When Stefan Mailvaganam and his partners sought to open Custom American Wine Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a few years ago, they were met with resistance from the local community board. When Mr. Mailvaganam opened Vanguard Wine Bar a few weeks ago on Second Avenue and 29th Street in Manhattan, the reception was decidedly warmer. "We've been waiting for you," a woman at the bar told Antonio Perez, Vanguard's jovial bartender on the night of my visit. "You're changing the neighborhood," she said.
The Murray Hill community board had been just as welcoming, noted Mr. Mailvaganam. In fact, the only stipulation the board had made was that Vanguard would close its doors by 2 a.m. That sounded plenty late to me. Wasn't that the normal time? "This neighborhood is full of Irish bars that don't close until four in the morning," replied Mr. Mailvaganam.
Vanguard wine bar is just down the street from Fairway Market and a Kips Bay movie theater—two important factors in Mr. Mailvaganam's choice of location. The 12-year lease was also a factor though it could prove either a blessing or a curse depending on the progress of the Second Avenue subway, Mr. Mailvaganam noted. "It's a gamble," he said.
But Mr. Mailvaganam is clearly not risk-averse. After all, he left a secure job in Silicon Valley over 10 years ago to ultimately seek his fortune (or perhaps spend all that he'd earned) in the food and wine business New York. Mr. Mailvaganam worked briefly in banking in New York before he started his restaurant career—first as an intern with Danny Meyer at the now-defunct Tabla and later helped Paul Grieco to open Hearth restaurant. He went on to open Colors, the restaurant started by former Windows on the World staff, before he took time off to travel around the vineyards of Europe, particularly France.
Mr. Mailvaganam opened his first New York wine bar, Bar Carerra on Houston Street, in 2008 with partner Frederick Twomey and two years later, opened Custom in Williamsburg with Dan Lathroum and Mr. Twomey. Bar Carerra features Spanish wines, and while Custom is completely dedicated to American wine. Mr. Mailvaganam is the managing partner of both.
France and California are the two wine-producing places that Mr. Mailvaganam particularly loves—in fact, they're the exclusive focus of the Vanguard wine list. "I wanted to do an Old World/New World juxtaposition," explained Mr. Mailvaganam who estimated that he tasted between 250 and 300 wines before choosing the 30 or so selections he's currently featuring (most offered by the glass and bottle) along with some generously sized bar snacks. "We tasted wine during the build-out—we tasted after construction—sometimes we tasted at Bar Carerra or Custom wine bar too. I've become an expert at choosing wines by the glass."
Was it easier to find wines from one place or another? "I tasted a lot of American wines by the glass—I'd say it's difficult but not impossible to find the same value here as you can in France," replied Mr. Mailvaganam who added that he thought it was easier to find wines with "expressions of earthiness and minerality" from France that it was from the U.S.
"Earthiness" is one of the taste categories on the Vanguard wine list; all wines are curated under one of the eight groupings that include categories such as "Light Unoaked Whites" and "Rich Whites" and "Soft Fruit Forward Reds." Mr. Mailvaganam had been looking for a methodology of grouping the wines and came across the book "Wine Style" by Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy (Ms. Ewing-Mulligan is director of the International Wine Center in New York). "There are so many ways to approach wine, I thought it was a good way to bundle the wines together, to narrow them down," Mr. Mailvaganam said.
My friend Willie, a wine-bar aficionado, was particularly appreciative of the categorization. "I love the way they organized the list. It's a nice guide that doesn't patronize. It's very collegial," she said, choosing a glass of the Mercer Riesling, an "Aromatic White." Willie is the sort of customer Mr. Mailvaganam has in mind for his wine bar. For starters, she's female. "All wine bars are designed for women," said Mr. Mailvaganam, who estimates that 70% to 80% of his clientele are women. "Even our bathroom is designed for women," he noted. (It is a particularly nice bathroom, decorated with handsome maps of the wine-growing regions of California and France, though the lighting is a bit dim.)
There will be a few "refinements" to the wine list over the next few months, said Mr. Mailvaganam, who also plans to add a list of reserve bottles and perhaps some Cognac as well. But it took so much time to make the final wine selections that Mr. Mailvaganam doesn't plan to change them more than four times a year.
On the other hand, he's already hit a bit of snag with his California Pinot Noir: the 2010 Annabella Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir currently offered at $10 a glass and $48 a bottle is about to change vintages, according to his supplier. While the 2010 was bright and vivacious wine, the 2011 was a bit ponderous, lacking the charm of the previous vintage. (Mr. Mailvaganam was comparing the two at the time of my visit and offered me a taste.) We both agreed the 2010 was the much better wine. "If you can know of a good value Pinot Noir, let me know," said Mr. Mailvaganam.
A good value Pinot Noir is, alas, practically oxymoronic—it's just not a grape that can be grown well on the cheap. And Mr. Mailvaganam is uncompromising about delivering good quality for the price. Like the 2010 Château de la Liquière "Les Amandiers"—a delicious "Earthy Spicy" red from Southern France for $10 a glass. It was a very good buy. Mr. Mailvaganam agreed. It was a wine that "over-delivered," he said, "I think my forte is value. I'm always trying to find wines that deliver more than their weight." A thirsty neighborhood awaits.
A version of this article appeared January 25, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Wine Bar Rules.