Last summer, I met up with a friend in Manhattan’s Lower East Side at a recently-opened bar on Orchard Street called Skin Contact (technically reopened, they debuted a month before Covid shut down the city). We sat outside and ordered a glass of orange wine from Campania and I distinctly remember thinking on my subway ride home that something magnetic had been in the air. Did the crowd of obnoxiously attractive youths with perfectly undone, irreverent style perched out front have something to do with this? I won’t deny that. But more than anything, it was the collective gushing over underrated grape varieties, lesser-known wine regions, and groundbreaking wine importers from the waiter and closely-seated patrons that stuck with me. Frankly, I felt slightly out of place — but in the good, sociological safari kind of way.
The energy in this neighborhood has long attracted creatives — anyone who has lived in or knows the history of Manhattan is aware of this — but specifically as it pertains to the concept of the wine bar, the LES has decidedly become the enclave for ordering a glass of interesting wine. Just in the last six months there have been multiple noteworthy openings (Parcelle and Le Dive, to name a couple), plus mainstays that have been around for several years like The Ten Bells, a natural wine bar that opened in 2008 and that’s considered by many to be a pioneer in the category.
“Without places like Ten Bells and Wildair, the natural wine scene in LES wouldn’t exist,” Daryl Nuhn of Peoples Wine says. “They were doing something a decade ago that is now en vogue. LES has always been concentrated with many bars and restaurants and given that so many people want to drink natural wine now, I think the neighborhood is responding.” Peoples Wine opened in 2019 hoping to merge the experience of a bar and wine shop. “We wanted a space that was similar to our favorite places in Europe and California where you can both sit and have a glass of wine, and also purchase one to take home with you,” Nuhn says. "Unfortunately, the liquor laws in New York don’t allow for that kind of set up, but we got as close as possible by putting our wine shop and bar right next to each other.”
In a similar sentiment, this summer, cult favorite online wine retailer Parcelle opened a bar in Dimes Square, a micro neighborhood in the Lower East Side that’s the subject of much hype and hot debate. The bar is an extension of the online shop, with a relaxed lounge environment where you can try new wines, order a bottle to be delivered to your house, or even attend one of their classes or “office hours” for some low-pressure education.
When I caught up with co-owner Grant Reynolds, he was prepping for the next day’s wine school. “We’ll be opening three bottles of Nebbiolo, talking about them a bit, and then hanging out so people can ask questions in a one-on-one setting,” he explains. “Each week has different themes. Some might be about a specific producer, specific region, specific grape — but we’re different than formal education. We’re mostly talking to consumers about why wines taste a certain way and giving just enough information to where you can understand how to find that flavor on a wine list or in a wine shop.”
Across the street from Parcelle, Le Dive (under the Golden Age Hospitality umbrella) also opened its doors this year, mirroring the feel of a Parisian tabac. “There's a huge benefit from having new wine bars pop up that share the same culture and ethos as some of the wine shops,” Golden Age Hospitality Beverage Director Ashley Santoro says. “Dimes Square businesses also have an incredibly strong community and dedicated customers, and they embody this spirit as well. As the owner of Leisir, which is just a few blocks away from Le Dive, it's much easier to guide people to find the right bottle in a retail setting when they've been exposed to shared producers and a stylistic approach at a wine bar or restaurant.”
Then there’s Skin Contact, the aforementioned natural wine bar that’s a beloved part of the tapestry of the neighborhood. “When we were scouting for a place in 2019, we were very intentional about being in the LES,” Managing Partner Stefanie Djie tells me. “In cities like Paris and Singapore (where I am from), there is a gaiety in bar hopping natural wines, which was what we wanted to invoke. I think the transformation of LES becoming a hub is just a natural evolvement where like-minded tastes and spirits congregate.” Nuhn also sees this saturation in wine bars as a good thing. “I think LES is having a really nice moment for bars and restaurants. People ask me often if I feel like it’s competition, but I think it’s important that all of these places exist and play off of each other,” she says. “When I go out (which is never at this point), I like being able to start at one place, and make my way through a neighborhood, see what other bars and restaurants lists are like. At the end of the day, I just want people to be drinking natural wine over wine with chemical additives, so if more places are pouring it, it’s valid by me.”
