Courting a New Wine Shop
I’m the last guy to champion my local retailers. Why, you ask? Because they stink…well, that’s not fair- they’re dirty and unimaginative and overpriced and overstocked w/ commercial rate crap. Brooklyn- home of the liquor store, wine shops need not apply. Who needs one anyway when the neighborhood packy just got a fresh supply of Carlos Rossi by the jug & some Santa Margherita for the snobs? I’ve always been under the impression that fine borough products all ended up in restaurants, leaving us idiots that actually shop the stores holding the bag. With the arrival of the Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street & Fairway Grocer down the block, I’m beginning to change my tune. Well, at least a little.
The team at Smith & Vine has opened up an expansive, yet cozy all the same style shop that covers a wide variety of its wine bases. Elegant tasting room ‘Learning Center’ for evening classes- check. Local wineries of high quality represented at all price points- check. Wall of rose for the summer- check. Fine fizz (artisan rose Cava by Raventos to Dirler Cremant to grower Champagne a la Guy Larmandier)- check. The entire portfolio of Neal Rosenthal, including a monument to Paolo Bea which showcases every friggin’ wine the domaine makes- check.
The store itself is shaped like a railroad apartment, draped in exposed brick and slick lighting. The bottles are stacked on opposing sides, cut by a 12 dollar and under table full of solid summer buys. As opposed to going the ‘Wine Spectator said this’ shelf talker route, the Wine Exchange prepares their own pieces to accompany each bottle. The snippets include background details on the domaine, soil type, vine age, upbringing, blend & a brief tasting note. The aforementioned Learning Center isn’t exactly an Astor Wine & Spirits ‘Star Trek the Next Generation’ war room. It has the look, size & feel of Murray’s Cheese tasting room (for those who haven’t been there, think cozy tucked away nook- two long, rectangular tables on opposing sides headed by a bar podium). Smartly, the staff takes part in the tasting events & shares the results w/ customers when suggesting wines.
The website, complete w/ inept search-less engine (perhaps I’m the one that is navigationally impaired, it’s not you it’s me) is molded in Smith & Vine clay, highlighting Friday, Saturday, Sunday weekly tastings, Learning Center events & reminds you that mixed cases are discounted, local delivery is free & that you are indeed loved. Curiously, I click on the last icon labeled ‘we love you…,’ only to note its subsequent message ‘…we really do.’ This type of web interface charm makes me all fuzzy inside (eh-hem, Polish package store owner on Manhattan avenue in Greenpoint, put down your brown paper bagged bottle of Zywiec malt liquor and start taking notes). For you night owls, they’re open till 10:30- a particularly useful commodity to those w/ late reservations at a nearby Cobble Hill B.Y.O.
Fans of fine Riesling are more than taken care of, from Clare Valley to the Rheinhessen, w/ value being at a premium. Case and point- a bottle of ’89 Geschwister Ehrhard Spatlese retails for around 30 dollars (hey math majors, that’s one dollar and forty three cents per year of age). Maturity at such a silly price makes me think these rock-heads are onto something. I showed zero restraint and picked up 2 bottles, rolling the 2 bowling pin shaped bottles to the counter for purchase. The growing clutter of my selections was beginning to obscure the register.
While the size of the shop limits its potential for depth, the selections are expansive and provide solid highlights across the rest of the global vineyard. Top producers are represented from Washington (K Vintners, Owen Roe) to Alto Adige (Kofererhof, Lageder) to Abruzzi (Valentini) to the Loire (Joly, Huet, Germain & a ’90 Raffault Les Picasses for 60 dollars) to Alsace (Humbrecht) to Austria (Pichler, Prager, Kracher) to Germany (Donnhoff, Selbach) to Spain (Muga, Pesquera) to Carema (the magnum of ’03 Ferrando black label was love at first swallow) & even South American pioneers Durigutti, Weinert, Achaval Ferrer & Casa Marin all make appearances on the shelves chez Brooklyn Wine Exchange. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Rhone, my region d’etre, well consider the source- my feeble attempt at objectivity looses a bit of traction when I mention Clos St. Jean, Clape, Cuilleron & Barroche are represented as well.
Obscure varietal aficionados will rejoice in wines like Weingut Schlossmuhlenhof’s ‘08 Dornfelder, South African Bukettraube from Cederberg, Bisson’s full bodied Ciliegiolo from Italy, Chateau Viella’s ’07 Tannat blend from the South of France, a Hondarribi Zuri from Spain (a WHAT from Spain?) or, for those that find Prosecco tame, how about a sparkling Scheurebe from Dr. Becker to wet your whistle? Not to be outdone, Schloss Muhlenhof’s Ortega U. 100 percent Siegerrebe Berrenauslese ’99 from the Rheinhessen is a veritable supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of dessert wines. Said moniker could only be endowed upon a Siegerrebe. Siegerrebe, just rolls of the tongue now doesn’t it? I’m sitting here trying to imagine how the hell to pronounce such a flatulent contraption of a word, but I’ve got nothing. Damn Germans, I think my spell check just self-immolated. Well, for 20 bucks and change you get an unpronounceable eleven year old dessert wine. At least you don’t have to pay per letter. Sake even makes an appearance, though the lack of karaoke bar presence in Brooklyn could dampen sake’s potential to augment its respective shelf market share.
New Yorkers looking to scout the local flavor can do some real damage on the table to their immediate left upon walking through the door. Top tier producers from the forks include Shinn, Schneider, Paumanok, Channing Daughters & Macari. The Finger Lakes are also well represented, led by Atwater State’s Gewurztraminer, dry whites from Ravines and a single vineyard designated Riesling from Hermann J. Weimer that, to my palate, is up w/ the best dry Riesling in the country. A singular selection from the Wine Exchange comes from down the street at Red Hook Winery, as asymmetrical a project as can be imagined. Scholium Project’s Abe Schoener & Bob Foley consult on a wide array of wines made from North Fork fruit. Before you spontaneously combust allow me to note that Foley & Schoener consult on separate wines, with each bottle carrying the name of the winemaker. Out of the 3 2008’s I tasted- the debut vintage- the Foley Chardonnay was the most conventional, a round & ample Macon look alike undercut by mouth-watering acidity. Abe’s Jamesport Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc had all the clarity of a smoggy Los Angeles day & a viscous, salty midpalate. The last of the bunch, dubbed ‘The Electric,’ was a novel idea combining Chardonnay w/ botrytised Riesling, yet was marred by far too much volatility & bizarre gelatinousness for me to recommend it to the non-eccentrics. Those interested in getting their hands on a Red Hook offering best make their way down to the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, as they’re the only retailer w/ has access to them.
To be fair, Heights Chateau on Atlantic is a terrific shop, as is Smith & Vine, Brooklyn Wine Exchange’s progenitor. That said, Brooklyn as a borough has been essentially bereft of innovation & quality in its wine retail scene. UVA, the Green Grape & a couple other shops prodded a bit of intrigue, but the Brooklyn Wine Exchange has finally given me compelling reason to do my wine shopping locally (though I’ll still enjoy my road trips up to North White Plains to gorge on high quality juice from Grapes the Wine Company). If you’re out in the hood I highly recommend you pop in. Courting a new wine shop may be awkward at first, but I’ll admit it- it’s a lot of fun. This must be how my wife feels about shoe shopping…