Understanding New York’s Wine Network

What happens in New York doesn’t stay in New York — it quickly spreads elsewhere. That’s why having a present in New York City is a must. Jeff Siegel explains the landscape of both state and city.

Reading time: 6m

New York has a vibrating wine scene (Photo: eyetronic/stock.adobe.com)
New York has a vibrating wine scene (Photo: eyetronic/stock.adobe.com)

Much has happened in the world of New York state wine since the end of the pandemic. Sherry-Lehman, one of the most iconic wine shops in US history, closed in 2023 following several investigations by state and federal officials and a long list of unpaid bills. Meanwhile, Chelsea Wine Storage, part of retailer Chelsea Wine Co., was accused of mismanaging its clients’ millions of dollars- worth of wine and faced a state investigation. Trader Joe’s, in what seemed to be a labour dispute, closed a Manhattan store, the only one in the chain allowed to sell wine.

RNDC, the second largest wholesaler in the country, moved into the state after forming a joint venture with Opici Family Distributing. For the first time, home-grown wholesaler Empire Merchants faces competition from the two biggest distributors in the country, Southern-Glazer’s, and RNDC.

Once again, proponents of allowing wine to be sold in New York state supermarkets lobbied the state legislature to change the law that limits wine sales to non-grocery retailers, with even more money and clout behind them.

A shakeout in the on-premise continued, especially in New York City, with more restaurant closures as well as smaller wine lists and job cuts among sommeliers and beverage managers. The latter was such big news that it made national headlines.

Once again, the attempt to allow supermarket wine sales looks to fail.

But, as earth-shaking as all of that was, much didn’t change. The New York City area remains one of the world’s top spots for natural wine, and its wine media — consumer and trade — is national. Small retailers who specialise in niche categories abound, and the biggest off-premise operations continue to exert influence, even outside the state. The Finger Lakes is one of the world’s great regions for Riesling.

And, once again, the attempt to allow supermarket wine sales looks to fail.

Why does all this matter?

“Because New York matters,” says Jane Kettlewell, a long-time Manhattan wine marketer and publicist. “As far as imported wines are concerned, New York is ground zero. The US media capital, including wine media, is here. It not only has countless restaurants and wine stores, but they’re  frequented by some of the most adventurous palates and opinionated consumers on the planet. And there is a thriving wine industry of its own.”

Competing with the biggest

The RNDC-Opici joint venture, similar to its 2019 deal with Young’s Market in California (RNDC eventually bought Young’s in 2022), not only gave RNDC access to the biggest wine market in the US, but allowed the company to reach 90% of the US wholesale market by volume. It’s another indication of the top-down consolidation in the US second tier, in which the 10 biggest companies may control as much as 80% of the business.

This means New York state now has three of the biggest US wholesalers. Among the three is Empire, which has been ranked as high as No. 10, as measured by Wines Vines Analytics’ Distributor Market Service, which tracks the wholesaler wine business. Southern upped the ante in New York in 2023 when it opened a 4,485-square-foot midtown Manhattan facility, which includes a direct warehouse sales component. In 2020, Diageo left Empire for Southern.

Nevertheless, says Christy Frank, a New York retailer and wine consultant, don’t expect too many immediate changes in the wake of the RNDC deal. She says that Southern-Glazer’s moved slowly to roll Premier Wine & Spirits into its system after it bought the wholesaler to enter New York in 2004.

New York is also home to some of the most important importers in the US. The largest include Frederick Wildman & Sons, which has existed in one form or another since the end of Prohibition; Kobrand Wines & Spirits, founded in 1944; and Palm Bay/Taub Family, founded by the Taub family. Winebow, is in New York both as importer and distributor.

The middle tier includes David Bowler Wine, which includes Louis/Dressner Selections; Skurnik Wines, with 800 producers; and Polaner Selections, which looks for small producers and wines made with less-known grapes.

