Tired Irish pubs, cougar lounges, generic happy-hour venues, and big restaurant bars have dominated the midtown drinking landscape for ages. Oenophiles, desperate to avoid insipid $9 pinot grigio and cabernet sauvignon specials foisted on locust-like swarms of undiscerning suit-clad co-workers, could only hope to snag one of precious few seats at slender Morrell’s Wine Bar near Rockefeller Center to satisfy a Loire Valley chenin craving.
Relief comes by way of Aldo Sohm Wine Bar (151 West 51st Street, 212-554-1143). Here, eponymous Austrian Aldo Sohm, the longtime wine director at Le Bernardin, has, with the aid of Chef Eric Ripert, given the corporate and commuter community an elegant space to sip and snack.
Despite the effort’s association with the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Sohm contends his wine bar diverges into the category of casual. While that perception may be true relative to Le Bernardin’s white-tablecloth experience, in context for the rest of us, who rarely see the haute fish house’s interior, the wine bar exudes a high level of class and sophistication, albeit one where neckties can safely be loosened and the jackets of pantsuits removed.
The orderly mind of an Austrian reveals itself in the concentric-square geometry of the layout. Sandstone-hued couches enclose alternating circular and square tables, which surround a square formation of circular leather ottomans. High-top tables line the walls while the double-sided bar in the back completes the formation. Dark wood contrasts with playful splashes of colorful pop art on the walls and floor-to-ceiling shelves. Sohm describes the space as “walking into my living room. It’s clean, with lots of wood, very European, with lots of colors.” Sohm’s taste also extends beyond his living room to influence the collection of wines and beverages he serves.
For now, the bottle list avoids interpretations of hip, funky, or esoteric (e.g., orange wines) in favor of coupling classical, proven regions, many French, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, with more recently acknowledged realms of both the Old and New Worlds. Corsica, Greece, and Austria make deserved appearances, while entries such as a pinot noir from Felton Road in Central Otago, New Zealand; cabernet franc from Bloomer Creek in the Finger Lakes; and charbono from Calder Wine Co. in Napa address the newly relevant. For bubble lovers, the chance to drink a bottle of anything sparkling other than cava for under $60 is rare; Sohm Wine Bar offers four, including three crémants from the Jura, Loire, and a rosé from Burgundy.
By-the-glass pricing swings wildly in both directions, more wildly up than down. While there are selections in the affordable range (the new NYC standard being anything under $15), including the $11 Lapierre Gamay, the astronomical top hits $65 for a glass of Domaine Marquie d’Angerville 1er Cru Volnay. The middle range, where most people drink, hovers between $18 and $22. This strategy clearly reflects rent, pedigree (of both the wines and the wine bar owners), and the clientele’s willingness to pay. If you’ve got a budget for just a glass or two, hopefully you like beaujolais and blaufränkisch.
A better way to spend one’s paycheck might be on the Coravin flight offering. During my visit, three rieslings, two from Germany and one from the Finger Lakes, could be tasted for $30. The flights will change weekly, so frequent customers can engage in new comparisons.
Outside of wine, there’s a trim selection of spirits. Sohm admits to preferring a “crisp, clean, and refreshing” beer at the end of each day, and his choices, including Stiegl Lager and Jever Pilsener, reflect that predilection.
Back to the clientele for a moment: While a mix of professionally dressed office types mingled, I noted a preponderance of women spanning several generations (distinct from the aforementioned cougar category) at both the bar and in groups on the couches. We’ve all heard the media blather on about how women just love their wine akin to Kathie Lee Gifford, but a recent “study” insinuated they prefer cheap plonk by way of grocery store magnums to premium blue-chip labels meant for the real wine buffs: men.
Here’s a scary excerpt from the conclusion: “put simply, while women are looking to wine to accompany conversations as they unwind with friends, for men, wine is the conversation,” with the addition that men are looking to “show off their knowledge and refined palates.” Without digressing too deeply into the flaws of this study (broad-brushstroke conclusions, equating expenditure of money with premium experiences and refined palates), Sohm Bar’s lady patrons appeared to disprove it all by relaxing, tasting, talking, and spending, all at once.
As accompaniment to the wine, which, by the way, is served in magnificent, feather-light Austrian Zalto glasses, the Sohm team compiled an enticing menu of charcuterie, cheese, and share plates. I watched several orders of whole baked cauliflower sprinkled with roasted chicken salt and platters of lamb merguez land in front of and be devoured by nearby patrons.
Sohm played the role of consummate host, skills likely honed over his many years in the fine-dining business. He floated around the room with enough presence that I could sense him looking after everyone without imposing indelibly on their stay.
Looking ahead, Sohm says he plans to change the list constantly, with a goal of keeping “it playful and fun for both customers and sommeliers.”