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City Scene Travel

Affordable Wines, Accessible Pros: Why You Need to Visit Philly Right Now

The former craft beer town is embracing quality, good-for-everyone wine

Alisha Miranda By January 14, 2022
diners eating al fresco at Bloomsday Cafe in Philly
Bloomsday Cafe, a popular restaurant and wine bar, in Philadelphia's Headhouse Square. Photo courtesy of Casey Robinson.

Strolling through Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square often feels like you’ve been dropped into a European town. Trees shadow fountains adorned by bronze sculptures, friends claim grassy picnic spots, dogs play alongside their owners, and in any given direction from the Center City park there awaits a glass of good wine — just as renowned French architect and park designer, Paul Philippe Cret, intended.

At the eastern edge of 18th and Locust streets sits Parc, a grand Parisian-style bistro where family and friends linger over glasses of classic French wines. The Love, a recent New American restaurant on the block, prides itself on local drinking, seasonal eating — prompting conversation with guests over food ingredients and regional winemakers. Tria, a casual wine bar and cafe, has been a mainstay since the mid-2000s and continues to surprise guests with zippy whites, sociable reds, and stimulating bubbles. 

Nearby, business travelers mingle with multicultural creatives, locals, and first dates thanks to the plethora of adjacent hotels and Airbnb’s. Head bartender and Madrid-born Damián Langarica at a.bar on the northeast corner of 18th Street is always eager to show off his latest favorite bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau and Piquette while musing over cocktail preparations. And you don’t need a passport to tour Greece, Austria, and Lebanon via wine at Friday Saturday Sunday over on 21st Street. West on Walnut Street, Slovenian orange wine opts for an excellent pairing to decadent plates by the award-winning kitchen at Vernick.

The best part? No dress code or expertise needed. Philadelphians may be gritty, but they appreciate quality and hospitality, pass on exclusivity, and maintain a provincial state of mind. They would rather trade in a suit and tie for a sports jersey or jeans and comfy shirt. Informality is revered. 

But this is just one sliver of drinking wine in Philadelphia. This city is full of enthusiastic wine lovers across generations — and neighborhoods — ready to find the next great bottle.

Navigating Prohibition-era rules 

Drinking around town wasn’t always this fun — or easy. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has maintained tight regulations on wine, beer, and spirits since the end of Prohibition in 1933, making for a complicated system. While Pennsylvania is not the only alcoholic beverage control state, it is one of the most extreme.

Wine can be bought at state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores, bottle shops, grocery stores, and wineries. Some restaurateurs opt-out altogether with “bring your own bottle,” or BYOB policies, adapted most by Italian American spots, keeping prices low for both diners and operators.

During the pandemic, retailers could use wine expanded permits, which allowed the sale of wine to go, to keep earning money, even while their bars and restaurants were empty. But the PLCB-inflicted limitations continued: limited inventory, no wholesale discounts, no direct purchases from wineries allowed, pick up of wines required at state warehouses, and additional fees for product and handling tacked on.

Worst of all, consumers could only buy four bottles at a time.

“[It’s] a control state monopoly on the retail side of the business,” says Zachary Morris, co-plaintiff in a direct delivery lawsuit against the PLCB. 

In March 2021, retailers had a small victory: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the PLCB has been “violating a 2016 law by prohibiting wine dealers from shipping wines directly to retailers and restaurants that sell wine for take out.” There’s potential for a class-action suit next. 

Despite these challenges, Pennsylvanians aren’t slowing down their glou-glou intake. Last year, locals drank nearly a billion dollars in wine, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Champagne being the top bottle seller, and rosé the rising star. 

“Philadelphians are more confident in their wine knowledge than they get credit for.”

The rise of neighborhood wine clubs 

“The bottle shop is a gateway drug to our wine program,” says Morris, whose popular Headhouse Square cafe and shop, Bloomsday Café, opened in the summer of 2019. Bloomsday is one of several neighborhood restaurants operating as dine-in service, retail space, and wine club. Morris, a former Wine School of Philadelphia teacher, is part of a growing movement to keep socialization and wine approachable and casual.

bottle shop selections at Bloomsday Cafe

Bloomsday’s ‘Fancy Wine Club’ and bottle shop rotates up to 300 bottles curated by staff. Photo by Casey Robinson.

