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No snobbery here, wine is the hero

A small, new wine bar with big ambitions opens in Bengaluru. The menu is simple but it plays second fiddle to the drinks

(From left) Tarini Kumar, Karan Upmanyu, Akhila Srinivas and Arijit Bose.(Photo courtesy Prarthana Shetty)

By Ruma Singh

LAST PUBLISHED 23.02.2024  |  03:23 PM IST

Wine in Progress. That’s not just the name of Bengaluru’s newest, littlest wine bar but its raison d’être. The new 12-seater bar boasts of a small, frequently changing wine list and champions the cause of the “wine curious", people who are not necessarily wine savvy but have a keen interest in exploring wine.

For the uninitiated or the timid, wine appears to come with baggage often regarded as intimidatory—complicated technical jargon, a bewildering array of choices and protocols, and a propensity of catering only to those who know their Sauvignon from the Savagnin. Even in wine-friendly Bengaluru, where there are several restaurants that serve wine or have suitably impressive wine programmes, there is a dearth of places where one can order a fuss-free glass of wine without a five-course paired meal attached.

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So, Wine in Progress (WIP)—which opened end-January and is located in the Courtyard, a hive for buzzy culture-based communities, centered around food, art and culture—may be a game changer. The Courtyard has multiple nooks, crannies and floors, including an open-to-sky courtyard, and in one corner has sprung up WIP, all of 250 sq. ft.

“I have always wanted to do something with wine," says Akhila Srinivas, Courtyard’s owner and WIP co-founder. “It has a strong cultural aspect that fits into the Courtyard’s ethos." Srinivas is an architect and urban planner, who has, since 2018, conceptualised various cultural events, including successful culinary pop-ups featuring visiting chefs.

Beverage specialist and co-founder Arijit Bose, who has over 30 bars to his name in five years, has designed the format and the space. His other bars include hits like Goa’s Bar Tesouro, Singapore’s 28 Hong Kong Street and Bengaluru’s new buzzy cocktail bar Spirit Forward. The idea of translating the energy of a cocktail bar into the wine space was an attractive one. “My job was to create a vibe and let it grow—with just a few guard rails for starters," Bose says. “In six months, WIP could be very different."

Heading wine operations is qualified wine professional Tarini Kumar, wine curious since her first ever sip of wine, a glass of New Zealand’s fragrant Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at home with her father in 2016. “I became obsessed: I wanted to understand why the wine tasted the way it did," she says. In May 2023, she founded Wine in a Million (WIAM), organising twice-weekly wine-centric events at the Courtyard. It’s from this community that the idea for WIP grew—after a two-year debate before starting the project. “Really, just a handful of people are familiar with wine; most just want to chat and learn." WIAM is currently a 130 member-strong community, many of whom are WIP regulars.

Bose compares the small space to a “Japanese drinking alley", where the buzz is palpable yet neither conversation nor music so loud that you cannot speak. He describes it as a “low-intrusion model"—just a handful of staff can run things efficiently.

Naturally, everything in the bar is constructed with the idea of practicality first. On my first visit, my eyes were drawn to the back bar—open shelves stacked with books, vinyl records and wine bottles. The ice-well built into the countertop can cool 10 bottles and provide easy access to staff. Bose points out that the 18ft-long bar consists of a single piece of wood, dominating the space but also exuding warmth and calm. The bar stools are built for comfort. The walls, painted black, double as a blackboard for specials and the occasional wine graffiti. The glasses are not high-end, and most are stemless. The frosted glass doors open outwards, allowing larger gatherings to spill on to the open courtyard.

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Occupying pride of place behind the bar is the large wine cooler Bose has dubbed “Sexy Karen", that holds up to 75 wine bottles. At WIP, bottles are stashed upright, against conventional wisdom that dictates bottle storage on the sides to prevent their corks drying out. With a tight inventory of just 150 bottles, this is not an issue and Bose prefers that the bar staff be able to pick bottles easily off shelves. Small is both beautiful and practical, says Akhila. “Today, people see value in craft, and smaller spaces evoke a feeling of trust."

With three visits within a short time span, WIP quickly became familiar to me. The young bartenders are approachable and friendly. Aarushi Warrier, 21, pours me a glass of a biodynamic Grüner Veltliner by Austrian producer Weingut Loimer. A hospitality management graduate, I ask Warrier about her favourite wine. It’s the Killibinbin Sneaky Shiraz, she replies, featuring a cool label and ripe fruit. Another favourite is a wine cocktail, the Lillet Spritzer. Lillet is a French aromatised wine macerated with botanicals, and WIP serves it with a splash of tonic and garnish of orange and rosemary. It makes for a crisp, low-alcohol wine cocktail and has proved a runaway hit.

Another visit is for a bar takeover—a trend owned by the spirits community that lends itself well to wine. Wine consultant Irène Hebrard headlines a sold-out evening themed “Irène and her secret lover", offering a selection of 10 wines including a Loire Gamay and a Rhône Viognier. I end up doing Lillet rosé shots: delicious.

Food, the crowd pleaser

The brain behind the cleverly-conceptualised small-plate menu is chef Karan Upmanyu. A firm believer in tapas culture since his early days in New York and Barcelona, Upmanyu is happy to let his food play second fiddle to the wine and ditch the concept of wine pairing. “Wine should be the hero here," he says. “The accompanying food should not distract from that."

Upmanyu’s menu looks simple but is well thought through. Besides standard wine bar offerings of cheese, charcuterie and dips, are unusual bites such as grilled koji prawns with chilli jam and remoulade, and pork and shrimp wontons with green chilli nam jim. My own favourite, mustard and koji-glazed pork belly with grilled pineapple, salsa and zesty cabbage slaw, is inspired by a Kodava wedding bar snack, he tells me. Kumar’s request to put popcorn on the menu was initially met with raised eyebrows, and eventually morphed into an upscale thyme butter Parmesan popcorn. There is something for everyone, but no recommended pairings offered. “People walking in should not worry about the techniques behind the food on their plate, just about having a good time. Wine needs to have the snobbery removed, be taken out of the fine dining scene," Upmanyu says.

The bar’s inventory covers multiple regions and styles. “We want to champion multiple brands and wine companies. Also, to introduce people to new grapes they might not have tried," says Kumar. “I love when people are open and curious."

The wine list at the time of the launch

*By-the-glass listing of 17 wines: five white, five rosés, five reds, two ports; all 150ml pours, priced without taxes.

*Indian wines are not ignored: KRSMA Sauvignon Blanc and Reveilo Chardonnay make the cut at 500 and Sula’s The Source rosé at 700.

* The Austrian biodynamic Gruner Veltliner by Loimer, a surprise hit, is 950.

*Reds include the crowd-pleasing Killibinbin Sneaky Shiraz and the Jacky Marteau Gamay from France’s Loire at 800.

*Topping the pricing heap are AIX rosé from Provence and Clarendelle rosé from the Haut Brion stable, both at 1,100.

Ruma Singh is a Bengaluru-based wine and travel writer.

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