Having successfully avoided management roles in hospitality after more than twenty years in the industry, last month I accidentally opened a bar. This time it just seemed right. Exchange Christchurch (XCHC) is a community arts space that supports people in the experimental stages of their creative development, what better place to trial out my ideas of what a wine bar might look like if I decide to open one of my own someday.
I launched with a party that I called Open Source Bar, where I opened up twelve bottles of wine for tastings and asked my guests to help me choose the new glass pours. It was basically an excuse for me to buy a lot of wine that I wanted to taste myself, so thanks to everyone that attended for helping me drink my homework so that I can keep learning about wine!
When I started working in Waipara a couple years ago I didn’t know much about wine other than that I liked to drink it, but throughout my time there I became enamoured with the whole process. From the vineyard to the winery, and then to open and experience it, there is so much that goes into every bottle of wine. I tried as hard as I could to learn as much as possible, and I started going to traditional wine tastings. You can learn a lot that way, but I found the format to be difficult. There’s a lot of specialised vocabulary (as in any profession), you’re locked in to one seat throughout the whole line-up, and it can be intimidating, especially when you’re just starting out. And sometimes they’re not even fun, and wine should be fun, wine is fun.
I found that I learned the most about wine by going to parties in wine country, where people would keep pulling out all these weird and wonderful bottles all night long. I don’t even know where they all come from, they just keep appearing. And at those parties you never had a full glass of wine, you just had tastes of many wines. And you never got to try all of the wines, cause sometimes you were too busy catching up with someone, or starting a dance party, or having a beer… But of the wines that I did taste, there were many that challenged my perceptions of what wine was and could be.
I wanted to create that experience for my guests at Open Source Bar. All of the attendees got a tasting tab (a piece of origami paper) and for each taste they got a hole punch that equaled a nominal fee. That made it affordable, and they could walk in and out of the tasting as they chose, participating at their own level. At the end of the night we added up the hole punches and people paid their tab. Not everyone got to try every bottle, but I kept opening up new bottles as long as there were willing tasters.
I welcomed the knowledge and professional insight of my wine industry friends, but I encouraged everyone to give their input because you don’t need any specialist knowledge to share personal experience. I asked my guests to share which wines they really liked, or didn’t like, and why – does it have to do with the way it looks, the way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it feels in your mouth… Maybe they just liked the label! This is controversial, but I’m a firm believer that although a great label can never save a bad wine, it can make a great wine even better.
The wine that I started with had the shittest label of all of them. It was from Black Estate, my former workplace, and they’d put it in an old beer bottle with a crown cap. There were only two cases of this wine in existence, because it was the first time they’d ever made pét-nat, ancient method sparkling wine. Traditional Method sparkling wine ferments for the first time in a tank, and then it goes through second fermentation in the bottle – that’s when it gets its sparkles. Pét-Nat goes through its first fermentation in the bottle. It can be risky because there’s a chance that the wine won’t finish fermentation at all, and it ends up as slightly spritzy, sweet grape juice. Or if the ferment goes crazy then the wine bottles can start exploding in the winery. I wanted to start with this experimental wine made by my friends because experimentation is what XCHC is all about, and whatever your personal or professional creative passions are, it’s important to have a supportive environment for that.
I have a lot of ideas about how I want to run my bar, including a constantly changing glass pour list, a bottle list of premium wines to fundraise for XCHC’s emerging artists fund, and I’m keen to keep hosting Open Source Bar on a monthly basis. But the magic of XCHC is not in one person’s creative passion, it is at its best when everyone is coming together and sharing their passions. In the first month we hosted contemporary dance, live singer/songwriter music, tango night, classical music soiree, naked girls reading (where we created a new cocktail called the Unicorn Tit), spoken word poetry, story-telling, and various community meet-ups and speaker events. And the upcoming events are more exciting than ever. I’ve heard from chefs that want to trial experimental menus, I’ve heard from refugee and migrant communities that are keen to share their stories through food. I’ve heard from local growers that want to organise farm to table meals and I’ve heard from local brewers that want to organise tastings and beer release parties. I’m looking forward to all of the events, but also to the every day bar meals, drinks, and convos. Good people, good times, good food, good wines.