Look at wine descriptions posted under bottles. Are they written by the store’s staff? That’s a positive sign, indicating personal investment and a distinct point of view. These are vastly preferable to preprinted “shelf-talkers,” with notes and scores from outside critics or periodicals; they suggest a lack of confidence, laziness or abdication of critical responsibilities.
Are bottles displayed standing up or lying down? It doesn’t really matter. Lying down is more traditional and preferable for long-term aging, though that doesn’t apply to bottles with screw caps, with no corks to be kept moist. Upright is a little friendlier and less formal. But neither is an indicator of quality. Bargain crates near the door? They often contain less interesting mass-market wines that are rarely good values.
Many characteristics are matters of personal taste. Does it matter if stores are big or small? Not really, though as with restaurant wine lists, a smaller, more focused selection will be less intimidating. Big stores have to work harder to offer personal attention.
In-store tastings are welcome, but you should never feel obliged to buy. Samplers, a half or whole case put together by the store, are useful. But even better are sample cases that are assembled specifically for customers. Good stores are happy to do this.
More important than the physical characteristics are a store’s atmosphere and point of view. It’s the difference between a sterile and a comfortable shopping experience.
At Bay Grape, a wine shop that opened a year and a half ago in Oakland, California, upright shelves of bottles bear allusive messages like “She Sells Seashells” on a Muscadet. At a rustic wood-plank communal table near the front of the store, Zach Beauchamp, an assistant manager, led a half-dozen visitors in a discussion and tasting of Austrian wines. A group of women at a small table in front shared a bottle, and a few lone souls took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and pecked away at laptops. It was a classic community gathering spot centered on wine, warm and inviting.
The approach has won Bay Grape an ardent clientele. “It’s great when you can have a conversation; it’s less transactual,” said Eliza Kinsolving, who had stopped in for the wine class.
At Back Label Wine Merchants in Manhattan, you won’t get very far into the handsome shop before you are greeted cheerfully and offered assistance. The sales clerk may engage you in conversation to determine your tastes and what you are seeking, or will recognize that you are browsing and don’t want a hovering presence.
“It’s all about hospitality, of course,” said Patrick Watson, who opened Back Label in May 2014. “You don’t have to be Danny Meyer to understand how critical hospitality is to the experience.”
Hospitality is more than a warm greeting. It’s anticipating how people shop and what information they want. At Back Label, Watson arranged the display as if following the progression of wines at a dinner party, starting with bubbly and moving through whites to reds, Old World to New World, subdivided by localities. For a more in-depth perspective, he also displays wines by characteristic — those made from grapes grown in limestone soils, say, or wines with lively acidity.
“Displays need to be more personal than ‘Australia’ or ‘Bordeaux,'” he said. Geographical designations are still the most useful, I believe, but a little extra thought is often welcome.
Some stores track what their shoppers buy, which is great service. You can use their record either as a simple memory device (“I had this white wine that I really liked, but I can’t remember what it was. … “) or to build on your experiences (“I really liked that wine. Can you recommend a different bottle that I also may like?”).
At her two Unwined shops in Alexandria, Virginia, Vanessa Moore trains her staff to recognize customers by name and to get to know their tastes. Her shops specialize in small-production, family wineries, and her inventory is constantly shifting, a difficult notion for customers to accept if they are used to widely available brands. It requires winning their trust.
“I want my stores to be like I’m entertaining in my own home,” she said. “I want to anticipate what everybody needs to be really happy.”
Such eager accommodation is not the norm. About 35 percent of retail wine sales are in supermarkets, according to Nielsen, where hospitality essentially consists of loudspeaker announcements like, “Mop needed in Aisle 4.”
Strolling through a Safeway recently in Santa Rosa, California, one of more than 35 states that permit wine to be sold in supermarkets, I couldn’t help but gape at the selection of brand names. Sweets lovers could chew on wines called Layer Cake, Cupcake or Cherry Tart. Romantics could fantasize about Bewitched, Dalliance, Ménage à Trois or Zin-Phomaniac (“You’ll never get enough!”). Self-loathers could take a deep dive into Freakshow and Plungerhead.
Such mass-market selections represent the junk-food aisles of wine, filled with vacuous bottles that will leave any wine lover malnourished. Many good wine shops don’t carry any mass-market brands at all, especially if they are readily available elsewhere nearby. The best shops have a guiding point of view and individual, sometimes quirky characteristics.
Appellation Wine & Spirits, which after 10 years in west Chelsea will soon be moving to London Terrace, sells only wines from organically, biodynamically or sustainably farmed grapes. Some Good Wine, in Greenwich Village, offers a wide range mostly from small producers. The owner, Jeremy Block, has a particular passion for wines from the Canary Islands, Corsica and the Czech Republic.
Good shops understand that the best values are around $15 to $25, so they ought to have a lot of good selections in that range. They should have cheaper wines, too, though without pandering. Pinot noirs for $5 may make sense in the supermarket environment of Trader Joe’s, where the strategy is to sell dull wine cheap, like Two-Buck Chuck, but not in a good wine shop.
The best merchants can teach you about wine, but they understand that a little information is often enough. Few people appreciate a lecture on soil types or wine chemistry. Like good psychologists, sales clerks must always gauge the desires of their customers.
At Bay Grape, the casual, almost playful atmosphere is underscored by rigorous service and a deep awareness of the insecurity that comes with shopping for wine. Its husband-and-wife owners, Josiah Baldivino and Stevie Stacionis, have both worked as sommeliers — Baldivino for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex group of restaurants in New York and Michael Mina in San Francisco. They have trained their staff to engage customers in conversation and to ask in-depth questions.
No shop will always be able to get you the specific bottle you want, especially with small producers and various government regulations, which give every state its own peculiarities. But good merchants should always be ready to offer something similar.
“We really want to get at what people want, so we can say, ‘I don’t have that, but I think you would love this,'” Stacionis said.
State regulations can also shape the atmosphere of a wine shop. New York shops cannot sell beer, unlike those in Virginia and California. Unwined in Alexandria has an excellent selection of craft beers, including six taps for filling growlers, while Bay Grape offers a fine assortment of bottled beers. New York wine shops, strangely, are also not permitted to sell food, unlike Virginia and California.
Bay Grape will sell you a bottle of wine for the retail price, and then for a small corkage fee, serve it in good glasses at the shop. It also sells packaged snacks to accompany the wine, picnic-style.
“It’s very cool to see people opening a bottle and, if they are not going to finish it, offer it to people they don’t even know,” Baldivino said. “It’s building a community. For us, it’s the most important thing.”