State-of-the-art dispensers and high-end wines by the glass allow Wine Embassy of Saigon to carve out a niche among Ho Chi Minh City’s watering holes. By Michael Tatarski. Photos by Nguyen Nguyen.
Fine wine can be like a Lamborghini, in Francois Carteau’s estimation. “Most people could never afford to buy one, but if you could drive one for 20 minutes for $1,000, then you might think about it,” Carteau says.
In the world of wine, that means uncorking something like a Chateau Margaux and offering test-drives to those who normally wouldn’t buy the entire bottle, with its $1,000 price tag. Carteau, the director and sommelier at Wine Embassy, says that on the night his wine bar made Chateau Margaux available by the glass, it sold 80 percent of the bottle.
That would seem to suggest that, with the right approach, an audience for upper-range wines can be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Wine purveyors hesitate to offer certain varietals, particularly high-end, by the glass in case there isn’t enough demand. That would leave their unfinished bottle to expire, so they’re meticulous in the wines they select for shared consumption.
Wine Embassy tries to work around this in a couple ways. First, unlike restaurants that also serve wine, it is dedicated almost exclusively to the gift of the grape. Although there is a food menu, Carteau says the dishes serve only to support the drink, rather than the other way around. Portions are small and each menu item is listed with a recommended wine. The focus allows Wine Embassy to boast 130 options by the glass, both red and white, from all of the world’s major wine regions. Prices range from VND 50,000 to VND 400,000.
Second, the wine bar is one of the few establishments in Vietnam to have two special dispensers from Italy that allow opened bottles to be stored at ideal conditions for three weeks. Otherwise, average bottles last just three or four days after the cork goes. The machines give Wine Embassy greater flexibility in what it can serve customers by the glass. They can be set to administer precise amounts of wine; you just select the bottle, press a button for your desired serving, and let the dispenser do the rest. All vintages offered at Wine Embassy are available in three different sizes, with the smallest being a tasting glass.
The Italian dispensers are also part of a philosophy of respecting the wine, and that requires good equipment all the way down to the Reidel glasses, which are imported from Germany and specially crafted for different types of wine. There is also a wine storage area with 24-hour air conditioning that enables Wine Embassy to house wines that are no longer available in Vietnam. “Suppliers have contacted me saying they won’t be able to sell some of their wine in time, but for me time isn’t an issue thanks to the storage and the dispenser machines,” Carteau says.
He laments that so many promising wine bars in the city have gone the way of lounges, while he hopes Wine Embassy will adhere to its founding principles. Which means it will provide any style of wine for any type of drinker, from a connoisseur to a novice. For the latter, knowledgeable staff readily advise, reflecting an attention to detail that is enhanced by the bar’s décor. Soft lighting and ambient music allow one to relax, and the comfortable seating makes this a great place to while away a rainy evening. There is even a library corner with literature about wine and the regions from which they come.
“I want people to be able to discover wine here,” Carteau says.
When asked how Wine Embassy’s concept has been received, he says some people, especially locals, didn’t quite get it at first. But customers are starting to understand what the bar is offering, and local palates are becoming more sophisticated. “People are demanding great wine,” Carteau says, a demand he hopes to meet.