Who is Who in New York's Wine Scene

Photo by Dorian Mongel on Unsplash
Photo by Dorian Mongel on Unsplash

Know five things about wine in New York City: first, its residents consider it the centre of the US wine universe, even though very little wine is made there. Second, there’s a fair amount of truth to that, given that New York is home to some of the country’s most important retailers, importers and critics. And third, what’s true for the city’s borough of Manhattan is not necessarily true for the borough of Brooklyn, which considers itself more hip, more au courant, and generally more interesting. Fourth, there are more than 20m people in the New York City metro area, which makes it bigger than many countries. Fifth, it’s constantly making itself over, so what was true six months ago may not be true six months from now.

Talk about disparate: the most influential wine writers in the New York City area include Alice Feiring, perhaps the leading evangelist for natural wine in the US; New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, so well-known that he is just “Eric” when his name comes up in conversation with the city’s leading retailers; the wine writers at Grub Street, New York magazine’s food and wine blog, who write stories about pairing wine with ramen, or about what wine to drink with birthday cake. The iconoclastic John Gilman, who seems to delight in giving 65 points to a wine that his colleagues have given 95 points, publishes the View From the Cellar newsletter. Also worth noting: New York is home to the Wine Spectator, still the most influential wine magazine in the United States, its sister trade publication Market Watch, and the website Shanken News Daily. The company’s publisher, Marvin Shanken, remains a key figure in US wine, wielding power not just through his magazines, but through the company’s consumer tasting road shows.

Distributors and importers
New York is dominated by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the local branch of the largest wholesaler in the world, and by Empire Merchants, which is the fourth largest distributor in the US, even though it operates only in the New York City area. Southern often flexes its political muscle and recently tried unsuccessfully to require that state-licensed wholesalers have warehouses in New York. Many of its smaller competitors have warehouses in New Jersey, where rents are less expensive. It was also beaten back in its attempt to limit purchases by retailers from private collections.

Frederick Wildman & Sons has existed in one form or another since the end of Prohibition, and remains one of the country’s top importers. Its portfolios include high-end Burgundy, Rioja and Barolo. But there are literally dozens of smaller companies with interesting and intriguing books, often focusing on specific market niches. Three well-regarded smaller family owned importers, which also have some distribution in the rest of the country, are David Bowler Wine, which includes Louis/Dressner Selections; Skurnik Wines, with 500 producers and the Terry Theise portfolio; and Polaner Selections, which looks for small producers and wines made with less-known grapes.

Jenny & François Selections specialises in natural wine from nine countries and is well-respected in one of the most demanding natural wine markets in the world. Crystalline Wines represents small family wineries in four European countries that, the company says, would probably not be able to find an importer otherwise.

Politics is a spectator sport in New York and wine is no exception. One reason for this is the state’s unique retail law. It forbids anyone to own more than one store, and if a wine shop is part of a supermarket, the shop needs an entrance separate from the supermarket. That means Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, the country’s pre-eminent natural grocer, has 21 stores in the state, but only one – on the city’s uber-affluent upper west side – sells wine. And it is called the Upper West Side Wine Store to distinguish it from the grocery store.

Vincent G. Bradley, the chairman of the New York State Liquor Authority, oversees all of this. He is a former state and local prosecutor who worked with narcotics and labour racketeering squads in New York City, prosecuting a number of high-profile cases. Before his appointment in 2015, the liquor authority had been mired in controversy after fining an upstate retailer, even though the retailer had not apparently violated state law. Bradley, say several New York City retailers, has brought a more restrained and even-handed approach to liquor enforcement, which is also much welcome.

Daniel Posner, who owns Grapes The Wine Company in suburban White Plains, is the president of the National Association of Wine Retailers, a trade group working to reform the US’s Prohibition-era liquor laws. 

Sommeliers and their wine bars
Not surprisingly, New York City’s sommeliers offer not just quality and quantity (13 master sommeliers, nine masters of wine) but variety. In this, they do more than run beverage programs, but also consult, import and distribute, and sell wine off-premise.

One MS, Pascaline Lepeltier (who has written a book with Feiring called “The Dirty Guide to Wine”) put together one of the world’s great natural wine lists when she oversaw the beverage program at Rouge Tomate in Chelsea. She left last autumn to take time off to decide what to do besides the grind of a daily restaurant.

Chad Walsh of Agern, a Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year in 2017, boasts an all-US wine list – an interesting choice for the restaurant’s New Nordic menu. Patrick Cappiello has owned restaurants, wine brands (the controversial Forty Ounce Wines among them) and wine bars, and still works with restaurants in Manhattan and Philadelphia. His newest venture is a wine brokerage, part of wholesaler Verity Wines. 

In fact, it’s difficult to separate the city’s top wine bars from sommeliers. Not all of them are sommelier-owned – it just seems that way. Paul Grieco, who owns the Terroir wine bars, created the Summer of Riesling in 2008. Every white wine by the glass, each summer, is Riesling. Says one distributor: “He is a mad man and truly passionate about Riesling.” Meanwhile, Thomas Carter, working with chef Ignacio Mattos, opened Flora Bar in the Met Breuer museum, taking the wine bar in a direction it has rarely been before, reports the food critic at the New York Times.

Also notable: CorkBuzz, with three locations in the metro area; Grape and Grain and Local and Vine, both in lower Manhattan and focusing on local wine; June in Brooklyn, with its emphasis on natural wine; and Aldo Sohm of Le Bernadin, whose self-named wine bar sits next to the iconic restaurant.

One of the consequences of the state’s no-chain law is that the city’s wine shops are neighborhood-oriented, diverse and competitive. Plus, many of them rank among the best in the world. Sherry-Lehmann on Park Avenue has been one of the leading wine retailers in Manhattan almost since it opened in 1934 (legend has it founder Jack Aaron was a respected bootlegger during Prohibition).

Zachys in suburban Scarsdale and Morrell & Company at One Rockefeller Center are among the retailers which also hold wine auctions and do internet sales. Union Square Wines offers wine by the glass from Eno dispensers. Astor Wines & Spirits has been in Greenwich Village since 1946, while Chambers Street Wines, founded in 2001, specialises in smaller producers from France, Piedmont, Austria and Germany.

This doesn’t include a new generation of wine shops, spreading out to Brooklyn and beyond. Among those are Flatiron Wines & Spirits, which also has a store in San Francisco and boasts of “hundreds of wines” costing $20 or less, and Crush in mid-town Manhattan, also offering less expensive wines. Dandelion Wine, in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, showcases organic and hard-to-find wines from small producers.

Traditional auction houses, with locations in New York City thanks to its prominence in art and finance, also play key roles in wine. Sotheby’s will hold a Romanée-Conti sale in October, while Acker Merrall & Condit sold $5.75m worth of wine in a May auction.

New York is the fourth biggest wine producing state in the US, and Brooklyn is home to a handful of professional producers who work with New York and East Coast grapes. Alie Shaper’s Brooklyn Oenology Winery started in 2006 and was one of the first. Red Hook Winery buys grapes from Long Island and the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, so that means Riesling and Bordeaux varietals. Rooftop Reds is just what it seems – an urban rooftop vineyard near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while the Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg uses New York state grapes as well.  
Jeff Siegel

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