The scene: A wood-paneled wine shop somewhere in Suffolk County. The protagonist: A lone woman (me) hunting for a light-bodied red to bring to a dinner party. The letdown: When I found what I was looking for, hot air was blowing directly on the bottles.
It can be the things you don’t immediately notice that can make or break a wine store. I’ve visited more wine shops than I should probably admit and, consequently have thought long and hard about these particulars. A winning experience can boil down to a few key factors:
- An adventurous, surprising selection, with a clear passion for one or more regions or styles.
- A helpful but not overbearing staff who share their enthusiasm without judgment or pretension, especially when it comes to your preferred price range.
- An active rota of classes and tastings.
- The sense that the owner (or staff) enjoy what they are doing, above and beyond profit, and can guide you into new territory.
Lastly, this not-so-small detail: You shouldn't need to tear off your coat while shopping.
“Bottles should be cool to the touch,” said Michael Amendola, co-owner of The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. “We keep the store on the chilly side. You may not notice it right when you walk in, but from October on, you need a sweater.”
From now until New Years is a sort of wine-a-palooza, when wine stores do a huge chunk of their business for the year and many people venture beyond their everyday bottles. In the spirit of the moment, I’ve compiled a list of stores that hit a high octave — places where you can still grab a magnum for a party, perhaps but also score something you’ve never tried, whether a fiano from Campania (in Italy) or an alluring cool-climate pinot noir from the Sonoma coast. These mostly independently owned wine stores are places that strike a balance between the familiar and the lesser known, and can also inject some idiosyncratic sparkle into your holidays.
Jessica Green, owner of Down The Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique in Sayville, summarizes that spirit. “If someone comes in looking for a pinot grigio, because a lot of people drink pinot grigio, I might guide them toward something similar but different,” said Green. At the moment, inside her store, that might be a grillo or trebbiano from Italy. “By the way, there’s nothing wrong with drinking pinot grigio …” she adds.
Yep, there's nothing wrong with it, but with thousands of wines in the world, you and I have only tried a fraction. Exploring the rest doesn't take a small fortune, either, especially when in the hands of skilled wine store staff. Here are a few places where you will find them.
To explore outside of your comfort zone (and shoot the breeze about wine):
Wines By Nature (5768 Route 25A, Wading River; inside the Shoppes at East Wind): Tucked into a corner of this outdoor mall is this unique wine oasis, founded by owner George Eldi. Eldi’s passion for smaller wine producers — "peoples, places and vineyards," as he puts it — grew during his years as a wine rep for a few distributors. In 2017, Eldi channeled that passion into a store that manages to be both cozy and comprehensive, and where weeding through the offbeat selection feels like an adventure. There is a strong presence of local, organic and biodynamic producers, and a staff that’s happy to chat about it all. "I can guide you to something with just a few questions. What do you like? What will you be eating?" Eldi said. "I want people to hold their wine and liquor stores up to higher standards." More info: 631-886-2800, winesbynatureny.com
To taste alongside neighbors, and grab some first-class sake or mezcal along with your wine:
Corktree Fine Wines & Liquors (83 Main St., Northport): Earlier this year, owners Ajay Wadhwa and Rajeev Talreja purchased this quaint wine shop on Northport’s Main Street, but kept the excellent curation andlively tastings (developed under previous owner John Grasso) alive. On Friday nights, the rustic table in the middle of the store takes on the feel of a salon as neighbors discuss the relative merits of whatever’s open that night, from Languedoc reds to canned bubbles from Oregon. Dogs are always welcome, shelf talkers are handwritten and Roberta Flack might waft from the speakers as you peruse the excellent sake selection, suss out the organic wine corner or grab a bottle of frappato, a light-bodied red from Sicily. More info: 631-651-5787, corktreefinewines.com
For a “hygge” experience:
Mora’s Fine Wines & Spirits (280 Rte. 25A, East Setauket): How on earth can they jam so many great wines into such a tiny space? I am probably not the only one who had this thought the first time I walked into Mora’s, as every possible surface looks filled with wine (and intriguing spirits). It's a delightful hodgepodge, and can happen if you’ve been in business since 1965. The lineups from Spain and Italy are especially wide ranging, and the back wall is where you’ll find the bubbles, including a few local sparklers. On Saturday afternoons, during the weekly tasting, locals in the know jam the narrow aisles, but the wines are usually worth the jostle. It’s a cozy way to pass a late fall afternoon, and co-owner Richard Mora is likely to be nearby, gamely fielding questions. More info: 631-941-4458, moraswines.com