But it has smaller companies as well

New York is also a hub for smaller importers who focus on niche markets, be it natural wine or specific countries. One reason for this is that state law allows importers to have a wholesale license, which allows these companies to cut out the middleman and work on lower margins and which makes them more competitive. Among the companies — but hardly all of them — that fill key niches are Jenny & François Selections, which remains among the country’s top natural wine importers; Coeur Wine Co., which focuses on natural, organic, and biodynamic wines; Grossberg/Kopman Selections, a Portuguese specialist; and Palinkerie, which brings in Hungarian wines and spirits.

Meanwhile, the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance is a pioneer among US regional wine trade groups, helping to improve the quality of its 130 member wineries, as well as raising awareness for the region and its wines, focused on Riesling.


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On- and off-premise

Despite its various retail woes over the past couple of years, New York, both in the city and upstate, is perhaps the most important off-premise region in the country.

“This has its basis partly in the concentration of people in the New York metro area and its closeness to the shipping ports,” says Frank, “but it's also built into the state's regulatory framework and fee structure.”

There are two parts to the latter: First, the state law that excludes grocers from selling wine, thus limiting the market to smaller operations that don’t have to work on squeezed, supermarket-style margins, and second, retail liquor licenses are generally inexpensive. Frank says it can cost as little as $500 a year, depending on location, and that the state doesn’t set limits for the number of retail licenses in specific areas.

This hasn’t helped Total Wine, though, in its attempt to expand in New York state. The biggest US wine chain, with 266 stores across 28 states, has just one store in the state (on Long Island), and has been rebuffed several times by state regulators from opening more.

New York, both in the city and upstate, is perhaps the most important off-premise region in the country.

Upstate, two of the most important retailers are Saratoga Wine Exchange and Empire Wine & Liquor. In Buffalo, Premier Gourmet Corp owns three stores, and is known for its New York wine selection. In Rochester, the five-decade-old Century Liquor & Wines has been owned by a member of the Wegman supermarket family since 2007.

In the New York City area, the biggest names include Zachys in suburban Scarsdale, Morrell & Company at One Rockefeller Center, Union Square Wines, the almost 80-year-old Astor Wines & Spirits in Greenwich Village, and Chambers Street Wines, founded in 2001. Daniel Posner, who owns Grapes The Wine Company in White Plains, is a key figure in the movement to reform the US’s Prohibition-era liquor laws.

Not surprisingly, wine auction houses are also important – Zachys and Morrell among them, but also Sotheby’s, Acker Merrall & Condit, Christie’s, and Bonhams.

Niche wine shops

And it’s almost impossible to come up with a short list of all of the smaller, niche, and iconoclastic wine shops — and all fiercely independent. There are eco-friendly shops in Brooklyn like Dandelion Wine and Moore Brothers, rare and collectibles in Greenwich Village at MCF Rare Wine, and Le Dû Wines in the West Village, founded by the late Jean-Luc Le Dû. And where else but New York would have Harlem Wine Gallery, which highlights “Black Owned Brands and Black Wine Makers”?

The on-premise hasn’t fared quite as well, even though the restaurant business overall seems to have rebounded, according to several observers.

Jane Kettlewell, wine marketer and publicist
Jane Kettlewell, wine marketer and publicist

The media

Eric Asimov at The New York Times remains one of the most important consumer wine writers in the US. “Asimov is the big one,” says Kettlewell. “A review from him moves cases at local retail stores in an instant.” His counterpart on the natural wine side is Alice Feiring, whose The Feiring Line newsletter is de rigueur for anyone who cares about the subject.

The US wine press is also centered in New York, led by Marvin Shanken’s Wine Spectator, still the most influential wine magazine in the United States; as are sister trade publication Market Watch and website Shanken News Daily. Critic Antonio Galloni's Vinous website has established a name for itself among both the trade and consumers, while the Wine Enthusiast has also retained its audience in the cyber-age.

And New York City is, above all, the centre of finance, fashion, culture and advertising. What happens here quickly spills over elsewhere, making it one of the most influential cities in the world.


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