If you’re wondering if there’s any other area in the borough that feels like this right now, the answer is — no, not really. “More than any other neighborhood in Manhattan, I think that the identity of the LES is aligned with the natural wine movement. The neighborhood has always been open to more progressive destinations and supported by the restaurant community,” Santoro says. What’s more, because most of these LES wine bars are small by nature (as many businesses in the area are), the interaction feels innately more intimate. “We wanted to create an approachable, convivial atmosphere, moving away from the idea that wine-drinking is a serious affair,” Djie says. “Eben and I are first-time business owners, we wanted to keep the focus simple: bottles priced so well that you'll be happy to share with a friend you just made. We are small, not just in size, but also in the spirit of how we engage with our customers.”
Reynolds also leans into this close connection with customers at Parcelle, citing it as a useful environment for people to learn more about what they do and don’t like. “It’s much easier to take a chance on a wine by just having a glass of it than buying a bottle, getting to your house and being like, I have a whole bottle of this and I hate it. That’s where a bar or restaurant is really great for wine consumers to be able to try stuff,” he says. “I think the reason why we opened up in this location as a bar is so you’re able to be like, give me wine, give me food, sit on the couch — no you can’t walk out with a bottle of wine like a store — but it’s a way for people to try stuff then you can get it delivered after the fact. We already have people who are coming back and ordering the same food and same glass of wine treating it like a neighborhood spot, and other people who are coming back and trying something different every time and treating it as more of an exploration.”
TZR’s Address Book: LES Wine Bars
Parcelle, 135 Division St
What to Expect: Drop in for a glass of wine in this intimate lounge outfitted in collaboration with interior designer Paul Renwick (think: Italian modernist pieces like emerald green Gio Ponti chairs). “Our ideal category is $35 to $50 bottles of wine,” Reynolds says. “That’s the sweet spot for us. It’s a price point where I think there’s enough cost and revenue for the winemaker to be making quality and sustainably-driven decisions. For example, organic farming is just more expensive than non-organic.”
Peoples Wine, 115 Delancey St
What to Expect: To find Peoples, head for the bottom of the historic Essex Street Market. “I want to sell wine that is made without chemicals or alterations, made by winemakers who farm and pay their workers ethically, and I want the wine to taste good,” Nuhn says. “I want for people coming in to know that natural wine isn’t a flavor profile, but a farming and winemaking philosophy. I lean toward working with smaller wineries and work with wine importers who have close relationships with the winemakers who’s wine they distribute.”
Le Dive, 37 Canal St
What to Expect: An indoor-outdoor wine bar imbued with effortless Parisian charm and with a delicious small-bites menu by Executive Chef Nicole Gajadhar. “For me, natural has always been related to farming practices first, followed by how I personally connect with the wine or winemaker,” Santoro says. “All the wines at Le Dive have a story and a following. I think that so many of our guests want to support wines that they relate to in some way, so that's truly been the driving force.”
Gem Wine, 297 Broome St
What to Expect: Opened in 2018, Gem Wine’s menu focuses on low-intervention wines and is at the helm of 23-year-old chef Flynn Mcgarry (known for opening sister restaurant Gem at age 19 and sometimes referred to as the ‘Justin Bieber of Food’). Walk-in only and guests can order from a menu of small dishes.
The Ten Bells, 247 Broome St
What to Expect: A wine industry legend, The Ten Bells opened its doors in 2008 with a rebellious menu consisting of all natural wines. It’s cozy, it’s dimly-lit, and it’s the perfect place to discover unusual wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes coming from small producers. Also, I can vouch that they have the best $1 oyster happy hour in the city.
Skin Contact, 76 Orchard St
A no-frills bar that emphasizes the backstory of each wine on the menu. “More than half of the winemakers on our list are people I know, have tasted with numerous times, and visited. I consider them my friends and it's important to me to share their stories, their amazing personalities, and their wines with everyone who comes to the bar,” Wine Director Eben Lillie says. The entire selection comes from winemakers who farm organically, harvest by hand, allow spontaneous wild yeast fermentation instead of using selected lab yeasts, and use little or no added sulfites. "These kinds of wines happen to coincidentally be the focus of our list along with a highlight on skin contact ‘orange’ wines.” Of the 14 wines by the glass, they usually change about three per week so it’s always rotating. “We also do special flights and will be starting up our wine classes again in the fall,” Lillie adds.