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Twenty Manning Grill head bartender Resa Mueller held a shot glass in her right hand and a champagne flute in her left. She took a gulp from the first, followed it with a sip from the second, then squinched up her face and shimmied her shoulders.
“Damn, that’s got a spark to it,” she said, breaking into a smile. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
The combo — a shot of booze plus a glass of wine — is her vino-enhanced take on Philly’s popular Citywide Special. It’s something she’s been wanting to put on the menu at Twenty Manning Grill for a while now, but managers had pushed back, arguing it might not be the best fit for the bar’s well-heeled Rittenhouse clientele.
But for the 2017 edition of Philly Wine Week, which runs March 19-26, Mueller will finally get to do it. Her special “CityWine” menu will include four different wine-and-shot deals:
- Glass of sparkling + shot of genever and dry vermouth
- Glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc + shot of Siembra Valles tequila
- Can of Underwood rosé + shot of rhum agricole (French cane juice rum) and Aperol
- Can of Dancing Coyote red + shot of Sailor Jerry and orange bitters
Each pairing was well considered, with the spirits enhancing or complementing certain flavor notes in the wines and vice versa. But mostly Mueller is hoping they elicit a reaction — something like the shiver she experienced, or just a feeling of chill. She wants Philly drinkers to see wine as something that doesn’t have to be stuck up.
“The can of Underwood has the hashtag #pinkiesdown on it,” Mueller said.
“Why should beer get all the fun?”
That sentiment, which could pretty much double as the founding principle behind Philly Wine Week, is one that’s spreading rapidly among American young adults. In 2015, Millennials drank 42 percent of all wine in the US, according to industry association Wine Market Council research — more than any other generation (Baby Boomers came in second, Gen X was third). And they’re drinking it in unorthodox ways, like from cans, sales of which more than doubled in 2016.
But Philadelphia isn’t like everywhere else when it comes to wine.
For one, the city has an outsize reputation as a beer town. Plus, there’s that pesky thing where all wine sales and distribution are run by state government.
Ask Kensington Quarters beverage manager (and huge wine fanboy) Tim Kweeder why Philly is less of a “wine city” than other places and he pulls no punches.
“Of the top three reasons,” he said, “No. 1 and 2 are the PLCB.”
Because of the way the liquor code is structured, restaurants end up paying close to retail price for a bottle of wine, Kweeder explained, “so it doesn’t make sense to put effort into construction a cool wine list — it’s easier just to buy the inexpensive stuff so you can make a profit.”
Which explains why, historically, most of the Philadelphia venues known for wine were relatively expensive. Le Bec-Fin. Fork. Lacroix. Osteria. Townsend.
At Twenty Manning, “we crush wine,” said Mueller, “but we have a relatively high price point for food.” Paying $12 for a glass isn’t much if you’re having a $40 meal. But if you’re looking to spend something closer to $12 on dinner, well, then a $12 glass of wine doubles your spend.
“It’s hard,” said Chloe Grigri, co-owner of the Good King Tavern, “because we’re so close to NYC, and they have such a booming wine scene. Here it’s the predominant beer culture versus a fledgling wine culture.”
That said, Grigri has noticed the evolution in Philly’s wine landscape. She credits places like Tria with helping make wine more accessible by offering it in casual settings instead of ornate dining rooms. A program she launched a couple of years ago at her bistro lets customers choose red or white in “Good”, “Better” or “Best” — without requiring them to parse regions or varietals — and it has been steadily growing in popularity.
“The majority of people don’t know how to explain what they want,” she said. “This makes it easy.”
Ease of description is also part of why rosé has seen increased popularity. “It totally had a thing last summer,” Mueller said. “People in Philly were like, ‘Oh, I’m totally gonna drink rosé at brunch with my avocado toast.”
Whether in response to the millennial generation’s embrace of wine or the cause of it, wine marketing in general has become much more friendly, said Sande Friedman, a former director of Tria’s Fermentation School who currently works for Di Bruno Bros.
“There’s cartoons and things on the labels,” she said. “Canned wine is starting to show up in abundance, and there’s also kegged wine.”
Draft wine is definitely helping get it into Philly bars that might otherwise not do big wine sales. Brewpub Second District opened with wine on tap, for example, as have many other recent newcomers. Part of the reasoning there is that kegged wine keeps better, so if you’re a bar that expects to sell much more beer than wine, draft is a way to keep it from going bad. It’s also priced better.
“A keg of wine is expensive, a big pill to swallow,” said Kweeder. “But once you sell through, the profit margins are much higher.”
Convincing restaurants and bar managers that wine is good business is as much a goal of Philly Wine Week as convincing consumers it’s fun to drink. Modeled after Philly Beer Week, the festival is now in its third year. Throughout the week, the 68 participating restaurants and bars will run dozens of events, plus ongoing specials like Mueller’s CityWines at Twenty Manning.
Wine Citywides aren’t for everyone. Kweeder wouldn’t order one himself, he said, “because wine’s already higher alcohol than beer, and if you’re having liquor on top of that…well, I guess I’m a lightweight.”
But for Mueller, the booziness is part of the point.
“I want people to think of wine as something they can rock out with,” she said. “Grab a can of wine and make it a party.”