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The Retailers Changing How We Buy Wine

Today’s wine store is no longer just a place to buy wine.

Maine and Loire Wine Portland

There are two throwback stories that wine buyers of a certain age love to tell. The first is a Rumpelstiltskin-esque fairytale in which a guy buys bottles of first-growth Bordeaux in the ’80s for $12.99, only to spin them into thousands years later. The second recalls a magical drive into the Sonoran desert (or Coral Gables or a dodgy part of Baltimore), where an unnamed roadside party store proves to be an oasis for $45 bottles of Krug—if one is only willing to crouch down to a dusty, but perfectly temperature-controlled bottom shelf.

While these sorts of felicitous acquisition tales are now few and far between (the word got out about that party store), it’s hard to argue that there’s been a better time than the present to buy wine in the States. To say that the internet has quickly changed the way many obtain wine is an understatement; increasingly, doorsteps are the new wine shops. And yet a growing number of independent wine stores continue to drill deeper, offering a more nuanced, personal touch.

Plenty of extraordinary new shops have opened in the past year, like Suzi Jane An’s petite, highly curated natural shop in Seattle, Vita Uva. Charleston, South Carolina, has seen a bumper crop of smart additions, including Edmund’s Oast Exchange, Monarch Wine Merchants from New York-escapee Justin Coleman and the forthcoming Graft Wine from sommelier Femi Oyediran. And while new blood in the game is newsy, just as exciting are the stable of shops that have evolved with the market, like New York’s Chamber’s Street Wines, a leader in the natural wine world and seller of old and rare bottles.

Today’s curious, next-generation buyers are also benefitting from the fact that there’s just way more wine available. With a fleet of small importers opening avenues for more producers, retailers in many markets are able to expand offerings to include more corners of the wine world. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this has led, in many instances, to stores being more curated with their selections. It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a substantial Jura section, but nothing from Alsace. Gone are the days of having to tick boxes.

“Retailers are developing their inventory similar to a way a restaurant would develop its wine list,” says Jill Bernheimer, owner of Domaine LA in Los Angeles, which focuses on natural wines. “They’re interacting with customers in a way a restaurant would interact with their guests to figure out what they want.” She says she currently works with at least 40 different wine vendors.

In the same light, a number of wine stores have become adept at sourcing older wines, be it from private collectors, auctions or directly from the producers themselves. The aforementioned Chambers Street Wines has set the bar high in Barolo, whereas K&L in California offers uncommon depth in New World wines. Flatiron Wines, with locations in both New York and San Francisco, is a relative newcomer, but often has great selections of vintage Champagne and Burgundy.

Thrillingly, this movement isn’t just happening in the country’s biggest cities. An influx of forward-thinking shop owners have set up shop in smaller towns and are finding ways to give customers access to better wines. A standout in this class is Portland, Maine’s Maine & Loire. Three years ago, when Orenda and Peter Hale moved from north from Brooklyn, a number of the importers they were used to working with, like Selection Massale and Jenny & François, weren’t yet in the state. The two worked with distributors to bring in more options. A year later, the Hales opened their adjacent wine bar, Drifters Wife, which has become a gathering spot for the city’s intrepid drinkers. Here and elsewhere, the line between restaurant and retail is blurring.

So, while today’s consumer may not be stumbling on discount Krug at a party store, the chances that she can discover great wine—and more—at her local wine store is now practically a given. Here are five wine shops that are shaping the way we buy wine today.

Chambers Street Wines | New York

Since it opened in 2001, Chambers Street Wines has served two purposes: providing a stage for wines once relegated to Paris wine bars, and procuring and selling old and rare wines from private cellars and auctions, particularly Barolo (back to the 1950s and ’60s). Chambers is particularly unique in that, even though it’s not a large shop, its staff is composed of experts in certain regions who travel annually to seek out new producers. When the store first opened, there were only a handful of companies importing natural wine; Chambers has been crucial in growing that corner of the market. Many stores aspire to recreate this combination of small naturalist and back-vintage classics. “Some have emulated the selection because it worked,” says Eben Lillie, son of co-owner, David Lillie. “But then there’s the staff and the personality. Just like a restaurant it’s not just the wine list; what makes the store stand apart is the staff and the passion to communicate the story.”

