It’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning in early June and there’s barely a soul in Brix Wine Bar, yet all 40 seats appear to be taken and doing brisk business. This is courtesy of two giggling blond girls playing waitress, punching elaborate orders into the restaurant’s touch-screen computers. “Those are the contractors’ daughters,” explains Libby Spencer, lead sommelier and front-of-house manager of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, restaurant. The contractor has promised that an expansion to the kitchen will be completed by the end of the month, but it can’t wrap soon enough for Spencer. “It just seems never-ending,” she sighs, looking like a teenager in cropped jeans and tennis shoes, the word “Discove(red)” scrawled across the front of her T-shirt.
“Discovered” is a term that might be applied to Brix as well, with its rising profile among the Berkshire restaurant community and growing hipster-hangout reputation. In 2005, then-Patrick McGinley relocated from Hartford, Connecticut, to the Berkshires to oversee the menu and launch the business, and Brix—the county’s original and, many would say, best wine bar—was born. Patrick, who is the restaurant’s co-owner and chef, had met Libby when she was working in the vineyards of Oregon, and brought her East to lead the wine program. When the couple married, he took her name.
Pittsfield, with the unsightly remnants of General Electric still clinging to the landscape, might seem an unlikely location for a contemporary take on the traditional French bistro, but the Spencers consider it a no-brainer. “Pittsfield is perhaps the last place in the county where you can still find affordable homes and get in on the ground floor,” Libby says. “There’s a real need for great restaurants.”
“There are some really good chefs here trying new concepts,” Patrick adds. “Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge have exploded with tourism and restaurants. Pittsfield hasn’t really exploded in that way yet.”
Like business partner and co-owner Adam Hersch, who has long been part of the effort to revitalize Pittsfield, the Spencers are not the type to pay lip service to the idea of community engagement. They bought a house in Pittsfield, and use as much local food as possible in their menu. They’ve recently partnered with the Berkshire Museum to offer Brix & Flix, which gives Wednesday-night diners passes to the indie and foreign films at the museum’s Little Cinema, and with the Colonial Theater in a discount ticket package with the purchase of a Monday night meal.
Brix—the name comes from a food industry term for the approximate amount of sugars in juice and wine—has always been happy to have guests, but guests haven’t always understood Brix. The wine bar, a neighborhood bistro that specializes in selling a large variety of wines, is an everyday part of life in Europe but didn’t translate as easily to the Berkshires. “Our first year, we found that we were considered a bar, and we got the late-night cocktail business and not much else,” explains Patrick. “As we got the word out about being a wine bar, we started to suffer from that, too. The term wine bar imparts in people’s minds one of two things: they either think you’re just tapas or light bites, or they want to avoid the wine snobbery.”
Brix is on a mission to correct these misconceptions. Patrick and Libby are expanding the kitchen in order to provide a full-service French bistro menu, and are working hard to demystify wine. As he rips into a package containing a French antique sugar tin for display among the bric-a-brac, Patrick shares a theory on why wine is so unfamiliar to Americans.
“When Europeans moved here in the 1800s, they all had wine as part of their daily diet,” he explains. “Originally, we didn’t have the same climate and resources to grow the wine. For a while, wine took a back seat for the immigrants, and got replaced by beer and grain alcohol, which they could make more easily. When people saw wine in the media, it was always the rich enjoying a glass. That snobbery got ingrained in the American consciousness. It’s not that they don’t know anything about wine, but no one wants to invest $10 in something they may hate when they can invest $4.99 in a six-pack of something they know.”
How does Brix subvert this status quo? “One of our standard lines here is, ‘If you know what you like, you’re a connoisseur,’” says Libby. “We’ll try to give you a wine that will fit that flavor palette. Wine is such a part of the European aesthetic of family meals—you’re all sitting together and dining together. So many American families have lost that. But wine makes a meal joyful, convivial, fun.”