The New (Fun) Wine Bar

By Caroline Hatchett

By

Caroline Hatchett
Welcome to Maxwell Park!
Welcome to Maxwell Park!

Maxwell Park is a mighty 1,000-square-foot wine bar whose staff sells one pallet of wine each week. That’s more vino than Sommelier-Partner and Rising Stars alum Brent Kroll moved through for the entirety of Neighborhood Restaurant Group when he oversaw wine programs for 16 of their restaurants.

More than 80 percent of Maxwell Park’s business comes from wine sales (beer, cocktails, and food make up the remaining 20 percent), and their labor costs have hovered below 20 percent since they opened in summer 2017. “Our kitchen can only fit one person, but we have servers and bartenders rapid-fire serving drinks. You don’t have to be that busy to be successful,” says Kroll.

But Maxwell Park is busy, and his numbers are no stroke of luck. When conceiving the bar, Kroll started with a fresh template. He ditched the lounge look of early wine bars in favor of casual and low-key. Drinkers won’t find any cliché wine paraphernalia or bottles on display—the latter are housed below the bar in precisely calibrated refrigerators set to 45°F, 50°F, 55°F, 60°F, and 65°F.

Kroll also made a heavy upfront investment in his team. “I went looking for hungry sommeliers and found two partners for the business,” he says. “The more the place makes money, the more ownership they gain until eventually they are equal with me. I wanted to make a commitment to have employees for the length of my lease. It creates a sense of ownership, where everyone is concerned with costs.”

Those partners are Niki Lang and Daniel Runnerstrom, and along with Kroll and a team of floor somms, they give D.C. wine lovers a new reason to come back to Maxwell Park (at least) a dozen times a year. The bar’s wine list and theme turns over each month. December 2018 is an ode to East Coast rap deity Biggie Smalls, featuring large format and small format gems. Next year will kick off with Dry January and bone-dry wines (with less than 3 grams sugar per liter of wine). Guests will experience Groundhog Day in February 2019 with “a list of our favorites since opening that we’re going to re-live,” says Lang. “It’s like a new restaurant every month. Some people come and taste through all 50 wines by the glass, and they get a free shirt! We have no rules.”

Free t-shirts are fun. So are irreverent themes and the challenge of trying 50 new wines (sign me up!). What Kroll really struck on was that wine can be fun—whether it’s rad pét-nat or classic Rioja—and fun wine sells, especially with a knowledgeable and empowered staff to back up the menu. Kroll, Lang, and Runnerstrom plan to bring more lively, mighty little wine bars and good times to D.C., eschewing Biggie’s rule of never letting them know your next move.

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