Wine Shops

Oenophiles spend their free time dining, drinking, and dishing. A few tips from local wine experts will make your next BYO experience a festival of swirling and swishing, without any wasteful spitting.

It’s mid-May and the food world is aflutter—yesterday’s headlines are that New York City celebrity chef David Burke has just bought the Fromagerie, in Rumson. Burke! At the Fromagerie! But for the chef it’s not time for champagne—will there ever be time?—because today he’s still slaving over a hot stove, preparing dinner for a wine tasting at Pegasus, the penthouse restaurant at the Meadowlands Racetrack, where betting generally overshadows the rest of the day’s events. But it’s difficult to overshadow Burke, who is attracting attention with a multi-course dinner of asparagus flan, lobster with chorizo, and filet mignon with foie gras; he greets his lawyer—kiss, kiss—and signs the papers for his liquor license. The chef could clearly use a few hours of downtime. Yet he makes nice with the guests.

The reason is simple: Wine has become that important.

Suddenly, it seems, wine is an American lifestyle accessory. We spend more money than ever on wine (twice what we spent a decade ago), we go to tastings, we host wine parties in our home, we read wine blogs. Wine has become fresh, trendy, glamorous, fun.

“Wine is absolutely hot,” says Felicia Sherbert, author of The Unofficial Guide to Selecting Wine and president of What’s My Wine?, a Fair Haven–based communications and consulting firm for wine, spirits, and lifestyle. “Yes, it is the newest accessory.”

Thanks, in part, to the sophisticated under-30 crowd of Baby Boomer progeny who are less likely to drink beer than previous generations. Thanks, too, to the 2004 movie Sideways, which single-handedly boosted sales of pinot noir. “There is definitely a Sideways effect,” says Sherbert. “It brought [wine] down to earth in a way. It made people feel a little more comfortable and have a little fun with it.”

Here then are a few New Jersey shops that keep the fun and lose the mystery fininding a good bottle—while preserving the mystique.

40 Quimby Lane

Chris Cree is rumpled, in an L.L. Bean sort of way, which automatically pegs him as perhaps a literature professor instead of a man with one of the most sophisticated wine palates in the world. But Cree is professorial as he dispenses his wine expertise at dinners, at tastings, at his store, to small groups of people throughout the state.

Cree, who owns 56 Degree Wine in Bernardsville, is a wine master. It’s an official title that belongs to just 23 Americans, and it means he’s passed the prestigious and difficult Master of Wine exam (part of the test is a blind tasting of 36 wines; tasters must identify each grape, each region, and each production method). Talk about bragging rights.

Yet Cree is no snob; he believes in the democracy of wine—a good bottle belongs to all of us. Yes, he does talk about nuance and undertones and lingering finishes. But at, say, a wine tasting for the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey at the exclusive Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, or a wine dinner at Classic Thyme Kitchen Shoppe in Westfield, he’s more likely to tell you not to stress too much over stemware (it’s the wine, stupid), and that most whites are served too cold and most reds are served too warm. He’ll explain how big rocks in a vineyard can dramatically change a wine’s taste—they soak up the day’s sun and reflect back the heat at night, and therefore the grapes ripen faster and become more sweet. You start to feel as though you might be able to decipher this wine stuff after all.

At Cree’s store, the thermostat is set at the perpetually perfect temperature for preserving a vintage, hence the shop’s name. The wines come from small vineyards, many organic. They are handpicked by Cree, who travels extensively to find the best small wineries in the world. You can even buy a $10 bottle here.

Oh, and one more word from the expert. “People always ask me, ‘Chris, what is it in wine that gives you the headache?’ And I tell them, ‘It’s the alcohol.’ ”

586 Morris Avenue

A Grüner Veltliner is a white wine from Austria with a small but fanatical following. Go to most shops and you can choose from perhaps two vintages. At Wine Library, you’ll find six or seven. That’s the “Aha!” moment, the moment when a customer thinks to himself, Wow, this place really does have everything.

It’s hard to think otherwise, especially on Saturday mornings here, when shoppers push their carts through the store’s wide aisles and fill them to the brim with bottle after bottle. Wine Library is nothing if not consumer friendly—a towering aquarium amuses the kids, nearly every wine carries a shelf talker (industry speak for the blurbs next to each vintage), and the shop itself is set up almost like a college’s mock U.N. conference, with signs from different countries proudly marking their territory. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell pipes through the speakers; this is definitely a haven for the modern, hip—and adventurous—wine drinker.

The philosophy? If you teach them, they will come. “May I help you?” is obviously the first line in the employee handbook, but here your customer service representative is actually a wine consultant who has likely taken several trips overseas to visit wineries and taste vintages. Even timid customers stopping in for their bottle of standby Cabernet eventually relent and ask for perhaps a cheeky but inexpensive white to serve at a summer barbecue. Try this, they’ll be told—it’s an Italian white with a hint of lemon. It’s crisp, it’s fun. And it’s only $9.99.

Value is critical at Wine Library. This is a store that wants to offer the lowest prices with the best selection and spread the word about the value of wines from places other than France and California. Why, there’s a whole world waiting for you out there! Why not try a Rioja, or a Cava? After all, Spanish wines are hot, hot, hot—as we speak, director of sales Gary Vaynerchuk (son of owner Alexander Vaynerchuk) is getting ready for another trip to Spain. Or consider a bottle from South Africa, another region that’s turning out impressive vintages with reasonable prices.

“Wine’s meant to be consumed,” says Brandon Warnke, vice president of operations. “It should stimulate conversation and provide a great evening.”

7200 North Park Drive

This store bills itself as countertrend; here, you’ll have a Continental experience, not an American one.

“Europeans don’t go around driving Hummers or bragging about spending hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine,” says Moore employee Dale Belville. The shop is owned by Gregory Moore, former sommelier of Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, and his brother David. “The art of the sommelier is the art of matching wine, food and people,” Gregory says.

Think of the difference between that heirloom tomato ripening in your backyard garden and the one at the supermarket in three months. That’s the difference between drinking an artisanal wine from an organic vineyard in France and, say, a Kendall Jackson Cabernet, which, at 2.5 million cases produced per year, could be considered the Bud Light of wines.

The brothers buy their wines from wineries that produce only a few hundred cases a year. Unfortunately, most Americans have no clue how wine was meant to be. Artisanal wine is brighter, fresher, cleaner, Belville says. “It’s like going to France and tasting cheese for the first time.”

Oh, and don’t think artisanal necessarily translates into big bucks. More than half
the wine in the store is less than $17 a bottle.

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