Taste-Testing All the Wines at Starbucks’ New, Boozy Evenings Program
At 5pm in the North Seventh Street Starbucks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, people at wooden tables sip lattes and focus on their laptop screens. Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” plays on the sound system, and I face 10 glasses of wine.
The giant coffee company rolled out its new “Starbucks Evenings” program of serving wine, craft beer, and small plates last month in 70 US locations. I stopped by the first spot to open in New York to put their selections to a taste test.
First take: The Williamsburg location is, thankfully, a Starbucks where you can actually imagine sipping a glass of wine. It’s more New York hipster loft than the typical soulless venue that offers you a morning jolt of caffeine. Think exposed brick walls, mural by a tattoo artist, mod shelving with coffee trees growing in pots, and large tables made from slabs of recycled wood. In one corner comfy chairs invite you to settle in, glass in hand.
Starbucks first experimented with the “Evenings” idea in Seattle several years ago and plans to expand it to 2,000 U.S. locations by 2020, hoping to add a billion in revenues.
Second take: When I arrive, none of the 40-odd customers is drinking wine, though alcohol and food are served from 4 p.m. to closing. A chalkboard behind the bar announces the day’s featured wine and food pairing—Malbec with truffle mac and cheese (which, I discover, is a terrible combo).
The jazzy foldout menu offers tasting notes for each wine, mostly accurate: "aromatic and crisp with melon and passion fruit notes" for a Villa Maria white; "dark fruit and brown spice with hints of clove and pepper" for that Alamos Malbec (although quite optimistic, rather than completely accurate in this instance). Unlike any other wine bar that I’ve been to there's also calorie counts for each—140 to 150 calories—as per NYC law for chain restaurants.
I order five plates, two beers, and all 10 wines—one sparkling, four white, five red. (A group of coffee-drinking mothers with kids stare and mutter.) The manager, Brandon Giles, who’s wearing a porkpie straw hat and long black apron, brings them on dark wooden trays in stem-less Riedel glasses that are etched with new age-y mantras like “breathe out, drink in.”
Third take: If you’re a vino novice, you’ll be fine. Almost all the wines are inoffensive, easy-drinking choices, although I wrote “ugh, avoid,” in my note on the 2013 Apothic, a red blend from California that tasted like a sweet cherry coke. At $8, it was the cheapest wine on the list.
Starbucks brags that a five-person team in Seattle led by an in-house sommelier made their way through 500 wines to come up with these 10 widely available brand-name picks. They give the nod to all the most popular wine categories of the past few years, except for rosé. (Locations in places like Oregon and Washington include at least one local brand; a New York State wine may make it to the Brooklyn location at some point, as well.)
By-the-glass prices seem reasonable by New York standards—$8 to $15—but FYI, bottles of most of these wines cost the same price at retail as one glass does here. Starbucks will also sell full bottles if people want to order them; five have been sold in the past month.
The biggest impact of Evenings may be in locations outside big cities where there's nowhere else to sip and talk. Maybe, just maybe, they'll woo a whole new group of people to wine. Tasting Notes
One of the best bets is fruity, foamy Mionetto prosecco($9).It’s simple, but good with the truffle popcorn ($2.45). Part of its appeal is super freshness. Giles says they open a new quarter-bottle (187 ml) for each customer.
Other wines might have been opened for as long as 3 days, he admits. They’re preserved with a Vacuvin, which, in my experience, only keeps wine fresh for a day and a half.
Crisp, bright 2014 Santa Cristina pinot grigio($10) is pleasant, with citrusy hints that perk up truffle mac and cheese ($5.95) as well as the standard, but hardly exciting cheese plate ($6.95)—basic cheddar, herbed goat cheese, manchego, dried apricots, and a fig spread that could use some work.
More distinctive is 2014 Villa Maria sauvignon blanc($9), which shows the grapefruit-y, grassy style of New Zealand that people either love or hate. It’s a solid value, though it didn’t go with any of the five dishes I tried.
Smoky 2013 Ferrari-Carano chardonnay($12) is not a big buttery California bottling, but you can taste that whack of oak. Don’t expect refinement, but it’s good with truffle mac and cheese.
Light, fruity-sweetRosatello Moscato ($9)is also quite simple. I peg this as a sipping white that might be popular for the book club get-togethers and Bible study groups that Starbucks claims are attracted to “Evenings,” though maybe not in Williamsburg.
For reds, a 2013 Carmel Road pinot noir($12) from Monterey has a little bit of brightness, hints of cranberry and a silky texture, but not much more.
The so-so 2014 Alamos Malbec from Argentina ($9) is what you’d expect: smooth, plummy, and a bit dull. But, and this is a big but, it’s a hit with the salty-sweet flavors of bacon- wrapped dates.
Dark, juicy 2012 Justin Justification, a Paso Robles cabernet franc and merlotblend ($15), sells for $45 a bottle at retail. Spicy, deeply fruity and tannic, it’s the best (and most expensive) red on the list, excellent with the cacciatore salami on the salumi plate ($5.45).
Of course, there has to be a cabernet sauvignon. The 2013 The Show($10) is big and bold, with tobacco-y flavors and plenty of oak, but not nearly as good as the Justin.
The first-rate beers are local. The two I tasted, Brooklyn Brewery’s justifiably famous lager ($6) and its spicy Greenmarket wheat beer ($7), were good with everything, especially the cheese plate.
If you want exciting, unusual, well-priced wines by the glass in a casual setting, go to The Camlin nearby, where you can slurp oysters for $1 each and wash them down with wines far better than those at Starbucks. But people come to Starbucks for comfort, not excitement. It's a spot where you can meet up for coffee and discover it’s late enough to have a drink.
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland