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Bar Banter

Tucson has an underground natural wine scene.

December 2, 2016

Bar Banter

The term ‘Natural Wine’ has been occasion for a lot of reactionary zeal from mainstream American winemakers over the past decade, implying, as it does, that wines made in the New World paradigm – sterile, scalable, precise – are ‘unnatural.’  Excepting the major importation hubs of the east and west coasts, this reaction has largely worked to hamper access to and interest in a style of winemaking which promises a return to traditional viticulture.  Happily, enough men and women of discriminating taste call Tucson home that we are often able to transcend the hype and haters alike, assuming you know where to look.  The skeptical palates of our best bar curators tend to seek out the underdog, the untold story, the inimitable and unique.

And so indeed we find our latent natural wine scene hiding out behind (and subsidized by) various cocktail menus from R Bar to Penca.  At the Co-Op and Tap and Bottle one can find these fringe offerings sneakily standing alongside their more conventional counterparts.  I particularly like seeing these wines in the mashed-up retail setting as it implies a sort of cabalism – only the initiated can sort the wheat from the chaff (hint: look for irreverent and modish labeling).  For more single-minded curation, I suggest Time Market; value-driven, quality offerings which tend toward the conservative side of the above spectrum, or the bottle shop at Feast; an eclectic selection of old world standbys and new world upstarts which is navigated deftly by the knowledgeable staff.

Noteworthy this season is the affordable, plummy red ‘Il Casolare Rosso’ from San Lorenzo (Co-Op, under $15); the jubilant and sourdoughy sparkling wine “Morphos” from Oyster River Wine Co. (Tap & Bottle, $8.50/glass, on tap); the transcendently unyielding Piemonte reds of Tenuta Migliavacca (occasionally at R Bar when they can get them); and the rounded, floral, fresh Malvasia from Istrian wine guru Uroš Rojac (Time Market, under $15).  Uroš, whose brief stay in Tucson years back is the stuff of booze-soaked legend (partners were indiscriminately propositioned, all non-proprietary wine maligned and biodynamic mysticism exhorted) is said to drink a case of his own wine daily and analyze his soil health with uncanny accuracy solely by way of its taste.  The funkiest and most invigorating (if at times difficult) bottle of the bunch is Clau de Nell’s Grolleau, an unduly maligned red grape from the Loire region of France, three bottles of which remain at Sidecar as of this writing ($35).

Initiates to the natural wine scene should seek Alice Feiring’s blog for guidance and talk to Rory O’Rear at R Bar, the O.G. wine crew at Feast, or Niccy Brodhurst at Sidecar to name a few progressive buyers.  Alternatively, don’t talk, just drink – but base your purchases on the importer rather than varietal or region; an approach similar to buying records from a particular label you like rather than buying based on popular reviews or a particular genre.  This spectrum of progressive importers goes from established curators of old world standards (Neal Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch for example) to the more anarchic natural wine avant garde (Louis/Dressner, Indie Wineries, and Jenny & Francois) which tend to be more-risk-more-reward propositions – sometimes bunk but never plonk.


Owl’s Club’ Recent Opening in Historic Bring Memorial Chapel

Known now for its legacy of turn-of-the-century frescos and historic, pueblo-deco verve, the Owl’s Club was a private gentleman’s club that called Tucson home for a few decades back when the railroad was radically transforming our landscape. A nod, then, to prehistoric joie de vivre rather than the perverse ennui of post-colonial power brokers, Bryan Eichhorst’s Owl’s Club is a new bar and lounge project housed in the phoenix-rising marvel that is the old Bring Funeral Home on south Scott Ave.  Although the whole development is very exciting, we will focus here on the bar which is being headed up by the Penca Beverage Director under the guidance of owner and local developer Patricia Schwabe of Peach Properties. Bryan’s leadership means a quality, curated selection of spirits which nonetheless avoids preciousness and snobbery.  Speaking with Bryan, I get the sense that Owl’s Club represents a new generation of more down to earth bar programming.  If so, Owl’s Club is evidence that we’ve gotten through the woods of sometimes smug and often self-satisfied cocktail programs and are arriving at a more democratic and fun model which prioritizes the visceral enjoyment of shared space over the ego of the bartender.

Developer Peach Properties deserves a cheer, a shout, an embrace for their faith in Tucson’s ability to recognize and populate a singular space on an old and thoughtfully redeveloped street.  The Historic Bring Funeral Home is the type of building that Tucson has been hell bent on raising for the past 50 years but which, thanks to locally invested developers with a long view, will soon be re-inhabited by a local populis who really do appreciate being closer to their shared history.  Peach has light-handedly restored much of the original design work and mirrored other architectural motifs in the bar construction and shelving.  The result is a beautiful and comfortably imposing bar that looks as timeless as its surrounding interiors.  The chapel’s naves, niches and old wainscotting imbue the space with a sanctified ambiance which works just as well in the bar as it did, I assume, in the memorial setting.


Che’s, the Old Guard

che's lounge 02

For a different sense of timelessness, go sit on Che’s patio on any given Thursday.  More often than not, you will find yourself among an increasingly endangered crew of old-school Tucsonans who have found themselves mostly unable to intermingle with the newly amassed populations of SoCal transplants and eastsider beer nerds who have been keeping the lights on (and shining rather brightly) at many a downtown bar and restaurant of late.  On the appointed night, representatives of Wooden Tooth Records spin hyper-intelligent and buoyant vinyl, digging into the archive for the edification of locals.  On a recent Thursday a couple of not-in-their-20’s hipsters – acknowledging their apparent arrested development – berated each other over the possibility that Donald Trump represented a wild card candidate that could upset the shadow global order of the international 1%.  This conversation, taking place under the absolute assumption of a Clintonian White House, is presently feeling rather mythical in its innocence.  The notorious strength of Che’s highballs quickly took the edge off these meandering political proclamations until a group of expatriated friends showed up and the familial chatter turned towards gentrification vis-à-vis nostalgia, embroidery machines, and Portlandia.


The Coronet’s Attention to Detail


The Coronet feels increasingly at home with itself and environs.  The thoughtful renovation of this space, meticulous in its execution, has nonetheless benefitted from the unifying function of organic wear and tear that can only come with age and popularity.  So transported was I by the seemingly perfect congruence of the minimalist cocktail glass, well-trimmed garnish, marble bar top and antique tiled floor, that I had trouble making any serious analysis of the drink itself.  It seemed good and that in itself was good enough: a reminder that for a long time a good cocktail in a great place was the whole ball game. Sally Kane understands this, and her commitment to detail and mise-en-scène is further evidence of a powerful and independent sensibility.   That Coronet has attracted such a devoted following speaks to our city’s ability to both keep and cultivate autonomous tastemakers.

Header image by Steven Meckler from the article, “Hotel Congress Breathes History” in our September/October 2014 issue. 

The Coronet image by Julie DeMarre from the article, “The Joy of Cooking” in our September/October 2016 issue. 

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