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    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar

    “Mondays, man,” sommelier Aaron Dawkins says as he pours a hefty amount of red wine into a couple of fat glasses. He hands them to a couple at Nouvelle Bar & Bottle, the wine bar he co-owns on South Clay Street in NuLu. It is a Monday, a little after 5 p.m., and the newly opened Nouvelle is beginning to fill up. Wine is clearly the star at this cozy hangout, where racks of bottles stand out among the soft white walls, black bistro-style chairs and gilded accents.

    “We definitely wanted to get a little bit of an Old World feel,” says Lauren Justice, who with her husband Scott are partners with Dawkins. “We drew our inspirations from Parisian cafes, bigger-city wine bars” — places where wine has traditionally been more ingrained in the culture than in Louisville, or much of the U.S. for that matter. But that’s changing. In addition to Nouvelle, Cuvée Wine Table opened in 2017 in Springhurst. That’s following places like the East End’s Brix Wine Bar as well as LouVino’s 2014 Highlands debut and rapid expansion, now approaching five locations, in Louisville, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

    Photo: NuLu newcomer Nouvelle Bar & Bottle goes for an "Old World feel."

    Cuvée owner and master sommelier Scott Harper says he and his partners at the Bristol (Cuvée is a sister location) had been thinking of the concept for several years. “To take advantage of my wineness — god, I’ve never said that before,” Harper says. He says the fact that wine bars are becoming more prevalent is no different than craft breweries. “We had a couple of craft breweries and all of a sudden you can’t drive down the street without running into one,” he says. He also works with a distributor and says that within the last 10 years he has noticed restaurants and wine shops having better wine selections and that there’s now more people interested in wine.

    The wine industry has traditionally been held back by: a wine-snob stigma; the cost for consumers to actually find a better-than-decent bottle; and the limitations of the fine-dining atmosphere that generally serves good wine but for many wine drinkers isn’t a regular or affordable setting. Each of the owners I meet use some variation of the word “accessible” when describing their establishments.

    Nouvelle serves 43 wines in three-, six- and nine-ounce pours, as well as by the bottle. (Many of the six-ounce pours cost about $8.) The wide range of by-the-glass offerings is part of what separates a wine bar from a restaurant with a good wine selection. “When I go to most places and I’m ordering a $7 to $8 glass of wine, I know that what gets delivered is going to be questionable,” Scott Justice says, adding that by-the-glass wine can go bad pretty quickly at a restaurant. Nouvelle has six temperature-controlled zones and, being so wine-focused, goes through the bottles quickly. LouVino, which serves more than 70 wines by the glass, uses WineStation machines, which displace oxygen with argon in open bottles, preserving the wine for weeks at a time. Cuvée, which serves 55 by the glass, uses what looks like an ear-piercing tool — a hypodermic-needle-like contraption called a Coravin that goes through the cork to serve wine and suck out oxygen, as though the bottle hasn’t even been opened. All of this allows drinkers to try wines without putting down on an expensive bottle they may not even like, bringing more people — people on budgets, younger people — to wine. Or good wine, at least.

    Photo: LouVino "Ali" wine flight.

    How a menu is worded is another part of accessibility. “When you say something has notes of white pepper and cedar and leather, well, those are not necessarily things that people really think they want to be tasting,” says Danielle Greeson-Bramblett, the general manager and wine coordinator at the Highlands LouVino, where flights are named after famous Kentuckians. (Jennifer Lawrence: “Well rounded, bubbly and beautiful.” Muhammad Ali: “Big, strong and packs a punch.”) 

    “I find it funny that people are intimidated by wine but they don’t think twice about drinking a beer that they know nothing about,” Scott Justice says. “They’re like, ‘It’s a beer. How bad can it be?’” 

    Before opening Nouvelle, Dawkins spent a good two months tasting some 600 wines to curate the bar’s selection down to about 200, including retail. He says they spent more time on the $7- to $10-a-glass wines than anything else, really striving to make the bar a place people can frequent. “Aaron had to do a lot of smiling and nodding during some tastings to find stuff like the Protocolo Tempranillo, which is $7 a glass,” Scott says.

    Photo: Nouvelle's retail section.

    “There was a lot of spitting,” Lauren adds. “Don’t write that. That’s gross, but it’s true.”

    “When you get to the lower-price-point wines, you really have to sift through a lot of stuff to find those shiners,” Scott says.

    While Cuvée and LouVino have chef-driven kitchens and small-plates menus, Nouvelle pares it down, with charcuterie and cheese plates, as well as a few desserts. They plan to host a regular brunch with food trucks or rotating chefs. “Traditionally in the U.S., wine is seen as something to complement food,” Lauren says, “which I certainly won’t challenge — it’s a wonderful beverage to have with a meal, but it can also be a lot more. You can drink an awesome, refreshing, low-ABV wine at a barbecue or slowly drink something that’s richer and smoother, just like you would a bourbon.”

    I’ll admit: Even though I drink wine from time to time, I went into this story thinking I’d learn to taste, in Dawkins’ words, “notes of cassis and plum and black currant.” But after blankly staring at Nouvelle’s menu for probably five minutes, trying to — you know, for the sake of the story — really branch out, Dawkins tells me I’m making it too hard on myself. “They’re all good. That’s the best part,” he says.

    “We want people to know that wine is for everyone,” Lauren says. “It doesn’t have to come with an education or understanding or background. You don’t even have to know why you like it. We just want to help you figure out what you like. And if you’re interested in learning, we can offer that too because we love to geek out about wine.”

    Photo: LouVino serves more than 70 wines by the glass.

    For those interested in really delving in, wine classes and pairings are now common at restaurants and bars. Cuvée and LouVino both host regular classes on rotating topics, and Nouvelle plans to bring in winemakers and do educational events as well. “I can tell you this: My staff definitely does not order what they used to order when they first started working here,” Greeson-Bramblett says. “Their palates have been elevated and they get more engaged in helping guide people to other things they might enjoy. 

    “Even if they don’t like the wine, that’s OK, but the goal is to get them to try something new.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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