Who: David Lillie, Jamie Wolff, Eben Lillie
Where: New York
What it’s known for: Natural wine, as well as old Barolo, Burgundy and German riesling
Pro-tip: Yes, Chambers Street has a preponderance of old Barolo, but it also has an stash of older bottles from Alto Piemonte, a region that has long been under appreciated, but remains a treasure trove for age-worthy wines, also from the nebbiolo grape, at affordable prices.

Maine & Loire and Drifters Wife | Portland, Maine

New York expats, Peter and Orenda Hale, opened their shop, Maine & Loire, in Portland, Maine, three years ago, and their adjoining wine bar, Drifters Wife, a year later. While Portland has long had a dynamic restaurant scene, its wine opportunities weren’t as strong. The Hales managed to leverage their small-town status to offer wines that are typically hard to find in more crowded markets. “Friends come up from New York and say, ‘you can’t buy this from retail in New York, you could only drink it in a restaurant,’” Orenda says. “We might only get two cases of something, but that’s enough, whereas New York might get ten cases that have to be divvied amongst everyone in the city.” The Hales join a growing number of stores, like Kingston Wine in Kingston, New York, and Wine Shoppe in Waco, Texas, that have worked to bring new wines, and a new wine culture, to smaller towns. “If you’re going to move somewhere and start your life, you have to have something you can share with the community,” says Peter. “We want to drink this stuff, hang out this way, eat this way.”

Who: Peter and Orenda Hale
Where: Portland, Maine
What it’s known for: Natural wine and modern wine bar dishes from chef Ben Jackson
Pro-tip: While the wine bar runs a list of by-the-glass wines, in fact, every bottle in the shop is available by the glass in the bar. If you see something you want to try, just ask.

Elie Wine Company | Birmingham, Michigan

When Elie Boudt opened his Elie Wine Company outside Detroit 26 years ago, the shop was purely French-focused. Over time, he’s become a go-to for Burgundy, particularly for his depth of vintage bottles, bought when released and aged on premise—a rarity. But over the years he’s also expanded his interests to include wines from throughout France and Spain, many of which are directly imported for the store. He travels several times a year to find small producers and then navigates what he calls “the legal maze” to have an importer and distributor bring them in just for him. In Michigan, where wine is sold in the grocery store, Boudt has faced an uphill battle in convincing drinkers to make an extra stop. But over time, he’s amassed a serious following—and an impressive stock of wines with age.

Who: Elie Boudt
Where: Birmingham, Michigan
What it’s known for: Vintage Burgundy, bottles from small producers in southern France and Catalonia
Pro-tip: Catalan wine is of particular interest to Boudt these days—just ask him.

Domaine LA | Los Angeles

Jill Bernheimer, owner of Domaine LA, says that when she opened in 2010, she was careful about using the term “natural wine” about her selections for fear of alienating her customers. “I remember one conversation after I first opened and I mentioned the vineyards were farmed organically and a woman was really put off and scared and hesitant,” she says. “It’s annoying in the other direction now.” (Thanks to Action Bronson, barely a day goes by that someone doesn’t come in asking for Frank Cornelissen’s Susucaru by name.) In the eight years that she’s been open, Bernheimer has championed these wines in a way that dialed the intimidation factor way back—mostly by way of her pretense-free staff in a section of the wine market where the opposite tends to breed.

Who: Jill Bernheimer
Where: Los Angeles
What it’s known for: Natural wines from both the Old and New Worlds.
Pro-tip: Bernheimer runs two monthly wine clubs aimed at off-the-beaten path discovery for the “gastronomist” (i.e. focused on more “classic” wines) and the more new wave “naturalist.”

K&L | California

“I think the big challenge is keeping up with all the technology,” says K&L vice president, Trey Beffa. Beffa’s family (the K in K&L) has been operating the company since 1976 (he’s been there since 1997). At first, K&L hung its hat on offering wines from producers not found in big-box stores, particularly wines from smaller producers in California. While they still do that, the company has evolved in many ways, selling futures of Bordeaux and Burgundy, older bottlings of California wines and special bottles made exclusively for K&L, and buying directly from wineries in Europe. In the process, they’ve managed to do what many stores haven’t: They’ve scaled while still preserving their point of view. They are also one of the first wine merchants to really embrace selling wine on the internet, and tech remains important to the brand.

Who: Trey Beffa
Where: Redwood City, California; San Francisco and Los Angeles
What it’s known for: Exceptional selection of California wines (old and new) and Bordeaux and Burgundy futures
Pro-tip: Wine laws have restricted K&L’s ability to ship to all but seven states these days. So plan to make a stop when in California.

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