Evan Spingarn of Tangled Vine Talks Sustainable Wine, Pairing Myths & Drinking What You Don't Know

The term sustainable has made its way to the wine glass, but the point for wine geeks isn't necessarily eco-friendliness. Tangled Vine, a newish wine bar on the Upper West Side that our own Sarah DiGregorio found delightful, touts its selection of organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines. But consulting sommelier Evan Spingarn, who designed the lofty list, says the appeal is that the wines are real, rather than green.

Tell me about the concept for the wine list at Tangled Vine?

We created a list of 160-plus wines, with 30 by the glass. We wanted to do a very large by-the-glass program to give people a chance to experiment. Part of the reason is just because we both think that's what a wine bar should be. But also because the wines that I wanted to pick were going to be interesting and esoteric. We didn't want to do a lot of Pinot Grigio or Cabernet. About 80-85 percent of the list is organic, sustainable, or biodynamic.

What's the difference between organic, biodynamic, and sustainable?

I try to keep the whole thing open-ended because people get pretty crazy about the definitions of organic and biodynamic. If you're a winemaker, that's your prerogative. If you're running a business where you're selling wine, you have to be open minded about what those terms mean. If a distributor tells me that a wine was made without pesticides and herbicides in the vineyards, without laboratory yeast, or enzymes to speed the fermentation -- basically they're not manipulating the wine -- I'm willing to call it organic. So few producers want to certify because it's expensive. And a pain.

Have you attracted natural wine enthusiasts?

Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of people who only drink organic wines are coming in. But I'm not sensing that the buzz around the restaurant is about organic, specifically. I think it's just about what you might call "authentic" or natural wines. It's for the folks who don't want to drink Australian Shiraz. I didn't do any New World wines on my list at all.

How did you get into wine?

I've been in the wine business for 17 years. I started out in retail, which I did the longest. I've been a wine writer for various magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. I've been working as one of the New York salespeople for a wholesaler and importer. And I consult on projects like this for restaurants.

Are you on the premises a lot?

I'm the behind-the-scenes guy. I'm not there on a nightly basis selling wine. I'm not the active sommelier at the restaurant. I've trained the wait staff to answer questions about wine. And you have a manager as your fall back expert at the restaurant.

How do you prescribe a wine to someone who really doesn't know what they like?

I always talk about food first. I find that's the easiest way to understanding wine. Frankly, it's amazing that more people that sell and deal in wine don't do that and it seems kind of insane to me. Because wine is scary. Wine is intimidating for people or it's just a big complicated topic that they don't have the time or interest to explore thoroughly. So, I find that food is sort of a gateway to explain or select wines. It's way simpler than trying to explain the difference between a Tempranillo and a Refosco. They don't know what I'm talking about, but they do know that they're having meatballs and tomato sauce, and they want a wine that goes with that.

What sort of trends have you seen in wine bars opening these days?

The natural wine thing is a big trend. Organic wine lists, naturally made wines, and seasonal and local produce go hand in hand.   Where do you like to drink when you're not at your own place?

I like Terroir a whole lot and I'm glad Paul is opening up a second location in Tribeca. Ten Bells is fun, to see what's on the cutting edge. They can be a little weirder and edgier than I can because they're down on the Lower East Side. And I love Total Wine Bar in Brooklyn -- awesome little place on Fifth Avenue, which is also a location for these kinds of interesting, offbeat, and natural wines. They do a lot of great prices down there. The Veritas' of the world are impressive, but that's not where I get a drink. I like a cozier atmosphere with a tight list and an interesting theme of natural wines.

Is it hard to open this kind of wine bar on the Upper West Side?

Well, that's the big question right? We've been open eight weeks and so far it's been a slam-dunk. We've been doing great, so I would say the answer is: they do get it. I think we've filled a niche on the Upper West Side. Because there's a lot of good wine bars there, but most of them, quite frankly, are sort of conventional. They don't really thrill with the food or with the wine selection.

What are some of the best deals on your list?

I've got an old vine Garnacha from an organically-tended vineyard that we sell for $9 a glass. I would pit that up against any red wine you get under $15 by the glass in New York City. I've got a 1992 Riesling, which I'm selling for $22 a glass, which is considerably less than I should be charging for it. Although that's one of the more expensive pours on the list, it's actually an incredible value.

How much do you feel that you should be educating the consumer on what to drink and how much should they be left to drink whatever they want?

I think that we should be educating the consumer. I would like to think we could just let people do what they want, but where wine is concerned, the more info the better. Why make it an arcane subject matter that you have to decipher? It should really be made accessible for people. And when I say that, I don't think it should be dumbed down or made simple. All those books, like Wines for Dummies, are about making wine simple. I don't want to make wine simple. It's wonderfully complex and intricate and complicated and far reaching. And why dumb that down? What I want is to make it accessible.   What would you say is the biggest food and wine pairing misconception?

How about this: a wine and food misunderstanding rather than a misconception. I do subscribe to the notion that people should drink what they like with whatever they like. I'm not here to dictate that you must drink white wine with fish and red wine with steak. But sometimes I walk into fish restaurants and see people ordering lobster with Cabernet Sauvignon, and I have to say, if they love that combination then God bless them. However, have they ever tasted a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley with lobster? Or a great German Riesling or white Burgundy? So, while I encourage them to drink that they like, I also encourage them to drink what they don't know. Drinking what you know you like is not always interesting, not as important as discovering something you might like even more.

Are there any trends you're sick of seeing in wine bars?

I wish there were fewer Italian ones and more of other kinds of ethnicities. It would be nice to see more French wine bars around town or even an all-American wine bar would be cool to see.

What can we expect to see on the wine list this summer?

We're going to be wildly expanding our rosé section in the next 30 days. I've got two right now, but we're going to end up having about six or eight at any given time on the list for the warmer months. All by the glass.

Do you see rosé as a continuing trend?

Yes, absolutely. Rosé is a lot of fun and we're selling a lot of it in New York. It's inexpensive. It comes in at times when people are drinking good, inexpensive wines. We like that.

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