For natural wine lovers:
The Village Wine Merchant (252a Sea Cliff Ave., Sea Cliff): Co-owner and wine director Michael Amendola helms this elegant but friendly wine oasis, particularly strong in organic, biodynamic and “natural,” wines, wines made with little to no additives that can defy your expectations of what wine is and can be. “If people have problems with headaches and reactions on certain wines, we can usually help them,” said Amendola. The shop also has a dynamic roster of classes that run from the elementary (“Wine 101: White Wines,”) to studies of certain regions or styles. Above all, the store puts a premium on small producers and bottles with heart. “We sell the farmstand tomato as opposed to the supermarket tomato,” Amendola said. More info: 516-200-9370, villagewinemerchant.com
For an old-school wine experience:
Post Wine and Spirits (510 Jericho Tpke., Syosset): This may be the most bougie place on the list, a store where you might feel like humming Mozart as you peruse the grower Champagnes. There’s also plenty of Burgundy, Barolo and other plurge-worthy goodies in demand among big-spender oenophiles. But Post Wines also keeps tabs on current wine-world winds, too, offering things such as canned wines, splits (half bottles of wine) and gems like cabernet franc from the Loire. Their selection of Italian whites, a solid barometer of wine-store chops, is enviable. Post Wines also excels when it comes to classes and tastings — during a recent visit I stumbled into a free tasting of Champagne from producer Laurent-Perrier. More info: 516-921-1820, postwines.com
To grab bottles from across the spectrum, from Bolla to Brunello:
Pop’s Wine & Spirits (256 Long Beach Rd., Island Park): In 1944, soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy, a loaf of bread averaged 10 cents and FDR was elected to a fourth term. It was also the year Pop’s was founded, and that deep anchor in the community makes this a place that knows how to cater to multiple tastes. Fondle an obscure bottle from northern Italy, and a clerk might reminisce about his trip to that specific winery — but you can also grab a $200 Napa cab or a bottle of malbec for under a tenner, or attend tastings several times each week. More info: 516-431-0025, popswine.com
To find big flavors in a tiny space:
Down the Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique (4 Main St., Sayville): At 100 square feet, this is likely the smallest wine store in New York, but owner Jessica Green uses the space to excellent effect; she offers an ever-changing well of offbeat wines such as orange wine from Italy, petillant naturel (a fresh, effervescent wine) from France’s Bergerac region and organic cava from northern Spain. “We specialize in small-batch, obscure, biodynamic and sustainable wines,” said Green, who took over the business in May and, come warmer weather, can deliver wines to the Fire Island Ferry. More info: 631-589-9463, downtherabbitholewines.com
Navigating the giants
Independently owned wine stores can be where it's at in terms of service, guidance and an interesting selection. It's impossible to ignore, though, the wine-store colossi where prices are intensely competitive. Among these are the string of wine discounters (Bottlebuys. Bottles & Cases, et al.), Stew Leonard's Wines, and the store that shook the local industry when it arrived in 2017: Total Wine Spirits & More in Westbury. Here are some tips for navigating the largesse of the last two.
Total Wine Spirits & More (1230 Old Country Rd., Westbury): The prices at this supermarket of wine (part of a chain) seem to defy the laws of microeconomics, with certain wines sold near to cost. For me, this place has two strengths: The Italian wine section is impressively beefy, as is the area devoted to New York-produced wine and spirits. The latter aisles make clear how prolific and creative in-state vignerons and distillers can be, and here you'll find bottles from the Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley that you'd be hard pressed to locate elsewhere on Long Island. The roster of Long Island wines is lengthy, too. More info: 516-357-0090, totalwine.com
Stew Leonard's Wine (210 Airport Plaza Blvd, Farmingdale): The Farmingdale outpost of this brand (each with a separate owner) is a maze of case displays, but a few things to look out for: The chilled case is particularly well curated, the sparkling-wine area is a boon to party planners and over near the magnums is a shelf of under-$30 wine choices that has some gems. Note: The case discount at Stew Leonard’s Wines and Spirits of Farmingdale is 10 percent on six or more bottles, but only for wines prices ending in a 7 or 8. (Another Long Island location in the Parkway Plaza in Carle Place). More info: 631-249-3611, stewswines.com