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Punch - May 2022

America’s Best Specialty Wine Shops

Woman walking in front of shelves of wine in a wine shop

From an orange wine specialist to a bottle-and-book shop, here are some of the most innovative small wine retailers across the country.

The notion of a local wine shop, at least in the United States, used to be very predictable: four walls lined with bottles sporting color-clashing labels, an awkward table of wines for $15 or less, maybe a rack with a few books. These were strictly transactional spaces, a place to grab a bottle on the way home, or even a case on occasion; maybe you’d find a salesperson who could really tap into your tastes, maybe not. But over the last few years, our expectation of what wine retail ought to be has been completely reframed, and with this has come an undeniable onslaught of shops, in small towns and cities alike. 

Today, the wine shop can be a source of education and media. In fact, the wine shop newsletter has become many consumers’ preferred way of reading about wine; some retailers now employ freelancers or have writers on staff, like Domestique in Washington, D.C., and Verve Wine in New York City. In places where it’s legal, the wine shop is also a wine bar (like Maine & Loire in Portland, Maine, and Golden Age Wine in Mountain Brook Village, Alabama); in others, it is a live music space (The Cave DSM in Des Moines, Iowa), a book shop (like Drink Books in Seattle and Wild Child in Somerville, Massachusetts) or even a crystal and geode emporium (Wine & Rocks in California’s Yucca Valley). Then, of course, there are the shops that have invested deeply in one place, one style of wine or a mission, like highlighting underrepresented people who are also winemakers. In short, the wine shop has never been as diverse or as specialized. From Des Moines to D.C., here are 10 stores across the U.S. that are changing the way we shop for wine, no matter where we are.

MIDWEST

Anfora Wine Merchants | Oak Park, Illinois
Having grown up in Rome, and spent a number of years working in wine at restaurants like Il Buco and Il Buco Alimentari in New York City, it only made sense that Adrian Weisell would open an Italian-focused wine shop. When he and his wife moved to Oak Park, on the western edge of Chicago, he was perplexed that the well-appointed neighborhood didn’t have a wine shop, so he decided to fix that. With an eye toward indigenous and largely unknown Italian grape varieties—and an interest in their deep cultural heritage—Weisell’s selection spans the country. The shop boasts “the largest collection of Lazio wines outside of Lazio,” an area that’s been growing grapes since Roman times, but one that had largely been dismissed until a new generation of winemakers sought to revive its old vines. “Because I come from restaurants, and I was used to making wine lists, the store is almost like a wine list instead of a wine store,” Weisell says. His selection uniquely sets out to tell the story of Italy through the lens of traditions on the verge of extinction. In order to further open lines of dialogue, Weisell hosts affordable in-shop tastings and offers store memberships, which grant standing invitations to monthly members-only tastings and discounts on bottles.
Known for: Off-the-beaten-path Italy, Barolo, Beaujolais

 

The Cave DSM | Des Moines, Iowa
Heather and Nick Leo, well-traveled musicians, opened their wine shop/wine bar in Des Moines as a means of getting their hands on the wines they liked to drink on the road, as well as bottles they found while living in northwestern Spain and Portugal. When they started talking with distributors, they were surprised to find that the wines were available in Iowa, but no one was buying them. The Leos were confident that The Cave could become the city’s primary access point for the wines that have become commonplace in larger markets. “In the wine bar, we keep the wines by the glass [selection] very small, so for reds it might just be a cabernet franc–based wine from the Loire Valley and a sumoll from Catalonia; we’re gently forcing people to try new things,” says Nick. Little by little, the shop has become a cultural hub, too, with regulars who don’t need much convincing to taste new things—or hear new music. The Leos are part of a local band that plays choro, a spin on samba from Rio de Janeiro, and often perform at the shop, which also hosts other local musicians.
Known for: Portugal, northwest Spain, Loire

 

