Walking into Lauren Friel’s Rebel Rebel, a six-month-old natural wine bar tucked into a corner of Union Square’s Bow Market, an oversized chalkboard behind the 20 seats declares: “Cool shit by the glass.” And with that, you know you’re in for a different experience. The place, after all, is named after David Bowie, who was no stranger to breaking the mold.

Head downtown and things aren’t so buttoned-up either at the two-and-a-half-year-old haley.henry, where owner Haley Fortier often greets guests at the door, as do the sounds of hip-hop tracks like Pusha T’s “Come Back My Baby” and Czarface’s “Nightcrawler.” Pop in for a Weiner & Wine Wednesday and you’ll find hot dogs alongside its usual offering of tinned fish—and a quirky list of small-batch wines.

Lauren Friel of Rebel Rebel. Photo: Andrew Parsons.

As restaurants loosen things up and what’s on your plate gets the starring role, what’s in your glass (or goblet) has become even more accessible. In pop culture, we’re consuming wine more than ever: Our TV screens are taken over by documentaries following wine nerds licking rocks (Somm) and a New York Times best-seller turned Starz hit about a Midwestern girl diving into New York’s wine world (Sweetbitter). Rihanna’s been photographed more than once strutting down a sidewalk carrying a glass of wine, rapper Action Bronson is frequenting natural wine bars, and reporters are following up questions about LeBron James’ free throws with queries on what he’s uncorking at his postgame meal. And the crowd drinking wine is changing, too. The 2016 Super Bowl champ version of Rob Gronkowski was crushing Busch Light, while the 2018 version was thrusting a bottle of vino in the air during the parade—OK, he was also crushing Busch Light. But hey, it’s progress.

Decades ago, when spots like Locke-Ober ruled the dining scene, there was no shortage of wine. In fact, the three cellars couldn’t fit the 700 options, so some were hauled to the owner’s Rhode Island farm. Though at one point there were just three wines by the glass, there was enough obscure Bordeaux to serve a party of 40. And yet, “We didn’t have a sommelier,” says Peter Nelson, the wine director and assistant general manager at Puritan & Company, who got his start at the legendary restaurant in the late ’80s. “The guy who built the wine list before I took over lived in New York. Every three months, he’d talk about some things he wanted to purchase, and they would make adjustments, and that would be the new list. There was never anyone there to help you.” Elsewhere, the wine list might have been put together by someone with a French-sounding accent or a server with a vague interest in wine, making it an afterthought rather than an integral part of the dining experience.

Even if there was a full-time professional, they weren’t always that helpful. “The conception of a sommelier was somebody who would come over and make you feel uncomfortable and like you didn’t know enough about wine and tell you that you should drink white with fish and red with steak,” says Brahm Callahan, corporate beverage director for Himmel Hospitality, who adds that guests no longer find themselves in a one-way conversation. The master sommelier took his first certification exam in 2008, a few years after the decades-old Court of Master Sommeliers first offered it in Boston. “There was a point in Boston where there were five certified sommeliers, and I was one of them.” Since then, Callahan has seen more than three dozen staff pass through the program, and, twice a year, Grill 23 & Bar hosts the introductory and certified exams. “It’s a thing that I think is really important to help grow the beverage industry in Boston, is to put more boots on the ground that have good knowledge and proper training.” And for Callahan, growing that knowledge extends beyond his sommeliers, with events managers, line cooks, sous-chefs and other staff sitting in on his 14 classes that cover regions, food pairings and tasting some 60 wines.

Photo: Helena Lopes

“It isn’t just this one expert that leaps out of the shadows.”

