In Corcho Wine Room, Benlly Polanco hoped to create a place where people from his mainly Dominican neighborhood in Inwood could enjoy wine, food, art, music and a nice conversation, and could “feel at home.”
He first thought of opening a wine bar 12 years ago when he worked in telecommunications business in Midtown and used to frequent wine bars there. He started to make notes. When he helped at his family’s liquor store in Washington Heights, he also noted that more people were buying wine.
“I saw the need in a classy and cozy wine and beer place. I knew it was a challenge,” said Polanco, a hipster-looking guy with a beard, thick-rimmed glasses, a flat cap and black pants with suspenders. A native of San Francisco de Macoris, he came to the U.S. when he was 20 years old in 1997. He went to Queens College to study aeronautics, then transferred to City College to study business. “School was too expensive,” he said, so he joined some friends to start a business.
His notes grew until he was ready to realize his plan. In the fall of 2009, he found the right space, a former copy center on Dyckman Street, on the up-and-coming strip between Payson and Seaman Avenues. But it required complete gutting and a ton of money.
He sold his share of the business in Midtown and worked there as an employee by day to pay his bills, coordinating the renovations of the space in all his spare time. The rustic wood furniture came from Pennsylvania and wood floors from Monticello, N.Y. The rest of the pieces were handmade right there in the new space. The ceiling was finished with about 23,000 corks, some spelling out Corcho, Spanish for cork.
Corcho Wine Room opened in May 2010. Polanco likes to compare it to a living room, an intimate and cozy space of subdued auburn and brown colors with exposed brick wall on one side and wood planks on the other. The latter serves as a makeshift art gallery. Currently, “estampas,” prints by New York-based Dominican artist Hans Gonzalez, are on display. The prints, available for sale from the artist, are juxtaposed next to wine bottles on wooden shelves. That wall is also a backdrop for live music performances: Corcho features Spanish rock and pop, Latin jazz, conga, salsa, romantic ballads.
The regulars like it for “the ambience, service, music and diversity,” Lizbeth Marcelino said on a recent night. She and her friends have been here “many times,” she said. “It feels welcoming. It’s like a second home.”
Jack Cesareo, an artist, and his friend Kathleen Chojnicki, who writes for Columbia Law Review, live upstairs and come to Corcho frequently. This night, they invited their friends Jinah Paek, Carla Hernandez and Eddie Jose Bartolomei for happy hour. Even though they live in Inwood, they do not like the strip with its “clubby atmosphere and loud music,” said Paek. Bartolomei agreed: “The other places here are like Disneyland. They are not authentic.” They said they’d come back because of “its mixture of food and wine and service,” Paek said.
Business picked up as 10 p.m. neared. Patricia Corden came with her brother. “I love it,” she said. “I’ve been here seven times. I come here for live music. It’s intimate, and prices are reasonable.”
Danko Duran, a young Dominican musician, who grew up here but moved to Staten Island, was performing this night. “What makes this place different from the restaurants on the block is a special atmosphere,” he said. “We call it ‘bohemio’ in Spanish.”
Corcho rotates wines every month and a half to introduce new flavors, and offers weekly wine tastings and food and wine pairing classes to the community. Polanco selects only small batches, where he knows producers “take care of it.” They support local producers. Warwick Valley Winery from upstate New York supplies “Black Dirt” label rosé and bourbon. “Now, those of my clients who were intimidated at first, are going to wine summer or winter,” Polanco said.
The house selection wouldn’t be complete without beer, which includes Dyckman Brew, the only Dominican-owned brewery in New York, launched two years ago by Juan Camilo.
“Our five tables are close together communal style,” Polanco said, so “when complete strangers come, by the time they leave they are laughing and enjoying their experience.”