EAST

Dirty Bacchus | Beacon, New York
As more and more natural wine shops open, the more valuable a buyer with a distinct point of view becomes. Steve Ventura’s Dirty Bacchus, an hour and a half north of New York City in Beacon, represents an idiosyncratic collection from the farthest corners of wine: Lefkada, Greece; Quebec, Canada; Valais, Switzerland; and the caves of the Loire. “It’s absolutely the craziest, most esoteric shit out there,” says Stephen Bitterolf, of importer Vom Boden. “Even wine dorks don’t recognize any of the wines.” And while navigating the narrow sliver of a store, lined with stacked cases and brimming wine racks, might not be for everyone, it serves as a very real snapshot of natural wine as it stands today.
Known for: Germany, Greece, France

Domestique | Washington, D.C.
When Domestique opened at the end of 2018, it stood out not only for the fact that all the wines were natural (the interest was there amongst the D.C. drinking populace, but no other retailer had gone all-in), but that the shop, a corner space in an industrial building, was so huge. But during the pandemic, its grandiosity was rapidly overshadowed by its ability to build community with a smart and diverse staff and a mission to bring more wine drinkers into the fold through education. The linchpin of this was the store’s newsletter. Sure, at this point, plenty of wine stores have weekly newsletters designed to move cases, but Domestique’s became a witful forum in which to discuss hot topics within the natural wine world, such as the existence of minerality or the cause of mousiness (a flaw in some wines) or NBA players’ burgeoning interest in wine. In 2020, Domestique established its Major Taylor Fellowship, given to a person of color each year, with a three-week-long apprenticeship in the store to get a download on the ins and outs of wine retail.
Known for: Loire, orange wines, Jura

Wilder Wines | Burlington, Vermont
It’s not such a huge jump that Vermont, with all of its various fermentations in the realms of beer and cider, would eventually find its way to natural wine, too. Located in Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, Sipha Lam’s tiny (450-square-foot) Wilder Wines is fiercely centered on natural wine, the first shop of its sort in the city. Lam arguably stocks more Vermont wine than any wine retailer anywhere, in as much supply as available, including producers like La Garagista, Ellison Estate, Stella14 and Kalchē, and keeps the majority of her offerings under $25. In addition to offering a way to experience Vermont’s burgeoning crop of homegrown natural wines, Lam also deep-dives into wines from Georgia, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia—“regions that get overlooked in other shops,” she says. And at a time when it feels like wine prices are ever-rising, Lam’s monthly wine clubs, at $43 for two bottles and $65 for three, are her very approachable way of introducing customers to the ethos of her shop.
Known for: Vermont, Greece, Croatia

WEST

Alkali Rye | Oakland, California
Thanks to its proximity to California wine country and a large swath of importers (including Kermit Lynch, Oliver McCrum and Selection Massale) who have brought the world in, the Bay Area has long had a robust wine retail scene, from the wonderfully specific, like Biondivino in San Francisco’s North Beach, to the all-encompassing, like K&L Wine Merchants. In recent years, Oakland has attracted the more avant-garde, from the now-stalwart Ordinaire to Bay Grape and newcomer Day Trip, which bills itself as a “party restaurant and bottle shop.” Alkali Rye is taking a different tack, choosing to only represent wines from BIPOC, women and LGBTQ producers who have rarely been given the attention they deserve. Opened last year by friends Jessica Moncada-Konte and Kori Saika Chen, both of whom have worked in the restaurant industry for many years, the modern shop (which stocks everything from tea to rum to wine) asks drinkers to diversify their choices by considering the people behind the products. Alkali Rye joins a small handful of shops with a similar mission, like Adams Wine Shop in Los Angeles, opened by sommelier Ruben Morancy and now run by Jaela Salala, which emphasizes wines from women and BIPOC producers; and Vinovore, also in L.A., which features only wines made by women.
Known for: Wines from BIPOC, women and LGBTQ producers, particularly from California

