really cool, something harmonious, can come out of it."

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