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”.
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.”
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.
- Open: Monday – Friday, 4pm – 10pm.
- Bubbly Happy Hour : 4pm – 6pm Monday – Wednesday
- 81 Church Street (btw Bree & Buitengracht), Cape Town.