Publik Wine Bar

Publik1

Wine bars in Cape Town are scarcer than a gold hen’s tooth. And when you do find one, you realise it’s not a hen’s tooth at all, just a shitty piece of yellow dirt. Caveau? hah. Harold’s? Please. Oblivion? Pull the other one. ‘Wine-bar’ in Cape Town is something to add to the title of your restaurant to make it sound better. It is an empty, hollow phrase. As long as I have a few glasses and a couple of boxes of Overmeer, I can happily change my name from “Harry’s Bistro” to “Harry’s Bistro and Wine Bar”.The closest we got was a place called French Toast. It had as much charm as an accountant’s toenail-clipper. It was EXACTLY what you’d expect from a wine bar, except you were charged double for your expectations.

But with the opening of his tiny, subterranean wine bar, Publik, in Bree street, David Cope is changing all of that. One tumbler of wine at a time.

Meneer Cope has a litany of reasons as to why all the other wine bars in Cape Town have failed. Simply put it’s “because everyone gets it wrong,” he says. He points to uneducated staff, and an obsession with 1000′s of wines by the glass, despite the fact “that people don’t drink a 1000 wines in one night . . . They [other wine bars] get obsessed with having endless shit on their list which means they have endless amounts of money just sitting in a cellar not being used.  They get greedy with mark-ups so they want to sell expensive wine to get more money out of it, their location isn’t right, they just generally get it wrong.”

Publik is avoiding all of this by keeping it super simple. There are two members of staff: Captain Dave, professional hedonist, reformed food blogger, and pilferer of concrete bunnies, and First Mate Kristian Sørensen, a Danish wine-freak who’s love and respect for wine is blatant.  Cope says, “we’re both wine zealots,”

Simplicity reigns here. Publik shares a space in Church Street, opposite &Union, with Frankie Fenner Meats, Andy Fenner’s ethical feel-good-but-eat-ALL-the-meat butchery. The wine bar takes up one corner, with a short bar, some stools, low hanging light bulbs and a few tables. It feels cleverly cobbled together. Lots of blackboard paint, and snarky quotes in chalk. “Hey gurl, wine looks fine on you –  Ryan Gosling” was scrawled on the wall when I visited. There’s a slightly haphazard feeling to it all. But it all comes together to shout, “WINE IS FUCKING RAD”.

publik 3

The wine list changes daily. The 30 or so wines are split 50/50 white and red, and a couple of bubblies, all local. Cope says there’ll soon be five or so international wines as well.

He wants people to drink new, and drink different, and describes his bar as home for the “unusual and interesting, for the wines that don’t have a voice.”

“The whole point of this place is to give people something they don’t know . . . If we offer the same stuff as everyone else why would they come here?”

When Cope got back from a trip to Copenhagen, he felt Cape Town had to, nay deserved, one of the many small and simple wine bars he’d visited there. But finding the right spot on a street where everyone from hip-churches, bicycle shops and Paul Smith want to be, wasn’t easy.

“So I canvased. I can tell you about every building in Bree street; who owns it, the plans etc etc. After four months I almost gave up. And then I bumped into Andy [Fenner] at &Union having a drink and he was like ‘oh ja, we’re opening a proper butchery across the road, don’t you wanna do a wine bar there?’

“And I was like, right there, ‘fuck yeah let’s do it’ and within a week we’d shaken hands and agreed how it would work. And six weeks later we opened.”

What has been created from that beer at &Union is a godsend for wine drinkers. It’s a wine bar that sets its own agenda, and is not trying to please everyone, which is sometimes the South African way.

When customers walk in, they aren’t given a wine list, they’re given a glass – well actually it’s more of a tumbler. Dave wanted short stumpy tumblers, the kind the Spanish and Portuguese serve wine in at workers bars. “My friends laugh at me at home. I drink really good wine out of proper chunky tumblers.” He couldn’t get them here, so the compromise is basically a wine glass without a stem.

“Generally when people walk in here we give tasters, it’s the first thing that happens,” Cope explains,  “we’ll put a glass in front of you and say ‘you wanna try something interesting’ . . . so by the time you’ve, left even if you’ve only bought one glass of wine, you’ve tasted three things.”

What’s great about Publik, is that you’ll be served those three things with confidence. Dave and Christian know why they’ve chosen the wines, they like them, and they want to tell you about them.

“We force people to drink something they don’t know, and then because they don’t know it they’re forced to ask.”

