Liquids: Wine Shops

Near the very last sip of 2003, at the height of the holiday madness, two things happened in the wine world that signaled a new era for buying booze in this great city of ours. First, the state’s ban on Sunday alcohol purchases was lifted—and only 70 years after the end of Prohibition! Then, three weeks later, a wine shop called Brix opened in the South End, designed to change forever the way we will buy wine in this town.

Partners Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski have created a shop that’s both smart and sexy, and makes you want to hang out in it. On top of it all, the staff is accommodating, knowledgeable, honest, and eager. “The concept was to have a wine store/wine bar, which is legal in Europe but not in Massachusetts,” says Mally, who was born in Poland. “So the look is like a bar, but it’s a store.” This explains why the spirits are lined up on the wall behind the checkout counter looking ready to pour. But don’t let the chic décor fool you: Most of the 800 wines are priced between $9 and $25.

Wroblewski, who does the buying, says her initial inventory of wines from just about every region on the globe was chosen to feel out the locals. “We like to say we’re in partnership with the neighborhood, and waiting to see what people want more of and how it corresponds with what we like,” she says. Brix’s affordable prices reflect what Wroblewski calls the “Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday wines—at $10, $11, $12—plus, of course, wines like French Burgundies in the $40 to $50 range.” She says most customers so far have been opting for bottles that go for around $15 (would that make them Friday wines?), which is probably what a cocktail would cost at Brix if only the women could serve them.

While Brix has raised the bar for wine shopping, it’s not the first wine shop in town to challenge the status quo. Best Cellars did that in Brookline six years ago when partners Josh Wesson and Richard Marmet devised a plan to offer 100 wines at $10 or less (they’ve since started offering a few at up to $15), displaying bottles lying down in cool, backlit columns, and grouped in categories that entice our senses: “Fizzy,” “Juicy,” “Luscious,” etc. The concept was and remains simply brilliant.

All of these observations help answer what many readers of this column want to know most: Where do I shop for wine? There’s no single answer. I have many, many favorites, but what’s more important is why I go where I go. I have a checklist I keep in this very dark and crowded head of mine, and I check off each item whenever I walk into a wine shop for the first time. Here it is. If you like it, by all means, make it yours, too.

>>SERVICE. I’m the kind of reactionary who will turn around and walk out of a store if I’m not greeted properly—or at all. Why? My logic is simple: If you want my money, which will keep you in business and/or employed, be nice to me. Wine shops I frequent have employees who are knowledgeable and helpful, and above all enthusiastic. Over the years I’ve become friends with some retailers simply because we love to talk about wine so much. But basically every customer, regardless of wine knowledge, should be made to feel welcome and assisted in a way that makes him or her feel utterly at ease and not the least bit intimidated.

>>STORAGE. Readers of this column know I’m passionate about treating wine properly, specifically with regard to the temperature at which it’s stored (and served). If a wine shop is as toasty as Granny’s kitchen, I’m wary, because the wines are slowly cooking. After all, wine is perishable: Its quality degenerates when a wine is exposed to erratic temperature fluctuations. Wine bottles should also be stored lying down (with only a display bottle standing up), because if wine doesn’t touch the cork, the cork dries out and the wine dies. Therefore, I prefer my wine shops to be chilly and the bottles in recline.

>>SELECTION. Obviously, selection depends on space, but no matter the size of a shop, its inventory should reflect an interesting representation of wines from around the world. Even if bottles are categorized simply by country, there should be more than just one Chianti in the Italian section, for example, or one Champagne with the French wines. What really gets me excited is finding shops that seek out hard-to-find regional wines and rare bottles. And if a shop doesn’t have a wine I’m looking for, I absolutely expect the salesperson to offer to …

>>SPECIAL ORDER. One of the biggest complaints I hear from friends is that their local shop doesn’t stock a wine we tasted at my house. My reply is always, “Did you ask them to special order it for you?” The best retailers should be willing to track down any bottle of alcohol that’s available for sale in this state. If they won’t, tell them farewell.

>>PRICE. Wine prices vary from store to store and, as with real estate, by location. A friend who sells wine taught me to look at benchmark bargain wines—the Gallo jug wines, for example, or the budget-priced double-bottles (magnums)—for consistency. If, say, a bottle of Portuguese vinho verde is priced above $8 when it should be $5, I’m skeptical. The only real way for you to know if your shop is pricing its wine fairly is to shop around and compare.

>>DISCOUNT POLICIES. Whenever I buy wine by the case, I expect a discount. Any respectable retailer should offer you one, ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent. I think 20 percent should be standard, considering you’re buying 12 bottles of a single brand. (Mixed cases carry different rules.) Ten percent is stingy. What’s great about cultivating a relationship with a retailer is that if you spend enough in his or her store, he or she might eventually offer you discounts on all your purchases. I’ve got a handwritten card from the owner of one such shop offering me 20 percent off all purchases of wines that aren’t already discounted.

Which store is it? The one I go to the most often.