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Focused Flavors

New York's newest wine shops share a specialist's approach

Matthew DeBord
Posted: April 16, 2001

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Focused Flavors

New York's newest wine shops share a specialist's approach

By Matthew DeBord

New York has never lacked for wine stores. But while merchants might once have felt compelled to offer diversity, several of the city's newest shops zero in on specific countries or regions. These days in New York, there's no retailing quite like niche retailing.

Perhaps the most unusual example of this is Pet Wines, recently opened on the northern reaches of the Upper East Side. The store, which focuses on German wines, is part of a kennel. It might be the only place in the entire country where the floors are cheerfully mopped and the choice of a Riesling over a Chianti can be seconded by a yapping Jack Russell terrier; there's a playroom for small dogs in back, separated from the store by a glass partition.

For some, price is literally the bottom line. By charging $10 or less for nearly every bottle in the store, Best Cellars (founded on the Upper East Side in 1996) helped take the anxiety out of wine-buying for newbies. The store's streamlining of wine characteristics -- bottles are organized under headings such as "luscious," "juicy," "sweet" and so on -- has helped soothe an anxious metropolis.

Is-Wine, which opened in the East Village's storied punk-rock precincts late last year, has followed Best Cellars' lead, minus the nomenclature. Their small selection of wines, many from New York State (the owner once ran a winery in the Finger Lakes), is mostly priced between $8 and $15, an acknowledgment of the neighborhood's Rent demographic.

Others have aimed less at the intimidated everyman than at the worldly sophisticate. Decor has gotten in on the act, as new stores have abandoned the ramshackle knickknacks of yesteryear and adopted themes straight out of the Tuscan travelogue. Gone are jaundiced posters and dusty barrels; the mood now is set by polished wood and discreet lighting.

The contemporary tools of the wine-loving trade -- Riedel stemware, Screwpulls -- are also on display. Equally common are descriptions of individual wines, posted like wall text in museums (minus the stodginess, of course), often with Wine Spectator's 100-point-scale ratings, for those who prefer to browse rather than ask questions. Some stores also offer storage options for space-challenged collectors.

And no one would even think of opening a wine store in the new millennium without including a tasting program, often led by a well-trained in-house staff. At Union Square Wines & Spirits, complimentary tastings are routine. At Vino, the owners uncork a bottle of something at around 5 o'clock, five evenings a week. Generosity is the rule, and it appears to be paying off. If you build it right and cultivate a specific category of customers, the reasoning goes, they will come. And then they won't be able to stay away.

For the complete article, please see the April 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 113. (
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Grande Harvest Wines
33 Grand Central Terminal
Telephone (212) 682-5855
Fax (212) 490-2075
Specialty California and Australia, $25-$30
Stock, price range 1,000 bottles, $9-$500

The recent renovation of Grand Central has stocked the train station with specialty food stores, including this sleek gallery of wine. And it's not only commuters who stop in to Bruce Nevins' 2-year-old enterprise (he also runs Hay Day Wine Shop in Ridgefield, Conn.). "From day one," he says, "we've had great traffic."

The store's eclectic selection runs from A Mano Primitivo Puglia 1999 (88 points, $12) to Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1997 (96, $130). "We're trying to get people to relax," says Nevins. Actually, hanging out at Grande Harvest Wines, under the exquisite vaulted ceiling of this former 1930s theater, is a very pleasant experience.

Of course, customers don't always linger. Some are dashing for a train and want a bottle in a hurry. "One-fifty," a customer huffed one afternoon, when asked what he wanted to spend. To the trophy case the salesperson went, and, in record time, the man hustled back out. Happy, and still in a hurry.

Italian Wine Merchants
108 E. 16th St.
Telephone (212) 473-2323
Fax (212) 473-1952
Web site www.italianwinemerchant.com
Specialty Italy, especially Friuli
Stock, price range 1,000 bottles, $9-$175

Joe Bastianich -- scion of a New York restaurant family, vintner and successful restaurateur in his own right -- is also the enophilic equivalent of an NFL tight end: large, strong and tireless. At Italian Wine Merchants -- his retail partnership with chef Mario Batali and manager Sergio Esposito -- he's in his element, holding forth on the glories of contemporary Italian wine and food.

"We saw an opportunity to create a showroom of Italian wine and culture," he says of the store, which features a carefully annotated selection up front and "Studio del Gusto," as they call the large tasting room and display kitchen, in back.

In fact, it is more of a showroom than a traditional retail operation. Despite an inviting decor (worn Persian rugs, a collection of antique corkscrews), only an estimated 5 percent of the store's customers are walk-ins. The bulk of the business is in phone sales and portfolio management.

What these determined Italian-wine hounds seek is an enviable price-to-quality ratio. "We've had enough of super Tuscans," Bastianich maintains. "Wines from Friuli are what we're into now." Value conscious, yes, but the store can still set you up with a Tua Rita Giusto di Notri 1998 (90, $75). "Uniquely Italian," Bastianich continues. "That's what we want our wines to be." The big man has spoken.

Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe
1 Rockefeller Plaza
Telephone (212) 262-7700 (restaurant); (212) 981-1106 (shop)
Fax (212) 262-6547
Web site www.morrellwinebar.com
Specialty Collectibles
Stock, price range 1,000 bottles; 130 wines by the glass $5-$49

Nikos Antonakeas knows a good thing when he sees one, be it a rare California dessert wine, an Australian Pinot Noir or a perfect chunk of real estate. As Morrell & Company's wine director, he is clearly pleased with the famous Manhattan store's new location, right across the street from Rockefeller Center's skating rink, half a block from the Today show studio.

After 14 years on Madison Avenue, Peter and Roberta Morrell, along with Antonakeas, moved into the former airline ticket office and reopened shop with a fresh approach. The undertaking was the culmination of a decade of planning; it also includes a sidewalk café and a sophisticated wine bar that offers 130 wines by the glass.

"Our goal was to create as complete a package as possible," says Antonakeas. It's hard to quibble with the results. The wine bar's selection of untouchable cult Cabernets by the glass, such as Lokoya Mount Veeder 1995 (92, $55), makes teetotaling nearly impossible. The sleek store presents temptations from across the price spectrum, from Laurel Glen Reds 1998 (86, $10) to Château Lynch-Bages 1996 (92, $70). A large selection of inexpensive bottles inhabits space in the back.

"If we accomplish anything at all here," Antonakeas says, grinning infectiously, "it is to make wine more accessible."

Union Square Wines & Spirits
33 Union Square West
Telephone (212) 675-8100
Fax (212) 675-8663
Web site www.unionsquarewines.com
Specialty California, Italy, Australia
Stock, price range 100,000 bottles, $5-$1,500

Union Square Wines & Spirits has been under new ownership since last April, and wine director Steve Gett describes its new mission. "We cater to every social and economic class in the area," he says, "from blue chip to blue collar to blue hair."

Welcome to the wine playground. From its yellow-and-green neon sign to its ever-changing front window, this store shouts "Come on in!" No intimidation offered, no snobbery accepted. And customers have responded, lining up out the door for blockbuster free tastings in the mezzanine salon.

"Value, style and quality, that's what we're all about," says owner Mitchell Soodak. In this sense, Union Square is a smashing success. It's clean and well-lit, a beckoning space in the middle of one of Manhattan's hottest restaurant neighborhoods. And the building possesses serious downtown credentials: Andy Warhol got shot upstairs.

Hipness has definitely influenced the selection: An entire wall is given over to cutting-edge New World wines, ranging from an Old Wave Zinfandel 1998 to a Vinum "Chard No Way" 1999. The trophy room is relatively stodgier, but far from unsavvy. Château d'Yquem shares climate-controlled space with magnums of Opus One 1995 (95, $400).

143 E. 27th St.
Telephone (212) 725-6516
Fax (212) 725-6537
Specialty Southern Italy
Stock, price range 8,000 bottles, $9-$750

Charles Scicolone and Nicola Marzovilla share a lifelong passion for Italian wine. First they expressed it through the wine list at I Trulli, Marzovilla's Puglia-inspired restaurant. Then they opened Enoteca I Trulli next door, where the wines by the glass outnumber the dishes on the menu. And last August they created a boutique-style store down the street that sells only Italian wine.

At Vino, the impressive lineup of bottles that represents the Italian boot from top to toe, and to Sicily beyond, perches neatly and discreetly on low, cherry-wood shelves. There are no pushy sales pitches. Tasting notes are nowhere in sight. Instead, an enthusiastic staff is determined to make Vino, according to Marzovilla, a "wine shop for the people."

In fact, it seems as if Vino never stops thinking about its clientele. Customers who drop by the store at five in the afternoon, Tuesday through Saturday, encounter dual treats: The first is the open bottle that is always set out for convivial sampling; the other is the largest selection of southern Italian wine in New York. Highlights include a Savese Terrarossa Primitivo di Manduria 1998 from the up-and-coming region of Apulia; and from Sicily, a Planeta La Segreta Rosso 1999. A climate-controlled room preserves the Gajas, Ornellaias and others that merit special treatment.

Vintage New York
482 Broome St.
Telephone (212) 226-9463
Fax (212) 226-8812
Web site www.vintagenewyork.com
Specialty New York state
Stock, price range 12,000, $8-$37

Vintage New York is an act of regional patriotism in a city not known for its love of the local vineyards. Every wine in the store was made in New York state.

Besides stocking 170 wines, the store also carries artisanal foods. But the real action is at the tasting bar, where $5 buys you five sips from an assortment of bottles. Combined with a sun-drenched farmhouse aesthetic, this has the effect of transporting visitors to the wine country.

Owners Susan Wine and Robert A. Ransom also own the Rivendell Winery in the Hudson Valley, which means the store can be open on Sunday (although wine stores must close on Sunday, New York's Farm Wineries law permits vineyard owners to sell wine on that day). "We wanted to create a wine-discovery zone," says Ransom. Adds Wine, "No one else was going to do it." New Yorkers will be thankful someone did once they swirl a glass of Macari Bergen Road North Fork of Long Island 1997 (88, $36) or a Standing Stone Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 1998 (85, $11).

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