Ariel Arce popped open the doors to her very own champagne storyline at the end of June. You might say it’s the 29-year-old’s love letter to her favorite wine. “It’s like you’re walking into somebody’s living room,” she says about the intimate, eclectic, and—above all—approachable wine bar she’s created.
There are many reasons Air’s Champagne Parlor in New York City’s bustling and trendy Greenwich Village is not your average bubbles bar. It starts with the way wines are presented.
Instead of by varietal or region—which means nothing to those not familiar with wine—champagnes and other sparkling wines in the list that are sold by the glass are assigned a label by flavor. Lemon Zest, Green Apple, Smoked Strawberries, and Toasted Almond are four of the 10 examples.
“A lot of times, especially with champagne, it gets very technical,” Arce says. “[This approach] takes away the fear of price and the fear of not recognizing the winemaker.” It also appeals to those who are intimidated by not only wine, but also champagne, which is often linked to special occasions and the first wine to turn to when splurging.
Indeed, of all the wine varietals—and there are many—champagne can be the most pretentious, with glasses of these French bubbles running, on a wine list, around $25 a glass and well over $100 for a bottle. “It is, as we all know, perceived as a luxury beverage and typically experienced in a luxury environment,” Arce says.
Given this, how can a wine director or sommelier break through this barrier when customers would rather take a gamble on a glass of, say, Spanish red for under $10?
One way Arce cuts through that is during happy hour, which is dubbed Parlor Hour and is hosted every evening except Monday. Between 5 and 7 p.m., $30 gets an Air’s customer a flight of three sparkling wines or champagne, plus snacks. Each night is assumed a theme, such as Female Winemakers for Tuesday and, on Saturday, Unique Grapes. Sunday’s “Drops of Gods” means it’s a “wine that we should never pour by the glass” for $30 and also snacks. The goal, Arce says, is “to relax and not have to think about a wine list.” This happy-hour special attracts groups of girlfriends seeking an after-work spot to catch up, as well as couples on a date.
“Our wine list is actually like a ‘champagne 101’ list,” Arce says about her thoughtful selections.
The first page of Air’s wine list sets the tone in a sassy, no-frills-and-yet-very-approachable vibe, reminding people that true champagne is from Champagne, France, but “everything else is sparkling wine” and “this is not a bad thing.” Ten wines are sold by the glass, ranging in price from $11 (German Gilabert Cava Reserve Brut Nature, Penedès, Spain) to $21 (2009 Champagne Grongnet Special Club, Etoges, France). Wines sold by the bottle are broken down by country, with whimsical sketches like a slice of pizza and lips with the words “ooh la la” next to them sprinkled throughout, sharing space with defined vocabulary as it relates to champagne.
The most expensive 750mL bottle sells for $915 (1985 Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie, Reims, France) and the least expensive is $38 (for an Italian Prosecco), but most fall into the $65–$100 category. The list shows nice depth and unexpected finds, such as Macari House from Long Island, New York, and a sparkling cuvée from Macedonia, Greece.
Arce didn’t go into this venture blindly. She has eight years of experience immersed in champagne. After selling champagne at Pops for Champagne in Chicago, the native New Yorker returned to New York City as Birds & Bubbles’ wine director. That was followed by the creation, with Ravi DeRossi, of Riddling Widow. The latter is now Air’s, and she also owns Tokyo Record Bar, which is below Air’s in the basement. It debuted in late August. A departure from Air’s in so many ways, this venue focuses on whiskey and a seven-course izakaya menu, and features a wall of records that customers are invited to play.
“To be frank, I got into champagne to specialize in something I knew would never go out of style,” Arce says. “It always has a place.” And what Arce aims to do is expand its place by making bubbles more accessible. Bar-type food at Air’s includes a charcuterie plate of eight selections, as well as caviar sold by the half-ounce and served alongside chive potato chips (“So it’s affordable and approachable,” she says), and a grilled-cheese sandwich folded in apricot mostarda and lavender honey. Going one step further, she bridges comfort food and fine food in caviar toast. And artisan-cheese choices aren’t served on a plate. Instead, they arrive on a cart and are sold at market prices. On hot nights, or when patrons simply want a nostalgic fix, a popular order is the Champagne Snow Cone.
The vibe at Air’s is eclectic, with the tops of chrome bar stools covered in a velvety soft turquoise and arranged at the marble island as if patrons are in a friend’s stylish kitchen. Tropical ferns and white-washed exposed brick walls evoke the sensation that this is miles from Manhattan. It’s the perfect non-pretentious spot in one of the most powerful cities in the world in terms of culinary and beverage prowess.
“We’re appealing to a consumer who has the general misconception they can only have champagne on a special occasion or New Year’s,” Arce says. What kind of advice does she have for other proprietors tasked with selling glasses and bottles of champagne? She is quick to give her answer: “Pricing smaller pours and charging less money.”
“Champagne already has the stigma that it’s expensive,” she says. “Then you take price out of the equation.” Because who hasn’t ordered a glass of wine for more than $20 a glass—if there’s reassurance it will please the palate? Arce suggests offering smaller-ounce pours that can serve as true samples and only create a small dent in one’s budget for a night out. Maybe then one will get turned on to the bubbles and start a self-educated journey in all the options available—and not just from Champagne, France, because as any wine lover knows, bubbles come from many nationalities.