Nice Work If You Can Get It
July 14, 2010
Last week I spent a few days milling around Saint John, New Brunswick. My purpose was wine work – serving it, to be exact – and of course, drinking some too.
It’s been some years since I’ve professionally served anything to anyone (I won’t say how long exactly, but let’s just say Grunge was very big at the time). And the term “professionally” is probably a bit of a stretch as my serving duties mostly involved balancing beer pitchers on a tray and yanking drunk girls down off tables. So, I arranged with Peter Smit, owner of happinez wine bar, a few “refresher” shifts at his hugely popular haunt.
On the first day Peter and his staff showed me the ropes and patiently walked me through all of their inner workings – then set me loose. I was surprisingly nervous serving the first guests. I’d forgotten what it was like to wait on people how to do it properly (at one point I absent-mindedly collected some empty glasses by their rims which resulted in a finger-wave from Peter, “No. Always the stem”). Peter has decades of hospitality experience, training in Europe with the best of Hilton International and finishing as Director of food and beverage at the Drake Hotel in Chicago at a time when service levels were unparalleled. He also taught Hospitality and Tourism at the NBCC and carries through this top committment to service at happinez.
The wines at happinez are carefully and personally chosen by Peter and changed regularly. Open bottles are preserved with the Le Verre de Vin system following each pour. I liked the system – it was easy to use, fast and performed well (we tasted the opened wines each day to ensure there was no drop in quality). Glasses are all washed by hand (via the Bar Maid, triple-sink system), hand-polished and inspected under the light for spots (a strict procedure established by Peter who dislikes the noise of dishwashers and the residual odours they leave on glassware). Keeping on top of the ‘dirties’ was challenging, but an automatic dishwasher probably wouldn’t have helped much since the stemware still need polishing. This way, it is only slightly slower and appears to result in less breakage.
The environment at happinez is intentionally relaxed, and pressure-free. Guests are allowed to linger as long as they wish and are not nudged to buy more (“can I get you another?” is a no-no) nor are they pushed to pay-up. A friendly honours-based system governs tabs - no credit cards. The guest’s name is hand-written on a notepad along with their order and when they’re ready to pay they come up to the bar to do so. This practice, of course, relies heavily on the honesty of both staff and patron, but I’m told that in nearly 5 years of operating no one has ever run out on the bill (that hasn’t come back the next day to pay).
All ages darkened the doorway (and the funky Hapito patio), from students to retirees to all generations in between. Most came for the wines by-the-glass (12 red, 12 whites) and custom tasting-flights. Local and organic charcuterie and cheese plates were gobbled up in numbers, too – goodies such as Barbizon and Tomme Blanche cheeses from Fromagerie Au Fond des Bois and Saucisse, Jambon and Paté from La Ferme du Diamant.
Most notably, and indeed, most importantly, everyone seems to love this wine bar which made working there a very pleasant experience.
But it wasn’t all work! Peter was kind enough to share a few wines from his cellar. The 2007 M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, a Syrah, Grenache, Carignan blend from the Rousillon, was particularly nice. An intense, dark violet colour extending to the edge, and a lively complex nose of dark fruit, floral, liquorice and barnyard. In the mouth, full and round with prominent tannins that softened the longer it sat. Wonderfully balanced.
I also went out to Rothesay to visit friends Craig and Christine to lust over their gorgeous property and help them taste some Viognier (nine, to be exact). Comparing our notes revealed the three of us had common favourites – one being the 2008 Mission Hill Viognier from the Osoyoos Vineyard Estate in British Columbia’s Okanogan Valley. A pale golden colour with a brown/green tinge. Apples, mild apricot, blossom and a touch of lime citrus on the nose. Medium-bodied, good mouthfeel, slightly pettilant with great acid, and bright lime flavours. Loved it!
All in all, a great wine experience in Saint John. I hope to return very soon.