WHEN I walked into Paris Wine Bar, the newly opened adjunct to London Grill at 23rd and Fairmount, it was as if I'd walked into a wine bar in another, parallel dimension. You see, Paris Wine Bar is a wine bar that serves no wines from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Argentina, Chile or even California, Oregon or Washington state.
"All of our wines are from Pennsylvania," Cristina Tessaro, the bar manager, informed me. I looked around for hidden cameras to make sure I wasn't being punked.
I took the menu and pointed to a gruner veltliner described as having "grassy notes" and "minerality." No, this was not a gruner veltliner from its native Austria. This one hailed from Berks County. And it was not poured from a bottle, either. Rather, from a tap. Um, OK, barkeep, draw me a Berks County gruner veltliner from the keg!
I'll be honest, here was my initial reaction: WTF? At first, the concept seemed really strange, a little like opening a chocolate shop and only offering Butterfingers, or a cheese shop and only offering havarti.
I'm still searching for the grassy notes and minerality in that gruner veltliner - I might add "cloyingly tart candy notes" to the descriptors - but after I talked further with Tessaro, and owner Terry Berch McNally, I started to gain an odd admiration for the concept.
"This is the future," said Tessaro, refering to the wine-on-tap system. For sure, in countries like Austria and Germany you will see a tradition of tavern wines from the tap, and the eco-friendly trend is catching on in the U.S. But the snag in Pennsylvania is that selling wines by the keg is prohibited - except wines from Pennsylvania, due to a loophole.
A bill was introduced in the state legislature last year by state Rep. Michael O'Brien that would allow keg wines from outside Pennsylvania to be sold to restaurants here. The bill is in committee and it's not clear when it will come to a full vote, said O'Brien chief of staff Mary Isaacson.
"This is just the beginning," Tessaro said. "We see having a whole wall of taps. From Europe. From California. From Jersey. From all over the world."
Yet to hear Tessaro tell it, wines-on-tap may offer a boon to local wineries looking to gain exposure with the city's wine drinkers. Hey, 20 years ago, probably no one envisioned all the taps at your local bar dominated with Pennsylvania craft beers, but that's certainly happened at many places. Paris Wine Bar is offering selections from wineries such as Pinnacle Ridge, Manatawny Creek, Galen Glen and Allegro - all from Berks County. These are some of the few wineries that sell wines in kegs, Tessaro said.
"Local wines have no market in the city," she said. "But because our winemakers have gone out on a limb with us to start, we'll always have [Pennsylvania] wines on tap. I want all the winemakers in the area to come to us and say, 'We want to take this next step with you.' "
Even though the current selection of wine on tap is middling and one-note for $7 to $8 a glass - and much of it toothachingly sweet - I look forward to returning to Paris Wine Bar once it offers a wider selection. The dark, boudoirish space - a former office attached to McNally's Fairmount stalwart London Grill - still, in theory, offers what I like best about wine bars.
When you really think about it, wine bars are an odd proposition to begin with. Everyone knows, after all, that wine-by-glass is one of the biggest ripoffs when it comes to dining. Traditionally, a glass of wine is equal to the bar or restaurant's wholesale cost of the bottle (plus sometimes a little more). Consider there are four to five pours in a bottle, and you can see why wine-by-glass is such a profitable restaurant staple.
So with that markup in mind, not to mention the question of proper handling, why do people (including me) love wine bars so much?
"The wine bar must add value to the whole experience: quality glassware, wine served at proper temperature, a staff that really knows the product and can answer questions and/or educate, and offering wine that you necessarily can't find on a grocery store shelf," wrote Michael McCaulley in an email. McCaulley is managing partner of Tria, which with its three locations is the 800-pound gorilla of wine bars in Philadelphia.
"Wine is an experience; guests are not just consumers of wine, but they bring to the tasting their whole being. A great wine bar needs to answer to that. It's a more inspired way of looking at the experience of drinking wine."
McCaulley's right, of course. I go to Tria (perhaps too often) because I know I'm going to be able to taste a number of different, probably new-to-me wines in one evening. And I know the wine will be well taken care of and served properly.
Where else in the city will I be able to taste in a few hours, as I did last week, a zippy white gros manseng from southwest France, a rosé blaufrankisch from Austria, a funky carmenere from Chile, and a bold, surprising Dolcetto di Dogliani from Piedmont, Italy.
Those four glasses weren't cheap, about $38 total, but certainly no more expensive than a low- to mid-level bottle at most hip Center City restaurants. For me, two of the four were outstanding, but if I'd paid $38 for a bottle of the other two, I'd be fairly let down. But by-the-glass? Meh. Drink and learn.
As Tessaro said, while I sipped some of Berks County's finest merlot: "You don't have to expect the world in a glass of wine." She's right, of course. And at a wine bar, if you don't like the one you just ordered, well, just order another one.
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.