Local Bar - Local Wines:
How an idea for a little wine bar captured the attention and the best wines of Western Cape’s vineyards.
WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL
IMAGES BY LAR RATTRAY
A Publik wine bar opened in the trendy Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank to bring Cape wines to the people of Gauteng.
One of the most delightful treats for any wine lover visiting Cape Town, is the myriad wine estates surrounding it. Indeed, some of the most historic wine farms in South Africa are scattered among the city’s suburbs on the southern slopes of Table Mountain. Groot Constantia, producer of Vin de Constance for the cellars of European nobility since the 18th Century, is just 10 minutes’ drive from the city centre.
For the dedicated oenophile (wine lover) there is an endless summer of wonder to be found exploring the wineries of the Western Cape. More than three hundred of them dot the map, and that does not include the smaller hobby producers or ‘garagistes’ who add to the bounty of local cellars. Some truly excellent wines are being produced in back yard sheds in the region.
Wine tour maps and guides can introduce you to many excellent estates, it might be the work of a lifetime though to find what the best the Cape vineyards have to offer. But there is a shortcut.
Back in 2013, a talented food writer and die-hard wine fan called David Cope opened a small wine bar in Cape Town. He had been increasingly taken by the growing movement of independent artisan winemakers he was meeting through his work. He even started producing his own small batch wines under the label ‘Alphabetical’.
Publik was his nod to the great wines being produced and to the band of gifted, maverick winemakers driving innovation in the industry. He wanted to showcase their work with a wine list from mostly unheard of but exciting young producers, presented by a dynamic, knowledgeable team of hip young wine freaks.
What Cope did with his bold idea was to provide a means for the uninitiated to quickly find the very best and most celebrated wines on the peninsula without leaving Cape Town’s CBD. Wine was sold by the glass, so an evening at Publik was like a virtual tour of the best of the Winelands. A tourist could pop in and taste their way around the vineyards and plan a tour of their favourites without the hit-and-miss factor.
Even though Publik’s first home was an industrial basement shared with an artisanal butchery, it quickly became a go-to bar for locals and tourists. It’s popularity led to requests from customers for access to their fabulous wine list from afar. An online store, launched in 2015, was followed in 2016 by Publik Distribution in partnership with wine merchant David Nel.
Publik’s Wine Renegades is a monthly subscription box with 6 wines from niche producers. It became an iconic offering in online wine sales, driving their agenda of curated wine offerings. The distribution arm combined Cope and Nel’s network of producers and offered their artisan wines to restaurants and specialist retailers throughout South Africa. People’s understanding and appreciation of wines was changing, and Publik was helping to fuel the revolution.
Such was the popularity of their shop window, Publik Wine Bar, that they found new ‘high street’ premises in Cape Town’s Kloof Nek Road in early 2018. Less than a year later Publik opened a wine bar in the trendy Rosebank suburb of Johannesburg.
Although wine is their ‘thing’, the Publik team and vision has evolved with their growth. The ethos of presenting quality merchandise from artisan producers with sustainable or organic credentials remains the same. However, the evolution of the market and their customer base has caused them to refine or expand their offering through their bars or distribution channels.
The craft spirit movement brought requests for gin and tonics and other trendy drinks at the bar counters. A search for the most exciting and edgy distillers thus expanded the offering across the business to small batch distilleries. This in turn introduced them to a raft of small producers crafting artisanal mixers and soft drinks, so these were added to the list as well.
Another regular request at the Publik bar counter was for something to eat. Cope and his team were happy to oblige with tapas-style plates of bread and charcuterie from the finest bakers and producers in the country. Publik Cape Town offered a series of street food pop-ups to pair with new or interesting wines on their ever-growing list. Wine and food evenings have become legendary at the Kloof Street bar.
While the bars are the public face of Publik, their real business is in the distribution and online sale of craft wines, spirits and soft drinks. Late in 2019, Publik Distribution joined forces with CyberCellar, South Africa's longest-running e-commerce site and online wine retailer. Cope brought his knowledge of the small, bespoke producer landscape and his reading of the pulse of wine and artisanal trends to curate the offering of an e-commerce stalwart.
This left the business perfectly poised to face the challenges of the novel coronavirus and the harsh realities of lockdown in South Africa. With alcohol and tobacco sales banned, and the closure of all restaurants and bars, lockdown was a tragedy for much of the hospitality industry.
With delivery allowed in the phased relaxing of lockdown, Publik started delivering the classic David Chang-inspired street food treat; a southern fried chicken sandwich. This kept them in the minds of huddled customers missing the outdoors and their great wine.
Their real innovation though was to pivot the online portion of the business to offer a curated selection of the best South Africa has to offer in beverages, both alcohol and virgin. Diversifying their offering and moving into the global logistics chain can only mean growth for the Publik brand.
As Cope suggests: “At the end of the day, we're still doing the same thing we've done since day one at Publik: getting people to support some of the most exciting wine producers in the world. We're just finding more ways to do this.”
For Publik, their strength still lies in bringing unusual and cutting-edge wines from small producers to their customers. Their scheduled tasting events are legendary and Capetonians in the know scrabble for tickets to try new wines. Thankfully, there’s no need to chase the Publik experience, you can just saunter into one of their wine bars and tour the best vineyards in the cape from the comfort of a beautifully designed bar stool.
David Cope opened Publik as a small wine bar offering a selection of wines from the most adventurous and talented winemakers in South Africa.
Tapas style food like artisanal charcuterie satisfied bar counter request for something to eat with a glass of delicious wine (left). And striking innovations like fried chicken sandwiches helped Publik navigate the tricky trading waters of South Africa’s Prohibition-style lockdown (right). Photo: Desmond Louw & Antonia Heil (right)
Some of the best wines currently made in the surrounding winelands are on offer by the glass. It’s like a virtual Winelands tour.