Over at Jet Wine Bar on South Street, owner Jill Weber connects a range of Ancient World wines inspired from her archeology career to 80+ monthly wine members — which began during the pandemic. People gravitate to wines from the Republic of Georgia, which Weber has led panels on, while orange wines and rosé are in demand. During warm-weather months, their outdoor wine garden opens up to tastings and pairing events from biodynamic and international producers. 

Italian Market specialty grocery store and recent bottle shop, Di Bruno Bros., has amassed a cult-like following with its annual DB and Friends Wine Series helmed by beverage buyer, Sande Friedman. 

“Philadelphians are more confident in their wine knowledge than they get credit for,” says Friedman, who’s seen limited releases like their Pinot Gris collaboration with Willamette Valley’s Maloof Wines sell faster than expected. Regulars stop in for the classics — Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano — but also seek wines they’ve tasted at restaurants, ask for wine swap recommendations, and are more comfortable sharing feedback with staff. 

From craft beer to wine school 

While craft beer was all the rage a decade ago, there came a tipping point for wine in recent pre-pandemic years. Bars like South Philly’s Fountain Porter first opened in 2012 focused on quality craft beer with decent wine as an afterthought. But nowadays, it’s beloved by industry folk and neighborhood regulars for pouring natural wines that represent “an honest expression of what we’re into,” says owner Evan Clancy. South Africa’s Mother Rock is one of the eye-opening wines that seem to convert beer lovers to repeat wine drinkers. 

Philly wine fandom is evident at low-key wine school gatherings in Queen Village like #Winewark Mondays, hosted by sommelier and consultant, Jamie Harrison Rubin at Southwark, and Night Class Tuesdays at Le Caveau. Here, there’s room for everyone to explore wines. Older vintages, food-friendly Cabernet Franc, skin contact wines, and natural wine — a broad, often misunderstood category — are getting serious love.

“It’s cool that people are into something adventurous,” remarks Chloe Grigri, owner of Le Caveau and sister restaurant, The Good King Tavern. Since opening Good King back in 2013, she’s seen Philly wine culture grow tremendously, especially as more people become knowledgeable about minimal intervention and eco-conscious winemaking practices. Removing pretentiousness is key. 

While Philly is America’s sixth biggest city, it still feels like a small town stepbrother sandwiched between New York and Washington D.C. But being constantly overlooked isn’t holding it back.

“Philly’s always been a different kind of cool,” claims Morris. Looking ahead, The City of Brotherly Love is on its way to being the best version of itself. 

3 places worth visiting:

For group hangs: Mural City Cellars

Philly’s first urban winery in Kensington is setting the tone for complex, high-quality, low impact winemaking in the region. Opened in January 2021, Mural City Cellars produces “fun and playful wines to drink on the stoop with friends,” says owner and winemaker, Nicholas Ducos. Ducos and his partner are keen on creating modern, unexpected iterations, like Vermut Phinato — a spice-forward fortified wine reminiscent of vermouth and amaro that’s a perfect aperitif or Negroni complement. Community Supported Winery releases cover the classics — red, white, and rosé — with grapes sourced from a 300-mile radius, mostly the Finger Lakes, Long Island, New Jersey, and Northern Virginia. Come visit during warm-weather weekends when the garage is open and the wine is flowing. 

For date night: Le Caveau

interior of Le Caveau wine bar

Le Caveau opened shortly before the pandemic but continues to welcome Francophiles. Photo courtesy of Neal Santos.

If you want to live out your best Parisian bar à vins dreams, then head to Le Caveau. Snug on the corner of 7th and Kater Street just below South Street, is a low-lit speakeasy decked out with vintage French pop culture memorabilia. French disco spins all night, as do the hot dogs cooking in a traditional European steamer behind the bar, and tabletop shuffleboard awaits its next player in the back corner. Le Cav is the place to cozy up next to a lover or dear friend and represents the “come as you are Philly” ethos, while not diminishing the warm hospitality and sophistication. Do let the team guide your tasting experience.

For family dinner: Sally 

The natural wine and small plates trend has arrived in Philadelphia and no spot is better to indulge than Sally in Fitler Square. Adults and kids love it here — it’s a popular spot among families in the neighborhood for good reason: the small plates are simple, fresh, and beautiful. The pizza is thin, crunchy, and crave-worthy. The bottle list is full, funky, and affordable. Start with the house ricotta, kale Caesar, or grilled carrots, then move on to the sausage and onion pie or red pie with burrata — an off-menu item, and end with a Basque cheesecake. On your way out, stop in the bottle shop for a staff-recommended nightcap.