The wines are definitely ‘question askers’. Like Franscois Haasbroek’s weird ass (but freaking delicious) Sauvignon Semillon blend. Publik’s description: “Francois carpe diem’ed the shit outta this petillant white.”

The pricing is smart too. Lower priced wines are marked up more than higher ones. “But we don’t buy cheap wines,” Cope reminded me. The cheapest bottle on the list is around R150. But as the mark-up is on a sliding scale, the more you pay the better value you get. Like the Reyneke Reserve White 2012; it’s sold for R260, far cheaper than most restaurants. By the glass it’s the bottle price, divided by four, plus five bucks. But all this speaks to rigidity, and Publik is not rigid. Bottles get opened, tasted, shared; the list feels like it’s just a guide. My point is you are not being ripped off.

I quizzed Dave on the philosophy behind what wines they want to serve. Is it a natural wine bar?

“I don’t like the term natural wines, because it has a lot of connotations of fucking weird shit that’s being done in Europe. I say we serve wines made naturally. And that’s more minimal intervention, more hands off, farming correctly, picking the grapes and letting them ferment on their own accord, natural fermentation is the main the thing.”

Basically, Publik is a home for the small production, avant garde sort of wines that don’t get enough attention on most wine lists. But is there room at Publik for more classic wines?

“No, unless it’s a pinot, bubbly or Riesling,”  Dave says quickly. But then he asks Kristian over his shoulder, “What’s the rule?”

The reply is instant.

“There are no rules.”

publik4

Which is exactly what wine needs less of. Publik is a small bar. It is not going to revolutionize wine. But it will change many people’s idea of what wine is, and show them that it’s goddam fun  to drink. I’m calling it.  Publik is Cape Town’s first proper wine bar*

To give you an idea, here is yesterday’s wine list (it’s worth a read just for the descriptions)

Oh, and Wineries, if you have rad old vintages, weird ass wines, go and introduce yourself. Publik is a great place to showcase wines that you would only normally do at the farm. The wine list changes all the time, so if you have a case of interesting Chenin from a few years back, and always complain people drink the wine too young, use Publik to get those old wines out there. It’s more effective than a vertical lunch for the ‘media’, believe me.

*UPDATE*: Someone pointed out to me on Facebook that I did not mention the Nose Bar, that used to be run by Cathy Marston. They are right. I almost can’t believe I forgot about it. As it is pretty much where my bloody affair with wine began. Sorry Cathy. It was a great place. I still remember it as a bit of a restaurant/bar. Which is not a bad thing. It was French Toast with far more charm, energetic staff, and better prices. I still feel Publik is the first wine bar, that’s only about wine, but I can’t not mention the Nose, which was a brilliant place.

PUBLIK

  • Open: Monday – Friday, 4pm – 10pm.
  • Bubbly Happy Hour : 4pm – 6pm Monday – Wednesday
  • 81 Church Street (btw Bree & Buitengracht), Cape Town.
  • drink@publik.co.za
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Posted in Exploring, Visited
10 comments on “Publik Wine Bar
  1. Kwispedoor says:

    Love the wine list and everything looks really cool. Apart from one thing… If I was in Cape Town, I would certainly have test-driven the place, but I would have phoned ahead to ask if I can bring my own glasses. The better the wine, the more it deserves a decent glass. Bowl-clutching a tumbler boils down to unnecessary dumbing down, IMHO.

    In practice however, perhaps atmosphere will trump function? It might actually be proven that going for rugged and simple with almost everything (including the glasses), but not the wine, will get more newbie feet through the doors and interested in interesting wine. Less intimidation, maybe? But even so, perhaps newbies should also be taught that the stemware… sorry – glasses – also count for something?

    Either way, I hope that Publik not only finds its feet, but that it becomes a runaway success!

  2. I know here you are coming from with regard to good glassware, but I think Publik’s made a good call here. They fit. And as tumblers go they’re pretty great.

    Stemware does count for something – and I know this is a bit of a strawman — but I would rather drink out of these thin glass, nicely shaped, tumblers, than ISO tasting glasses or chunky goblets. I wasn’t entirely sure at first, but the more I think about it, the smarter a move it seems. It’s a point of difference that says more than it seems to about enjoying wine, and making it that much less ‘hoighty-toighty’.

    I reckon no one would mind if you brought your own though.