That’s a philosophy Cat Silirie, who got her start at the Back Bay steakhouse as a young sommelier in a Brooks Brothers suit, implemented when she started working with Barbara Lynch. When she helped Lynch open No. 9 Park in 1998, Silirie was coming from Rocco’s, where she was the only person who could speak intelligently about wine. “I proposed to Barbara that 10 ‘mini-me’s would be better than one ‘me,’ in that it isn’t just this one expert that leaps out of the shadows when it’s time for wine. What if I trained everybody who worked at No. 9 Park to be able to talk about wine in some way?” While Lynch was supportive, other industry folks were skeptical: Why invest in high-turnover staff that didn’t have an interest in wine? During the past two decades, Silirie’s Wine Words program has spread across all seven of the Barbara Lynch Collective’s restaurants. The other week, the staff at Sportello learned how red wine fits with the Fort Point spot’s cuisine and decor. On a recent Wednesday, Silirie bounced over to B&G Oysters for a workshop on minerality, leading a tasting of everything from Fiji to Evian and Badoit water so staff can identify the sensation in muscadet or chablis they recommend to guests. It doesn’t mean, however, that they’re throwing around jargon. “When people hear that I do wine training, I think they think that I’m talking about the 1855 classification of Bordeaux,” Silirie says. But it’s storytelling. “Who are these people? Where do they live? What does it look like?”

Lauren Friel on the cover of The Improper’s March 13 issue. Photo: Andrew Parsons; Location: Rebel Rebel in Somerville; Hair and Makeup Artist: Erica Gomes / Ennis Inc.

Malolactic fermentation doesn’t enter the conversation at Puritan & Company, either. Since his days as a tuxedoed maitre d’ at Locke-Ober and working with Lydia Shire at Biba, Nelson has been on a mission to make wine approachable, from teaching classes at the Boston Center for Adult Education to opening the Wine Bottega in 2000. Today, when guests ask if they’re chatting with the sommelier, he introduces himself as “the wine guy.” Then, he gets a conversation going—one that won’t go over your head. “Sometimes my favorite thing is to ask people, ‘OK, you’re at the farmers market. Raspberries or blackberries—what is your go-to?’ ” Wherever you land, Nelson wants you to be happy with what’s in the glass. He also wants you to be happy with the price. “From my perspective, the most important thing is that you find the wine delicious, and from your perspective: ‘How much am I putting down?’ ” It’s why, he jokes, “I’ve been threatening these guys off and on, I’m just gonna do the wine list by price because that’s how people buy wine anyway.” It’s also why the list veers off a familiar path. He might offer those who gravitate toward darker fruits and a bit of spice something like baga from Portugal. What it lacks in name recognition, it makes up for in affordability. “If it were made in California,” he says, “it would cost three times the price.”

“You’re not paying the price of the bottle anymore, you’re paying much less.”

Budget-friendly options are also front of mind for Friel, who says she marks up bottles at Rebel Rebel differently than others in the industry. Typically, when we order something by the glass, we’re charged what the business paid for the bottle. And if we order a bottle, we’ll shell out about three times what it cost. “Most of the time, we do a regular bottle markup and we divide it by four, so you’re not paying the price of the bottle anymore, you’re paying much less than that.” Friel can pour things not usually offered by the glass, allowing customers to branch out and interact with wine in new ways. The Somerville bar hosts tarot classes on Saturdays and ‘Natural Wine 101’ workshops on Sundays, when during the course of an hour, guests try three wines for $25. “It’s not your whole day, it’s not your whole bank account,” says Friel, who also wants to get producers in front of her guests as much as possible, whether or not you can afford airfare to Oregon or Tuscany. “If you can’t visit them, I want to bring them to you.”

Eileen Elliott of Social Wines. Photo: Andrew Parsons

Even if you were to jet set to Italy, you’d never get to a fraction of the 3,000 grape varietals—never mind their endless expressions. The beverage has gotten its reputation in part because there’s so much to know. Social Wines’ Eileen Elliott is up till 2 am reading about the newest thing to stock in the Southie retail store. But it’s more than research. Elliott wants everyone to experience the emotional connection that comes from opening a bottle of natural wine, like with Cantina Furlani Antico, a pét-nat that reminds her of cupcakes her mom makes. “We always encourage guests to make their own decisions,” says the director of operations and wine. “If something is speaking to you, then you should go with it.” When you’re taking something home to appreciate on your couch or over a home-cooked meal, without all the extra ambiance a restaurant provides, you might need a little context to enjoy it. Sometimes, that extra bit of information comes from the winemakers themselves. Martha Stoumen swung by Social Wines recently, providing the opportunity for customers to witness what Elliott understands from getting to know the California vinter: “Her warm, loving spirit translates to what you experience in the glass—soulful, overtly delicious and full of life.”