Drink Books | Seattle, Washington
Seattle is scattered with wine shops, from the old guard, like Pike & Western and Portalis, to wine-coffee retail hybrids, like Moonshot. As with the latter, Kim Kent had a mashup concept in mind when she arrived at the idea for her small storefront, now six months old, in Phinney Ridge. Kent worked in the Seattle restaurant scene for a decade before getting her MFA from Eastern Washington University in Spokane. After graduation, she returned to restaurant work in Seattle, and also took a job at Molly’s Bottle Shop in Ballard, where she launched a remarkably popular wine and book club called Book Cru. “As I got more into learning about natural wine, I realized that so much of how we talk about what we’re thinking, tasting [and] feeling was how I was talking—or was taught to talk—about books,” she says. From this understanding, Drink Books was born, where bottles are sold alongside fiction and narrative nonfiction. Kent’s shop joins a handful of other wine-and-book shops around the U.S., including Wild Child in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Bad Animal in Santa Cruz, California, though Drink is more centered on the actual pairing of words and wines, as opposed to the casual collision of the two. Kent says most customers leave with both a book and a bottle.
Known for: New Spain, rosés, northern Italian reds

Flor Wines | Portland, Oregon
Andy Fortgang has been a staple of the Portland restaurant scene for 15 years, highly regarded for his wine lists at Le Pigeon and Canard. In a city adjacent to a wine region, and where there were already a number of great wine shops (E&R and Ardor included), it would have been easy enough for Fortgang to stay in his restaurant lane. But he decided to join a growing number of sommeliers who have made the leap to retail (see: Verve Wine in New York City and San Francisco, and Bay Grape in Oakland and Napa). Flor has particular depth in Burgundy, a region beloved by Fortgang as well as his restaurant regulars. Fortgang’s business partner, Sergio Licea, is an Italophile, bringing in bottlings from the far corners of the country, such as high-altitude rossese from Liguria’s Durin and vintage Barolo, like Giuseppe Mascarello Villero 2010, when available.
Known for: Burgundy, off-the-beaten-path Italy, Oregon

SOUTH

Golden Age | Mountain Brook Village, Alabama
Through his travels as a director and cinematographer, Brandon Loper has cultivated a decadelong interest in small, independent winemakers. In the summer of 2019, he and his business partner, Trent Stewart, decided to turn this interest into Golden Age, a natural wine shop and wine bar in Mountain Brook Village, just outside Birmingham. At the time, grocery stores were the primary retail source for wine in the area. “When we opened, Trent and I really loved orange wine, but there was hardly any available,” says Loper. “We started with five of them and we noticed that every week, by the end of Friday nights, that section was obliterated.” The shop now carries more than 40 orange wines, from Spain’s Gulp Hablo to one from Podere Sassi in Italy’s Lazio, and from easy-drinking to more complex. Loper and Stewart had planned to hold classes in the back room, but the pandemic put that on hold; that space has since been converted into The Champagne Room, which features nearly 100 bottlings of Champagne, pét-nat and more. A long bar runs the length of one side of the store, often convincing shoppers to sit for a glass before they go. It’s the shop’s welcoming joie de vivre that had the owners petition the city to allow them to take over the three parking spaces in front of the store in the late afternoons, making space for a wine garden.
Known for: Orange wine, sparkling wine, Beaujolais

Golden Hour | Orlando, Florida
After several years of owning and running wine bars in upstate New York, Heather LaVine decamped for Orlando to open her now year-old shop, Golden Hour. Set 30 minutes from the theme parks in the enclave of Baldwin Park, hers is the first all-natural wine shop in the city. “The community has been so open to going on this journey with me,” LaVine says. Though France has more shelf space than anywhere else, LaVine has carved out a large, and impressive, selection of German wines, mainly from the Mosel, and running the gamut from elbling to pinot noir and, yes, riesling. Her approach is to go deep on producers she really loves (Ulli Stein, say) and offer as many bottlings from them as she can source. Alpine wines, from France’s Jura to Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, have become a focal point of her stocks, too, as have island wines, including the La Araucaria bottlings by Dolores Cabrera in Tenerife in the Canary Islands and those from Marie-Charlotte Pinelli, the young star of Corsica’s Patrimonio.
Known for: German wines, Alpine wine, island wines

 

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