Telling someone where to go is never easy.
As a food and wine writer, I get asked a lot. But to provide a solid recommendation, you need to know as much about the people asking as you do about the place you're sending them. Do they prefer a raucous, sing-along at the bar? Do they tend to squirrel away in the corner of a dark pub with a pint and an old friend? Does an elegant setting and meticulous service make them feel pampered or itchy? If you say the words "wine bar," do they cringe or smile?
To my mind, "wine bar" evokes visions of water crackers and small, expensive pours. Niche, a wine bar in Holly Springs, has neither.
Located in southern Wake County, Holly Springs is a small community of affordable four-bedroom houses and a lively rec-league softball scene. The streets aren't exactly lined with wine bars. But Niche isn't what you expect a wine bar to be.
The place looks like a liberal arts major's first house after college, complete with a rollicking house party. The small space is awkwardly divided into rooms and nooks, so you can slip away for a quiet conversation or gather around a table and listen to a guy playing guitar in front of the fireplace.
Strange collages by a local artist line the hallway to the bathrooms. The wooden deck overlooks the tall grass of a backyard. A scattering of mismatched tables and chairs sits in the glow of two strings of lights shaped like grape clusters—one red, one white. I overheard conversations on subjects ranging from johnboats to the state of the banking industry. Everywhere, people were sipping wine and smiling.
Nic Baliva, who moved here from Hartford, Conn., in 2006, opened Niche last June. "I live here in Holly Springs with my wife, and there was no place for me to take her on a date," he said. "We like wine bars, and the wine bars that we went to in Raleigh weren't exactly like wine bars. They were more like nightclubs."
Baliva is Italian, and he remembers receiving a wine press for his sixth birthday. He curates the wine list at Niche, which includes more than 60 offerings, all by the bottle or the glass. Prices range from Centello non-vintage Cava ($20 per bottle, $6.25 per glass) to Enamore Malbec from Amarone in Argentina ($32 per bottle, $8 per glass). The list features picks from Australia and New Zealand, Europe, South America, the West Coast of the U.S. and South Africa. Baliva says his regulars have adventurous palates. "I knew Niche would be a hit," he says. "Every time we'd go to a party in our neighborhood, everyone was drinking wine—and a lot of different varietals."
The wine list is divided into Sparkling & Sweet, White and Red. Each list includes the wine's origin, its bottle and glass prices and a five- to eight-word description. Among the most popular pours is the Carmenere, a 2008 Echeverria Reserva from Chile ($6.50 glass, $24 bottle). The description reads: "ripe cherry, blackberry, red bell pepper, soft spices; full bodied."
I tried the Echeverria "unwooded" 2010 chardonnay from Chile ($6/ $22). The wine was lovely and clean, and the description of "pineapple, melon, peach; crisp citrus acidity; very balanced" was spot on.
Niche also offers more than a dozen beers, including such obscure brews as Thirsty Dog Whippet Wheat from Ohio and Bison Organic Imperial Brown from California.
If you're in the mood for white tablecloths and sotto-voiced waiters, you'll be disappointed in Niche. But if you're looking to laugh off some stress over a few glasses of well-chosen wine, I can tell you where to go.