Flights of fancy: A toast to OTR wine bars

A wine blitz is pouring into the historically beer-centric Over-the-Rhine. With Zula opening in February, OTR now has four establishments within two blocks that classify themselves as wine bars. The other three—Abigail Street, Lavomatic and 1215 Coffee Lab & Wine Bar—occupy a short strip on Vine Street, which is dubbed “Wine” Street by those watching the trend.  

Overlap isn’t an issue, though, says Tsvika Silberberg, 52, chef-owner of Zula. “What defines us as a wine bar is that we have a wine list that features a large glass offering with richness and depth.”

Zula has 35 by-the-glass wine offerings on its menu. It’s ordinarily difficult for a bar to pour that many drinks by the glass because wine begins to oxidize as soon as the bottle is opened. To counteract this, Silberberg outfitted his bar with a system that preserves open wine bottles for up to 21 days, and another system that reintroduces carbon dioxide to sparkling wines once they’ve been opened. His goal is to provide guests the chance to sample uncommon wines and grape varieties without having to invest in an entire bottle.

“I wanted to bring in all different types of reds and whites, and remove the intimidation factor by pricing them in a different way,” he says. 

Rather than putting glasses and bottles on a price list, Silberberg organizes his menu into price tiers, beginning with glasses of whites for $5.70 and reds for $5.90. The menu grows from there into “First Mortgage,” “Second Mortgage” and “Third Mortgage” bottles.

“It’s all to take the seriousness away, and to make more serious wine approachable,” Silberberg says.  

Another gadget in Zula’s battery is a refrigerator that keeps red wines at 65 degrees. “If red wine is served too warm, it gets fatty and flat,” Silberberg says.  

The early years of Silberberg's culinary training were spent in France, and he recalls that the French kept their red wines in special wells to achieve the optimum temperature. 

Silberberg worked his way through kitchens in cities all over Europe and the West Coast of the United States. He wants to give his guests the best of his experience in wine. Beyond menu offerings and service, this includes plans to host wine dinners, tastings and classes at the restaurant’s community table, called the “Z Table.”  

Zula’s kitchens are open to the dining room, and so with cooks, tables and guests all occupying the same space, the restaurant can get pretty intimate on a busy night. But that’s the point, Silberberg says. The dining room design is a deliberate setup: “I want people to feel that they have come to visit my house.”

Between elbows and glassware, he wants guests to interact with one another, as well as their food and wine. “Privacy almost defeats the purpose,” he says. 

Removing the intimidation associated with wine is also the mission at Lavomatic. It’s one of the older restaurants in OTR—it opened in 2008—but it’s entry into the wine bar scene came in July 2012 with a renovation and a renewed focus on wine. 

“As interest in food increases, so does people’s interest in wine,” says Marie Anderson, 30, Lavomatic’s wine manager. She creates menus that complement Lavomatic’s new American cuisine, and combines value with quality while maintaining an eclectic mix to satisfy both the connoisseur and novice.  

“We’ve got some off-the-wall wines, grapes you don’t see every day," she says. "But it’s about fun and enjoyment, not something to be scared of. I look for clean, simple wines that go with our food.” 

With 10 wines by the glass starting at $6 and about 40 bottles on the menu, Anderson’s strategy involves a dynamic, often seasonal approach to the restaurant's offerings. She makes her list responsive to changes on the food menu and feedback from guests and staff. 

The best way to break down the intimidation barrier for guests is to increase staff knowledge and get tastes into their hands so that they can share genuine enthusiasm, she says. “We’re generous about pouring samples. And staff education is first and foremost.” 

“Wine is a personal thing," she says. "We give tasting notes, but try not to be pushy about it.”

The idea is to let people enjoy wine on their own terms. Lavomatic wants customers to see “wine as a beverage,” and not an academic subject. This is particularly important with the younger crowd, which drives the OTR food scene, Anderson says.  

To differentiate itself from the more formal, sit-down style dining of the city center, Lavomatic’s wine menu is designed to bring in bar hoppers, wine lovers and guests who want to enjoy the rooftop patio, which is the only one in the neighborhood. Anderson plans to run patio specials on soft, light whites like Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris for the warmer months.  

“For us it’s about the service, the vibe, energy and environment," she says. "To be part of the pulse and growth in OTR is amazing. It’s great to see how everyone’s doing their own thing." 

“It’s a community of love and attention,” says Joanna Argus, 33, joint owner of 1215. She opened the restaurant with Tazza Mia founder Bob Bonder in February 2012. 

Specialty coffee and wines are the centerpiece at 1215. Wine, like coffee, draws its character from details like the growing region, climate and production processes, Argus says. The goal at 1215 is to introduce people to wines and grapes they might not be familiar with.  

“People feel rewarded when they try something they’ve never had and love it,” she says. For instance, when a Raboso Frizzante (a sparkling red) hit the menu, guests were asking for it by name within three weeks.

“We want to make esoteric exciting and not alienating,” she says.

To do this, 1215 wine manager and certified sommelier Kory Lynn, 27, organizes menus, flights and wine education classes. Rather than a list of glasses and bottles, Lynn organizes the menu into eight flight categories of three wines each. 

“That’s the beauty of flights: If someone knows they like pinot noir, they can get a flight with that and two related but unknown wines,” he says.  

Glasses start at $5 during the daily happy hour, which is from 5 to 7 p.m. The selection leans toward old world, European wines, but doesn’t overlook excellent domestic offerings, both on the menu and retail shelf, Argus says.

The wines in each flight are also available individually as full glasses, but Lynn finds guests increasingly drawn to his “geek flights.” As 1215 is wine-centered rather than food-centered, he’s able to hand-sell unique wines to guests who may only know that they like something dry and red.

“It’s rewarding for them to be able to say three words and have us find something they’re going to love,” he says.

Besides the menu flights, 1215 has Blind Flight Night every Wednesday. Here, guests try to match four unlabelled wines to the accompanying tasting notes.

Additionally, once a month 1215 holds a “wine school.” The store closes for two hours and Lynn teaches a tasting lesson with four specifically chosen, related wines. For 2013, he’s trying to do more focused classes, beginning with March’s class on acidic wines—the class is called “Tripping on Acid.”

“We want to help people look at wine as a casual, good time thing—not just for special events and holidays,” Argus says. “We think of wine as the coolest thing for any time.”

Pioneering the wine scene, Senate owners Dan and Lana Wright opened Abigail Street as OTR’s first official wine bar in November 2011. Wright, however, declined to comment for this story. In brief, Abigail Street specializes in a focused selection of glass pours starting at $8, glass flights, an extensive bottle collection and wine on tap. Nowhere else in the city is wine available straight from the barrel. They’ll even fill recycled bottles for guests to take home.  

Whether it’s breadth of choice, casual accessibility, exploration or high-end vino from the tap, there’s a pour for everyone in OTR. The consumer demand for variety and specialty is obviously there, Silberberg says, but the creative outlet that chefs and restaurateurs have in OTR drives the expansion just as much, if not more.  

“I don’t want to do what everybody else does,” he says. “Locating on Race Street was a no-brainer. People are more receptive and open-minded in OTR. I don’t have to conform to old rules or habits.”

What this creates is diversity born of creative passion rather than market calculation—people who love wine and want to share their enthusiasm for its many facets. “It’s the logical extension of OTR’s good time culture,” Argus says. “Everyone’s doing their niche so well, there’s room for everybody.”
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