FOOD AND DRINK
New York's Lois Wine Bar Banishes the Corkscrew
Wine on tap: You have to spigot to believe it
Nora O’Malley fell in love with the wine on tap during a post-college stint in Italy. What the Italians call “sfuso” wine is simply any wine sold out of a large batch, either from a winery, grocery store or even a gas station. You bring your own individual container and fill it up.
The sfuso system offered O’Malley a cheap way to experience a huge diversity of wines, and this accelerated her love affair with it. After she returned stateside, she felt confined by the investment in bottles, both financially and in terms of quantity, and began searching out wine on tap within New York. When she found the options lacking, she started talking with Phoebe Connell – also an oenophile and industry veteran – about opening a business. They dreamt of transferring the wine-on-tap idea from Italy to the United States, and without making it some intimidating new trend. “Being able to offer unique and inclusive tasting experiences without any pretension” was the idea, O’Malley says.
Lois operates like a craft beer bar, with a rotating selection of fine wines on tap (plus a beer and a cider for good measure). The food menu reflects the season’s best offerings lovingly crafted into unique bites that appeals more to the palates of the owners and their friends than any regional cuisine (think avocado arepa, cheese plates and lemon baked eggs). The contemporary décor and laid-back atmosphere has been a hit with city dwellers from every corner, whether seeking an educational experience through a sampling of wines, or a casual unpretentious tipple any given night.
What started as a passion project deep in New York City’s Alphabet City has become one of the hottest wine destinations nationwide. The women describe their role in the industry as having “jumped into a stream right as it was starting to take off, and serving as the home for winemakers who are on the edge.” At the forefront of a growing movement, they seek to elevate the perception of keg wine, which has often been perceived as a throwaway option, typically offered as the house pour.
There are pros and cons of doing away with glass and cork. The Lois team admit to missing the diversity and selection of wine that comes in bottles. What they don’t miss: stocking and recycling. Dealing with bad bottles, and ones that might be borderline. Kegged wine reduces the mental chore for servers, who are no longer in a position of having to decide whether to keep serving from the bottom half of a bottle of wine that may have been open too long and no longer tastes its best. Kegs keep wine fresh, with no risk of oxidizing the way they would in an open bottle; this also reduces waste and makes margins healthier. The savings that come along with less waste and less expensive packaging get passed on to the customer, which means a $10 glass pour from a tap is more in line with a $15 bottle pour. The sustainability extends to environmental territory as well, as shipping wine by keg greatly reduces its carbon footprint.
"We are still trying to change the perception among fellow industry leaders.”
As for the drawbacks: Connell and O’Malley say there are around 500 wines in keg available to them at the moment, and only around 70 that they would even consider tasting to include in their rotation. “We are still trying to change the perception among fellow industry leaders” says O’Malley, who has been disappointed more than once to find that places offering wines on tap often choose the cheapest option just for the sake of buying into the trend. This ends up degrading the perceived quality of wine on tap in general, and dissuades winemakers from wanting to keg their wine.
Lois’s status as an all-tap bar with a commitment to quality selections has made it a hub for keg-friendly winemakers: The bar gives them the opportunity to meet curious consumers and a platform to show off their wines. “We are a good example of a place that gives keg wine the spotlight and emphasis on quality that a lot of producers are looking for,” Connell says. Recognizing O’Malley and Connell’s efforts, some producers have even kegged their wine exclusively for the bar; the women are encouraging more of that.
Lois’ visionary operations philosophy extends beyond being the only 100% wine on tap bar in New York, they are also among the few establishments to fully embrace a no-tipping policy since December 2015. O’Malley and Connell say they can both relate to choosing menu items based on their cost by quickly adding up a tentative total. Too many times a bill arrives and is significantly higher than anticipated thanks to New York’s near-10% tax on drinks, plus a further 15 to 25% tip. At Lois, prices include tax and tip, which means the amount you see on the menu is exactly what you will pay.
As for paying servers, Connell describes the system at Lois as “having no ceiling, just a floor.” In addition to a wage, the owners offer a weekly revenue sharing component so that everyone benefits in profitable times, and even during a slow week the paycheque is relatively stable. Connell believes the system also encourages team spirit and genuinely good service, and she says employee turnover has been low.
Wine on tap has come a long way in New York since its first appearances as a novelty pour, and Lois is the place to experience the best of what’s on offer. Rather than propagate the trend, however, they say their first priority is serving their beloved East Village community. “We’re humbled that what we thought made sense turned out to make sense to other people,” Connell says. “We’re just trying to make our neighbourhood happy.”
98 Avenue C (Loisaida Avenue), 212-475-1400