Ah, happy hour: the working stiff’s reprieve. Whether you push a pencil or a broom, happy hour’s loving embrace is always waiting for you at the end of your toil, offering up cheap food and cheaper drinks. But happy hour has done some growing up as of late. It’s not all chicken wings, loaded potato skins, and domestic beers—though let’s be honest, these bar staples are always a welcome sight at around 5:00pm—there are a number of quality food- and drink-focused establishments ready to usher in collars of any color for a post-work, pre-dinner stopover. But for the minimal-intervention-minded, there is no greater place to be between 4:00 and 5:30pm Central Standard Time than at Bufalina in Austin, Texas, keepers of the best natural wine happy hour in all of America (and given many countries' laws against happy hour, perhaps the world).
This may sound like a lot of bluster. I mean, how can a 45-seat Neopolitan pizzeria whose music playlist leans heavily, as though from my very soul, in favor of traditional and two-tone ska (if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear both The Specials' rendition of Monkey Man as well as the original Toots & The Maytals version) be, for 90 pure minutes, the epicenter of the natural wine universe? Well for starters, Bufalina has the best list in all of Austin, a tip passed on to Sprudge Wine during our SXSW Happy Hour back in March by a not-insignificant number of the front of house staff from Emmer & Rye, a local farm-to-table restaurant with arguably the city’s second best list. Bufalina owner and one of Food & Wine‘s 2017 Sommeliers of the Year Steven Dilley tells me they keep on average 350 different bottles on hand at any given time, with many of them somewhat under-the-radar offerings. Think things like Domaine Belluard’s “Mont Blanc” 100% Gringet Ayse Brut Zéro, Knoll Ried’s “Kreutles” Smaragd Grüner Veltliner, and Ochota Barrels’ Grenache Syrah blend “The Green Room,” to name a few.
Now take all the bottles under $100—161 on the current offering sheet—slash their price in twain and pair them with half-off, incredibly inventive pies. And that, my friend, is how you win the happy hour wars. We’re talking Microbio’s Tempranillo-dominant Pét-Nat Rosado “Nieva York” for $32, Scholium Project’s “FTP-Z” Zinfandel (from 100-year-old vines no less) for $46, and La Clarine Farm’s “Gar-Ma” Garnacha/Mataro blend for only $24. TWENTY. FOUR. DOLLARS.
How? Why? What did we do to deserve such a merciful existence? For Bufalina, it’s a way of getting people in the door and trying new things. “It's that tricky block between lunch and dinner when it's balls-hot outside and traffic sucks,” Dilley avers on inarguably two of the worst facets of Austin living. “We came up with the idea of half-off bottles under $100 as a way to focus on the highly-drinkable fun stuff. Some bottles end up being almost absurdly cheap, and at the higher end, people can try wines they perhaps wouldn't otherwise buy.”
Or—and this would be my suggestion—you can round up everyone you know to fill up one of Bufalina’s banquet-style benches and go absolutely ham. For my table of four and a half (the half being too young to drink but old enough to crush a pie), three pizzas, an equal number of bottles, and a smattering of appetizers fit the bill.
I would be remiss to not note that, while not part of the happy hour pricing, the starters at Bufalina may very well be the stars of the show and well worth paying full price for, even with half-price options at your disposal. Brightly colored and wonderfully fresh, dishes like the snapper crudo with prickly pear, daikon, peach, and habanero peppers and the rustic-chunked cucumber salad with avocado, fresno pepper yogurt, and sesame lend a lively acidity that pairs delightfully with a bottle of the 2017 La Sorga Pét-Nat Rosé (for $36 bucks) and Prince Buster’s supplications to Enjoy Yourself (which we did). The unfiltered ruby red effervescence played just as well with our more substantial starters: burrata on rustic, thick-cut house bread with cherry tomatoes and olive oil, the very Mediterranean octopus terrine with potatoes, arugula, and squid ink, and ricotta gnocchi with roasted corn and cactus pesto.
And then there were the pizzas. Specifically, a sauceless ricotta-stuffed squash blossom pie, a cheese-less and delightfully salty boquerones, olive, and garlic pie, and a roasted mushroom, fontina, and lemon ricotta number. And while perhaps not impossible to find that one perfect bottle to pair with such a wide variety of flavors, when there’s half-price wine afoot, why not just get two (or three or four)? To that end, we were directed to Bruno Schueller’s luscious Alsatian 2016 Pinot Blanc, “The Californie,” as well as Olivier Cousin’s 100% Cab Franc 2015 “Pur Breton,” bursting with a menagerie of ripe fruits. This wasn't so much a meal as a decadent, ravenous feast of worldly delights.
What makes Bufalina's happy hour so great isn't the ridiculously low-priced bottles per se, but the giddy excitement those 90 minutes elicit that compels you to act immediately, as though mom and dad forgot to lock the liquor cabinet before going out of town and you've got this one chance to throw an epic rager, consequences be damned. It's finding an Office Space-esque, otherwise unseen clerical error (they did in Superman III) that must be exploited before anyone else finds it and corrects it. It's how I imagine Josh Waitzkin felt at the end of Searching for Bobby Fischer: his eyes widen as he becomes privy to the mistake that will cost his opponent the game 12 moves later. What cartwheels must Waitzkin be doing in his head when he sees he's won the championship, and his opponent doesn't even realize he's beat. It's a singular moment that must be seized upon, not with any sense of judiciousness but with wild, spastic glee. And it happens five days a week between 4:00 and 5:30pm.
My advice, though: don't be like Waitzkin and offer the draw. Topple those bottles like kings.