When they’re in front of you, you realize winemakers are people, too. Jean Trimbach breaks into song at Lynch’s restaurants. Another producer excitedly hands Friel a dirty glass in his cellar. And winemakers also get drunk on their porch after their mother-in-law locks them out of the house.

(Right) Photo: Andrew Parsons

That last one is a story you might hear from Fortier if she suggests you try a riesling by Bianka Schmitt and her husband, Daniel. The German producer, while stuck outdoors, started painting with pastels. Now, that artwork is the bottle’s label. “They are ordinary souls, that don’t carry some of the pretension that wine unfortunately carries with itself,” Fortier says, adding that when opening her own places—haley.henry and Nathálie—eliminating that intimidation factor was crucial. That’s why she introduced the half-bottle concept: Guests can try anything on the bottle list if they commit to buying two glasses, which means, “At any given time, it’s not just six wines by the glass on our menu, it’s probably 15.” An eight-year alum of the Barbara Lynch Collective, she also meets with her staff to review every offering on the menu. And that’s why crisp, zippy pours fall under the cheekily named Tighty Whitey Bulger section, hoping to elicit a chuckle and perhaps prompt you to ask what it means. Or why she describes the 2015 vintage of Domaine Bernard Bonin Bourgogne blanc as a chardonnay “that smells like you’ve been sitting at NASCAR all day long,” but showing a completely different side when it hits your lips. The effort to make customers feel comfortable is not for naught. Fortier recalls an 80-year-old woman who walked in one day. Within 10 minutes, she was bobbing her head to 2 Chainz and throwing back anchovies. “It’s like the whole nine yards, and I’m just like, ‘Yes, this is it. We’ve made it.’ Because if I’m looking at her—who I think is from a completely different generation than me—and she’s enjoying herself here, we are good to go. Let’s just ride this wave.”

This wave shows no signs of slowing down. With grape varietals being discovered left and right, and as we tote cans (!) of the stuff to the beach, it’s an exciting time to be a wine drinker. It’s an especially exciting time to be a wine drinker in Boston. Younger people are getting into the business—and so are more women—and their access to distributors has steadily grown. “If you’re a small restaurant trying to write a wine program in 2011, you probably have a similar wine list to the person a couple blocks over,” says Friel, who was working at Oleana at that time. More friendly retail experiences will be coming to a neighborhood near you, with Social Wines branching out near MIT in the next several weeks and eyeing a fall opening in the Seaport. Wine’s seeping into fast-casual places such as Saloniki and taking up valuable draft real estate. Nelson hopes there’ll be at least three wines on tap at the next place chef Will Gilson opens.

Haley Fortier of haley.henry. Photo: Andrew Parsons

While No. 9 Park picked up Boston’s first James Beard award for wine in 2012, this February the Butcher Shop was named a semifinalist in the same category. As was haley.henry, proving you can take yourself not so seriously and still be up for serious awards. Grill 23 has serious awards, too. In 2017, it received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, given to fewer than 100 restaurants worldwide. From the outside, the Back Bay steakhouse and Fortier’s Nathálie might not seem anything alike. But they’re talking about a pop-up together, hoping that the Grill 23 team will pour a menu inspired by its classics at the Fenway bar.

What is the same throughout these places: They just want you to have a good time. “You shouldn’t have to work to enjoy a glass of wine,” Callahan says. “When you sit down here, you get a wine list that’s 100 pages. People are like, ‘I can’t even.’ That’s our job. We’re going to get this down to three wines for you—but I’m going to need some information first.”

And Callahan, who has a title that fewer people hold than Americans who have gone to space, reminds: “It’s just grape juice.”

On the March 13 issue cover: Lauren Friel, photographed for the Improper by Andrew Parsons at Rebel Rebel in Somerville; Hair and makeup Artist: Erica Gomes / Ennis Inc.

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