A party is not a monolith. By their very nature, parties can’t help but look different from night to night, generation to generation. But here in the third decade of the 21st century, the American wine bar has become an unlikely hotbed for revelry, fueled in no small part by the growing cultural primacy of natural wine among younger drinkers. Today’s modern wine bar dispels past notions of stuffy, fuddy-duddy wine appreciation—all that sipping and swirling and spitting and pontificating—in favor of something that feels more urgent, fun, sometimes chaotic.
In the same way that a party itself is not a monolith, no two party-ready wine bars look or sound the same, either. But we can find some commonalities between them, and verses in which they rhyme. “I think only a few bars actually have tried to make wine bars ‘fun’ or ‘hip,’” says Imana, the mononymous chef-entrepreneur behind lauded Oakland restaurant Hi Felicia and, more recently, the San Francisco wine bar Sluts. The bar was born as a pop-up in Oakland, but today its permanent location inhabits the cavernous former home of Terroir, which was one of the first natural wine bars in North America when it opened in 2007. Imana has completely transformed it, keeping only the physical bar from the former space while adding beanbag chairs, a dancer’s pole (popular and active) and a glowing blue neon that reads, cheekily, “Spit or Swallow?”
In a way Sluts is subverting traditional nightclub tropes, while at the same time operating as a very good wine bar, fusing these two seemingly disparate versions of bar culture into a cohesive experience. It helps that Sluts is absolutely chock-full of smartly selected natural wine, anchored by a heaving fridge sporting bottles of Camillo Donati Lambrusco, Cellier Saint Benoit Jura chardonnay and Flavien Nowack Champagne.
“The goal and vision was always to keep leveling up,” Imana says. “To keep gradually adding really cool pieces to the space to make it more and more of a spectacle. Sluts is pretty random, and I just want you to never be able to stop looking around.”
At Sluts and other party wine bars, music plays a huge role in the twinning of natural wine and nightlife. Imana chooses to keep the playlist in-house, describing the sound of Sluts as “old-school rap… and sometimes something from High School Musical, or John Mayer. It’s as random as the bar is.”
Other bars are working regularly with DJs to help advance the club agenda. At El Prado, on Sunset Boulevard in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, one of the country’s best natural wine lists—Emmanuel Haget, Champagne Timothée Stroebel, Florian Curtet and other otherwise-ungettable bottles—shares equal billing with an eclectic DJ roster and a bartending staff armed with an extensive vinyl collection. It might be soul night one night, a druggie exegesis from some out-of-town Deadheads the next. (The bar’s owner, Nick Fisher, plays Grateful Dead music 24 hours a day for the bottles stocked in the walk-in fridge.)
Friday nights are a who’s who of the young and beautiful in Los Angeles (per the grand old tradition) spilling out onto the sidewalk and down the street, but the bar is calmer on Wednesdays, when weekly resident DJ Gerard Lollie spins eclectic world music into lost jazz and electropop. Lollie’s polyphonic approach blurs genres and boundaries on the bar’s stereo system, featuring a quartet of QSC speakers and turntables by Technics and Audio Technica. Drinking your way through Fisher’s list while listening to DJ Gerard is its own form of party, uniquely contained within the bar culture of El Prado.
“Sluts is pretty random, and I just want you to never be able to stop looking around,” says Imana, owner of the wine bar.
“I feel like for so long, wine bars were monodimensional,” says Victor Martinez, co-owner of Ardor Natural Wines and Nil Wine Bar in Portland, Oregon. Martinez and his small team of collaborators (including the natural wine distributors Chausse Selections) have turned the one-two punch of Ardor and Nil—neighboring establishments that serve in tandem in the caviste model—into Portland’s premier destination for wine partying. It, too, looks a little different from night to night. Sometimes the bar is downright raucous, with a shifting cadre of local DJs and dozens of people spilling out of Nil’s 300-square-foot shotgun space; other times, the bar is vibey and intimate, bathed in blue and red lighting like an episode of Euphoria, or a really good comedown room at the previous generation’s party du jour, the rave.
“We like having different versions of how the bar feels,” Martinez says, and a great sound system (including Klipsch speakers and a Marantz amplifier, catnip for hi-fi geeks) certainly helps. Martinez sees what’s happening around the country—at Sluts and El Prado, as well as the now-legendary wine-club scene at San Francisco’s Bar Part Time, Brooklyn’s Nightmoves and the roving wine nightclub Bêvèrãgęš—as drawing directly from the attitudes and social mores of the winemakers who helped form the vanguard of natural wine culture. “It’s what the French would call le punk rock,” Martinez says, “bucking the trend, going their own way, doing the shit they want, blending grapes that weren’t supposed to be blended, opting out of AOCs and making wine in a raw, unfettered way. I think that ethos, if you’re running a wine bar, kind of permeates through that, too.”
How quickly we’ve gone from the cold cheese plate and flight model to something that feels more disruptive and countercultural—inspired by Paris, perhaps, but distinctly American in both rhythm and execution. In this way, America is making the natural wine bar its own, fusing the concept together with other existing threads of nightlife and arriving at a destination that feels wholly unexpected, and in the right hands—and with the right song on the hi-fi—riveting.
“People aren’t here to do serious tasting notes or see what wristwatch the other guy has on,” says Martinez. “It’s more like, hey—we’re here, we’re having fun, this is a wine bar. Let’s have a party.”