  3. susiegotwine says:

    Dear Harry

    I think Publik has answered the call for a much-needed unpretentious wine bar, like one you’d find in the back alleys of Mallorca where the yachties won’t dare go.

    I love the tumblers and the nod to a blue-collar European way of eating and drinking. I also love that you can find a mini demi-john of Scrumpy.

    I’d love to see Publik introduce a “Menu del Dia” bringing in Fenner’s Meats. It’s a no brainer

    Love
    SusieGotWine

    • Sheesh, I think out of all the things I wish for in Cape Town (food/wine wise) a menu del-dia comes right behind a wine bar. Set menus make dining out affordable. Wish we had more of them. There are lunch specials daily that you can get from the Butchery, and grab a glass of wine at Publik.

      I visited a few of those back-alley spots on Mallorca. Loved them.

      • susiegotwine says:

        hmmm they ARE easy to love. And not only because they serve good wine in stemless glasses, but ’cause they usually kick-start an evening that ends with a sunrise outside Pacha.

        Here’s to Publik having a similar effect in Cape Town.

        Cheers

  4. Kwispedoor says:

    Evocative images… Doesn’t really make me want to work right now!
    I agree that they probably made the right commercial call on the glasses. Vibe and image is of great importance in this kind of venture. It needs to be said though, that blue-collar Europeans generally drink blue-collar wines at blue-collar prices. Along those lines, I’d have no problem drinking a good wine at a lowish price that I know well (let’s say a Secateurs Red) from those glasses and partying like Hound Dog Taylor ’till the early hours. However, if I’m going to pay R460 for a High Constantia Clos André Brut MCC 2005 (stunning stuff), those glasses will be far from ideal. That also goes for when I want to try out similarly more expensive and rare wines. I do, however, realize that wine nerds like myself are not exactly the norm and that I’m in the minority here – no problemo!
    Still, I hope they are successful enough to open one in Gauteng soon!

  5. susiegotwine says:

    Hey Kwispedoor. We are the sound of a self-proclaimed wine nerd bantering with a self-proclaimed aesthetics nerd.

    First night at Publik I cracked a bottle of that Clos André with a few pals (wet Malamute and toe-jam for me) and marvelled at the aesthetic polarity of a tumbler meeting a R460 bottle of Brut Mcc 2005.

    Like the ‘grubby wine’ bars I’ve been to where they do serve expensive wine, somehow drinking something rare in an unexpected place in an unexpected glass makes it all the more exclusive!

  6. Cathy Marston says:

    Kwispedoor – I shouldn’t imagine anyone would mind you bringing your own glasses. We had a customer who used to bring 2 huge Riedels in a leather case (maybe it was you???!!) and we would happily pour our wine measure into those for him.

    Thanks for the mention Harry – our aims when we opened the Nose were very different to the commercial realities we faced a bit later on down the line. Hopefully the timing is now better for the kind of wine bar we wanted to be, but gradually got edged slightly away from towards the end.

    • No worries. When Dion pointed out I hadn’t mentioned you guys, I totally blushed, right here in my lounge. I think you are right. Things have changed, so hopefully we’ll see more focused, educated, and fun wine bars opening.

    • Kwispedoor says:

      @ Cathy: was that customer a confident, suave, well-spoken, intelligent, interesting and supremely attractive sexy beast? Then, yes – it was me.

      No, seriously, I like Riedels as much as the next guy, but buying some of those would mean that I can buy substantially less wine and there’s the problem… especially considering the availability of cheaper alternatives that work well enough.

      To tell the truth, I would probably feel like a real pretentious prick to take my own glasses to a place like (specifically) Publik. I guess I’d just end up using their glasses and reveling in their atmosphere, while perhaps avoiding the more expensive stuff that (in my opinion) deserves to be drunk out of the kind of glass that will make it show it’s best attributes to the fullest.

      That party-in-a-bottle Saffraan seems like the kind of wine that I would love to drink at Publik: fairly priced, I already know it from properly tasting it before, it’s so fuity that it’ll probably pop out of any glass and it drinks a bit like (the best ever) cooldrink in any way!

      Come to think of it, it should be fun to compare some of the wines at Publik, tasted from different glasses.

      @Susiegotwine: I’m glad you call it bantering. Too often, people can’t seem to agree to disagree in a civilized and respectful manner (not that I think we disagree that much on this at all).

      I can’t wait to finish work today, guys: I’m going full-on experimental by drinking some Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1995 out of a builder’s bucket. ;-)

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