Nearing three years in Park Circle, Stems and Skins sets the tone for neighborhood wine bars

Tasting notes

For our hot-off-the-press annual bar guide, SWIG, writer Connelly Hardaway sat down with three peninsular wine bars to learn more about the city’s burgeoning wine bar scene. The main takeaway? In a world where vintage vino can feel intimidating and sommeliers can occasionally appear snobbish, solid wine bars are all about the approach, and the approachability.

You may not find a more approachable spot than Stems and Skins in Park Circle, which proudly includes the phrase (or perhaps lifelong mantra) “Fresh and Freaky Ferments” in their branding.

Since opening in January 2016, Stems and Skins has been featured in Bon Appetit, Coastal Living, Wine & Spirits, Wall Street Journal, and, most recently, made Food & Wine’s list of the “15 most important natural wine bars in America.” They’ve got ink cred, organic wine crushed by foot, tinned seafood galore, and now, an in-house chef whipping up everything from mushroom conserva to buttery brats. If you haven’t been yet, it’s time to plan your visit.  When you arrive, glib and moustachioed co-owner Matt Tunstall greets you at the bar, espousing wine wisdom as easily and casually as one might comment on the fine weather. According to Tunstall, the best way to enjoy the fruits of the bar’s labors is to first, bring a friend, then order a round of cocktails followed by a bottle of wine and four small plates. This week, S&S invited us in for a few tastes and a few sips.

If you are unsure about which bottle to choose, the menu itself is annotated with sagacious gems:

“With its home in Southern Burgundy, Gamay is the spawn of Pinot Noir. Light bright and flat out thirst quenching. Totally ‘guzzleable!'”

“BE AWARE: Riesling is good for you! Why does everyone get hung up on sugar levels with Riesling? Don’t be too concerned about residual sugar, it is all about balance and refreshment!” **

“Chardonnay is the tofu of the wine world. It eagerly accepts the flavors of the world around it to be absolutely delicious.”

“Chenin Blanc gets me out of bed everyday! It shows itself brilliantly in all styles, dry and sweet, still and sparkling.”

“Champagne…the one beverage that makes life worth living.”
When we visit, Tunstall does the work for us. It’s 5 p.m. after a long Tuesday, so we naturally start with a happy hour beverage. Mind you, this is not the watered down and hyped up happy hour we red-blooded, tight-fisted Americans are used to. This is aperitivo, the “most magical hour (or two) of the day in Italy.”

Stems and Skins’ aperitivo has reasonably priced options ranging from glasses of Prosecco to negronis to cider to what we land on, vermouth. Not a natural vermouth sipper (and frankly quite intimated by the fortified wine), I clutch the rocks glass topped with an anchovy stuffed olive like a lifeline. This is happy hour.

Newly appointed chef Greg Marks brings us a salad comprised of Rooting Down Farms lettuces, which we pair with a six year old white. The second course is a warm eggplant and mushroom conserva dish drizzled with tahini, paired with the 2016 Roussette de Savoie Cuvée Clémence that is at once both nutty and warm, oaky and slightly sweet. “It reminds me of the woman in the Sound of Music running through the Alps,” explains Tunstall. A drop of golden sun, indeed.

The third course is warm okra and tomatoes with an inexplicably delicious sauce, paired with our favorite wine of the evening (and of recent memory), the Feints 2017 Cuvée Zero made by Ruth Lewandowski vineyards in Utah. Yes, Utah. “They ship the grapes in from California, but yeah, they live in Utah,” Tunstall clarifies. The wine is 38 percent Arneis, 32 percent Dolcetto, and equal parts Barbera and Nebbiolo. It’s funky and light and almost sour, with a rich iridescent auburn hue. We’ll be back for the bottle.

The final dish was a meal in and of itself, a plate of sauerkraut and Wisconsin bratwurst with a smear of spicy dijon and a thick, buttery piece of rye bread. Paired with a crisp (and not too sweet! See above annotation**) Reisling, the combo may very well drop you in Munich for a minute.

Stems and Skins is open daily starting at 4 p.m. Stop by Thurs. Nov. 1 for the bar’s Vinyl & Vino series, this time featuring Fred Niger of Domaine de L’Ecu in the Loire Valley. Niger plays his favorite vinyls behind the bar while you sip on a selection of his natural wines.

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