It’s as American as the fedora and the double-play ball, and once as common as either in cities and towns from Boston to Seattle. The speakeasy, in existence well before the era of Prohibition, operated under the radar if not actually underground. It was a place where laws governing the sale and use of alcohol could be stretched, skirted, or frankly ignored.
Eighty years later, alcohol may be widely available but it’s still tightly regulated by states. In Massachusetts, the retailer or restaurateur with a new idea for connecting with customers quickly learns there’s precious little latitude for innovation. So, when Kerri Platt, 35, the co-owner of The Wine Bottega, a North End wine shop with a hipster vibe and clientele to match, decided to host a pop-up wine bar, she knew that before she figured out how to make it fun, she needed to determine how to make it legal. She had no intention of taking it underground.
Pop-ups are retail shops, restaurants, galleries, and other establishments that set up temporary quarters, sometimes for a night, in locations that don’t seem obvious. Platt’s idea to do a pop-up wine bar is a first hereabouts, or nearly so. That it came off recently more or less as planned, in the diminutive dining room of Panza, a restaurant across Hanover Street from The Bottega, says a lot about the wine retailer’s determination to hew to the letter of the law. The event, which was more gossiped about than publicized, has to be considered a success since it managed to be both scrupulously legit and - if only by virtue of its novelty - quietly subversive.
“I’m thrilled with the turnout,’’ Platt trills over the din as her pop-up pops around her. Groups of 30-ish customers, many who frequent The Bottega, huddle here and there to taste and discuss the natural, small-production wines being poured by Bottega co-owner Matt Mollo, 28, and staffer Ryan Millian, 22. Wines on offer include a lightly sparkling white wine from Italy’s Piedmont region made from the favorita grape, and a Sicilian red from Ariana Occhipinti, current darling of natural wine enthusiasts. “The idea isn’t really to make money with the event,’’ Platt says, “but to get people drinking wine and mingling.’’
A modest $30 entitles the 50 or so guests to three glasses of wine and a right-of-way to the generous buffet set out by Panza chef and owner Richie Talieri, 39. Poppers graze on Sicilian squash caponata, faro salad with smoked tomato and rock shrimp, and an assortment of imported meats and cheeses. Tickets were sold at the wine shop, and at the door on the night of the event.
All the swirling and sniffing catches a number of Panza regulars by surprise, some opting spontaneously to join the pop-up in lieu of ordering from the restaurant’s wine list. Among the defectors are Kara Paluch and Stacia Kroetz, both 27, who consider themselves foodies, have never been to a pop-up event, but know the concept. “The wine is delicious,’’ Paluch says, adding, “although I can’t pronounce any of it.’’ Hassan Babajane, on hand with his wife, Jaenna, on her 30th birthday, pipes up, “It’s like an awesome food truck, but with wine.’’
Talieri believes the event will give his place a boost. “There are people here I haven’t seen before,’’ says the restaurateur, who is also an owner of Anchovies in the South End and a chef at two Giacomo restaurant locations. “It will introduce us to some of the Bottega’s clientele.’’
One reason Platt couldn’t make this happen entirely on her own is that while retailers are allowed to provide tastes of wine to customers, samples are limited to 1-ounce pours and must be provided free of charge. The rules, as interpreted by local cities and towns under the supervision of the Commonwealth’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, draw a line between retail outlets and restaurants and maintain a rigorous separation of their functions.
The obvious solution to getting a wine bar pop-up organized is for a restaurant and a wine shop to work together, but even that is not straightforward. Since a retailer (holding an “off-premise’’ license) cannot provide wine directly to a restaurant (an “on-premise’’ establishment), one or more distributors have to become involved. Though Mollo and Millian could easily just carry the bottles across Hanover Street, the law does not allow it.
To be doubly sure she was not violating any of the rules, Platt decided that The Wine Bottega would receive no proceeds from the event. “The laws,’’ she says, “are just too tricky to navigate, and we would really like to be able to do this again.’’