Fran Droney had never heard of a “self-pour wine bar” before Uva Wine Bar opened in her hometown of Plymouth last month.
She’s hardly the only one unfamiliar with the concept, which allows customers to serve themselves wine in pre-set amounts using special machines that preserve bottles for extended periods of time. Although self-serve bars and the technology they rely on have both existed for years, Uva appears to be the first one in Massachusetts, if not New England (though there are some hotel bars and restaurants in the area that use the same self-pour technology).
Droney, 60, said she quickly adapted to the idea of ordering wine without a human server involved — she’s already been to Uva more than a half dozen times. The appeal, she said, is obvious: “You can just get up and get your wine when you want it.”
Co-founder Michelle Manware said that level of involvement for customers is one of the strengths of the self-pour system.
“The customer has the ability to interact with the staff or not interact with the staff as they see fit or as they desire,” she said.
At Uva, located in Plymouth’s increasingly lively downtown, a customer can get 1.5 ounces, 3 ounces, or 6 ounces of wine by swiping a card in one of the machines the bar uses, with an automatic cap of 18 ounces per hour. The wine comes from bottles inside the machine and that have to be manually replaced.
Beyond the 48 wines in the dispensing machines, the 56-seat bar, which features a modern design aesthetic, also offers a small selection of craft beer, along with desserts and customizable platters (such as cheese selections).
Co-founder Katy Gaenicke said Uva provides a more experiential take on wine than what happens in a traditional restaurant or bar setting.
“It’s someplace where you can go and engage in an activity,” Gaenicke said. “It’s not just sitting at a bar and drinking.”
But some people wonder whether self-pour detracts from the wine-drinking experience.
“There’s something to be said about actually, physically touching a wine bottle, looking at the label, pouring it for the guest, and seeing that reaction,” said Michael Meagher, a master sommelier and principal of the wine consulting firm Sommelier On-Demand.
“It does lose some of that connection, that personal connection, that local connection, that neighborhood connection that I think wine bars are built around,” he said.
But Brooke Boomer, co-owner of self-pour bar The Ruby Tap in Milwaukee, WI., said she doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“I pick all the wine, I pick them for a reason... so I like when people ask questions,” Boomer said. Another advantage, she said, is that self-pour can make ordering wine less intimidating for people.
But there are still challenges to implementing self-pour beyond the possible customer service snags, including the costs.
“The machines are really expensive,” Boomer said. “It’s a really heavy upfront investment, especially if you don’t know if it’s going to work or not.” And nationally, the market is limited by law — self-pour is not legal in some states, Boomer noted.
The WineStation machines Uva uses are manufactured by Napa Technology. Nick Moezidis, its CEO, said machines go for $1,300 to $1,800 per nozzle — or $62,400 and $86,400 for 12 machines with four bottles each, like those at Uva.
And although Gaenicke and Meagher both said the wine business is doing well in Massachusetts, consumption in restaurants actually declined by two percent between May 2018 and May 2019, according to analyst firm NPD Group. (NPD doesn’t track trends for bars or clubs.)
Even so, Darren Seifer, an analyst with NPD who follows the food and beverage industries, said it’s possible the approach being taken by Uva could gain widespread popularity.
“Wine is nothing new. We’ve been drinking wine for centuries. It’s more about how do we make it more accessible and available to consumers who are looking for variety,” he said.
Droney, the Uva regular, agrees.
“It’s a new concept for Plymouth that I think is really going to catch on,” she said.