I asked the owner of Bin Wine Bar to tell me one thing she hates about wine. She didn't think twice before replying:
Maybe that was a silly question for a wine lover, but Rebecca Illingworth's answer illuminates everything the first-time bar owner is trying to do in St. Paul's Lowertown.
Whether most of us (myself included) would like to admit it or not, wine is intimidating. Illingworth's wine bar oozes an air of accessibility. That doesn't mean she's pouring Two Buck Chuck. But as a consumer, it also doesn't mean you're going to be overwhelmed by a phone-book sized wine list or feel stupid because you don't know the difference between a chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc (but c'mon, that's an easy one).
Illingworth sure has picked the right spot for Bin. It's the latest addition to Lowertown, which has become a fertile pocket for new restaurants and bars. Bin sits a couple doors down from Barrio and the Bulldog (apparently, all bars on this block must begin with the letter "B"). There are rumors that Bill Murray (who co-owns the St. Paul Saints) is interested in opening one of his Caddyshack restaurants in the area. I guess we'll have to stop calling downtown St. Paul by its other name: Boringtown, USA.
Since opening on Feb. 13, Bin has attracted a loyal base of condo dwellers and office workers. Illingworth lives a block from the bar. She grew up in Mexico City, eventually landing in Minnesota, where her mom worked in the restaurant industry until retirement. This is Illingworth's first foray into the hospitality business, having spent most of her career in the advertising business. She still works as a consultant and has a home in Chicago.
Located in the century-old Park Square Building, Bin has taken advantage of the historic atmosphere. The thin space is intimate, but it benefits from huge arched windows. They reach from the floor to the top of the high ceilings. Illingworth has furnished the bar with re-used tables and chairs. The bar itself (seats about eight) came from a coffee shop in Wisconsin.
As for the wine, Bin offers 25 by the glass ($5-$9), 20 of which are available in 1- or 2-ounce tastes ($1-$2). On any given night, you'll find most customers with small wooden crates on their table. These are the wine flights, which you create yourself by mixing and matching the 20 different tastes. It's extremely affordable and fun. (For connoisseurs, the reserve list contains more than 25 bottles, priced between $50 and $190.)
"I want people to explore and train their palate," Illingworth said.
Paper-clipped to the flight bins are info cards dedicated to each wine, listing its region and flavor profile. So if you're having a hard time describing the tannins in the Root: 1 Carmenere (from Chile), its card will tell you that they are "nice" and "round." "I want people to take those cards home and write notes on the back," she said.
Illingworth thinks of wine as a "social learning experience," and enjoys guiding customers through the menu. Bin serves food, too, but you can tell that the focus is on the wine. The food menu is a gathering of salads, sandwiches and flatbreads. The bar has a full liquor license, so you can also order cocktails and beer.
Within the next month Illingworth wants to start a wine club, which will have its own dedicated space in the bar's lower level. She's already outfitted the room with her own vintage furniture and glass tables. Members will pay a monthly fee that gets them access to the private room and discounts on wine, plus tasting parties with vintners.
Illingworth hopes the club will offer something for both novice wine drinkers and aficionados -- without the pretension.
"Everyone started somewhere," she said. "Nobody was born a wine snob. And I have no intention of making this a wine snob place."
Follow Tom Horgen at www.twitter.com/tomhorgen.
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