The New York City wine bar boom continues, but the latest entry may end up being this year’s most important: Skin Contact, the new Lower East Side bar helmed by Eben Lillie of Chambers Street Wines.
Located in 76 Orchard Street, Skin Contact joins a busy neighborhood natural wine scene that includes the Ten Bells and Wildair. But for wine insiders, Lillie’s name holds particular pedigree; he’s son of David Lillie, co-founder of Chambers Street Wines, the nearly 20-year-old wine shop that focused on small production wine from independent makers long before natural wine became a hashtag.
Multi-generation wine families like the Lillies are relatively uncommon in America, at least as compared to Europe, where it seems like half the stories begin with the inheritance of an 8th generation vineyard parcel. Eben Lillie has had really an unmatched life of access to small production, minimal intervention wines; he quite literally grew up in his father’s wine shop, which championed elements of the movement long before the term “natural’’ became commonly used. Chambers helped set the foundation for today’s thriving scene, focusing on minimal intervention winemakers and championing small indie producers from the Loire Valley, the Languedoc, and beyond. The menus of trendy natural wine bar menus today often features wines that the Lillies were selling in Tribeca a decade ago.
Skin Contact, though — with respect to Racines, the family’s restaurant with a bonkers Pascaline Lepeltier helmed wine list — is the first proper wine bar from the Chambers Street team, and one that Eben Lillie sees as a natural extension of the Chambers Street work, albeit in more of a “divey wine bar” setting, as per Lillie.
For the project, Eben partnered with Stefanie Djie, who’s a managing partner and designed the space, and Salma Zerrei, the general manager who previously worked at Quality Eats and influential wine bar June. It’s an intimate space — with 38 total seats and a glimmering shotgun bar framed by exposed brick and backlit bottles. The idea is that Lillie and his team can interact more directly with customers, “like a really good house party,” he says.
The team’s expertise equates to a sprawling, ever-changing list that starts off with around 200 selections of tiny winemaker bottles, some so pyrotechnically natural and vibrant they can’t help but start a party, others more subtly beautiful and contemplative. The bar opens with a dozen-plus by the glass options, all natural, accompanied by a small food menu, with charcuterie, olives, and a seasonal salad.
Domestic winemakers like cult new American natural winemakers such as Ruth Lewandowski, Martha Stoumen, and Joe Swick share space on the bottle list with rare, far-flung bottles by Milan Nestaric (Moravia), Costadilla (Venetto), and Warnung (Austria). There is a tight Champagne offering, focusing on “Grower Champagne” makers — a small number of people who grow the grapes and make the wine, like Olivier Horiot and Georges Laval. The drinks are akin to single origin espresso, but bubbly and tie-loosening. And true to the bar’s name, skin contact wines — often called orange wines, though they can vary in color from copper to rust to Nickelodeon logo — are given pride of place on the menu, with more than a dozen selections available, including by the glass.
Notably, the restaurant’s prices are accessible for the American natural wine bar scene, which curiously lacks the affordability of European ones. A glass of unfiltered Giol Prosecco col fondo — which tastes like if sparkling Italian wine and farmhouse saison had a funky baby — comes in at just $10. The by-the-glass section also features wines that are rare to find, like Mas Coutelou “Couleurs Reunies,” a wine that hails from the southern corner of France and comprised from a massive blend of 20-plus grapes, including many obscure, heat-resistant varieties. Lille calls this producer “a natural wine legend,” and the glass is noted on the menu with a slashed zero mark next to it, meaning it is bottled entirely without sulphur.
The bottle list goes deep too, with more wines added all the time. The point is to encourage repeat visits, Lillie says. “We want this place to be a real wine bar, like what you see in Europe,” says Lillie, who name checks Bar Brutal and Salvatge, both in Barcelona, as direct inspiration. “The prices are a bit lower, the bottles aren’t so precious, and people are kind of sharing and making new friends while they’re here.”
But Lillie is also aware of the expectations that come with his background and the Chambers Street connection. He’s taking it in stride. “In Europe, winemakers will pass on their vines to the children, and if you have a place that’s doing incredible work you hope the kids will continue it,” says Lillie. “It’s really cool when that passion is passed down, and that’s what’s happening here. Being able to embark on this in the same spirit as Chambers Street, continuing that legacy and philosophy...my father always wanted me to pursue my dreams. It just turns out my deep passion is for these farmers, these wines.”
Skin Contact is now open daily, on weekdays from 5 p.m. to midnight and weekends from 2 p.m. to midnight.
Jordan Michelman is a freelance food and wine journalist and the co-founder of Sprudge and Sprudge Wine.