Tuesday, April 10, 2012

TerraVino: Every Wine Tells A Story

Terra Vino=Dirt Wine?

Last week, TerraVino, a new wine store in Brookline, opened its doors and I stopped by on their second day to check it out. The shop is owned by Christopher Carbone, and this endeavor is the fulfillment of his dream, a way to express his passion for wine. Terra Vino is a reflection of his long held principles and ideals. Of course, the store is a work in progress, newly opened, so that not everything is yet in place, and changes and adjustments may occur to make it a better and more responsive business. So some of my thoughts here may be tentative, and could change as the store makes adjustments.

In short though, this is a wine store that I recommend everyone check out.

I'll address the negative first, to get it out of the way, and should note that it primarily revolves around nomenclature. The motto of the store, prominent on the front window as well as their website, is "Real. Natural. Wines." The terms "real" and "natural" both suffer from a lack of precision, loosely and ambiguously defined terms which have been at the center of numerous controversies. They are sometimes seen as arrogant and elitist, as if any wine that does not meet their definitions is automatically inferior. They can create an adversarial relationship with other wineries, wine makers and wine stores.

I have greater issues with the use of the term "real wine" rather than "natural wine," though even that term has problems. What is the opposite of a real wine? A fake wine? Illusionary wine? Unreal wine? Frankly, I don't like the prominent use of these terms because they can cause more confusion and friction than they resolve. If the terms were not so blatantly displayed and promoted, I would not have as significant a reaction.

Christopher stated to me that "real wine" comes from real people, from farmers who have a passion for the craft and who make wine for a reason and not as a commodity. I am sure many wine makers would consider themselves to fit that definition, though Christopher and others might not agree. Christopher also told me that real wines don't have to be natural though he also could not really provide me a concise term for the opposite of a "real wine."

He acknowledged that the term "natural wine" is loosely defined and he offered his own definition that it entails "nothing added, nothing taken away." Even that is not fully accurate as a wine with some minimal additions and deletions may still be permitted within the definition. So what is the standard for a permissible "minimal" addition or deletion? Different people will have different standards. All of the wines stocked in Christopher's are sustainable, organic, biodynamic or locally produced, though not all of them may be certified as such.

The problem is with the terms themselves, and not Christopher. He considers himself a "real" person, and from what I know of him, that is an accurate description. He is unpretentious, down to earth, sincere, passionate and true to his principles. He tries to live a "green" lifestyle, and that is reflected in his business as well. The shop is built with natural and eco-friendly materials, they try to recycle all that they can, and have instituted numerous other green practices as well. This is very important to Christopher and it is not merely a marketing stunt. I find it much easier to consider Christopher to be "real" rather than consider the wines he sells to be "real."

The store is small but spacious, and you will generally find red wines on the left wall and white wines and rosés on the right wall. The table in the center of the store has sparkling wines, including local ones from Westport Rivers. Against the back wall is a small selection of beer, and also on the right wall is a refrigerator holding wines and beers while the left wall has a wine tasting machine.

Currently, they carry about 135 wines and ultimately that number will rise to the range of 150-200. So this is more a boutique wine shop, with a carefully selected, small collection of wines. About eleven countries are now represented, including France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Austria, and New Zealand, as well as five U.S. states, including California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and New York. As more wines are being added all the time, this diversity should expand. In the near future, they may add Sake, Sherry, Port, Hard Cider and Dessert wines to the mix as well as more local wines, such as from Travessia.

The wines are generally organized by grape, grouping them as well by similar style, though this is still a work in progress. Christopher did not want to organize them by country and region as he felt that a customer would have to walk all around the store to find all of the Pinot Noirs. Though that same problem exists with grouping by grape if a customer wants to find all of the wines from a single country. Plus, in a store where terroir, where a sense of place, is so important, you would expect to see the wines organized by country and region to better reflect that sense of place. No organization system is without flaw, and Christopher may adjust his system dependent on customer feedback.

The selections are currently heavy on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as Christopher is still unsure of the local market and is trying to play it a bit safe initially. But you will still find some more unique wines there too, from less common grapes like Bobal and Zweigelt. Wine prices are competitive to other local stores, and about 25% of their stock is priced under $15, with a large proportion under $25. Right now, their most expensive wine is only $64. They also offer discounts, 10% for 6 bottles and 15% for 12 bottles, whether the same bottle or a mixed bunch.

There is a wine tasting machine which carries eight different wines so there is always something available for customers to taste. The machine issues 1/2 ounce pours, and the selection changes frequently, once a bottle is emptied. It is very important to Christopher that his customers have the opportunity to taste the wines before they buy them. Besides the machine, they will also have regular Saturday tastings and possibly other special tasting events.

You won't find shelf talkers on the racks, no wine scores or lists of medals. This is very much a hand sell store where customer service is key. Many of these wines will be unfamiliar to the average consumer, and even the avid wine lover is likely to find plenty of wines they have not tasted before. It is a very intriguing selection of wines, and there were plenty of wines which interested me. For a wine lover, the selection is going to be especially compelling. For the average consumer, the store will be an educational experience, and hopefully they will be adventurous enough to expand their palates and try these wines.

It is in this area where I believe the true motto of the store exists, that "Everything has a story behind it." Christopher wants to be a storyteller, more in the traditional, oral sense rather than as a writer. More Homer than Hemingway. He desires to share with his customers the stories of each wine, tales of the farmers, the history of the wineries, the nature of the grapes, and much more. He wants to intrigue and fascinate his customers, to provide them reasons why they should buy the wines. The intent is to share his passion, to establish relationships with his customers rather than viewing them merely as wallets and pocketbooks. I believe it is this aspect which will inspire far more customers than the motto of "Real. Natural. Wines."

Eco-practices are very important to Christopher and he pays attention to what may seem the smallest of details. For example, each wine has a chalk tag hung on the neck with the name of the wine and its price. This helps reduce on paper use and waste, rather than using adhesive tags or paper prices. The chalk tags can be easily erased and used again and again, a very green practice. It may seem like a small thing, but when taken together over time, it adds up.

What does the owner want his customers to know about his new store? I asked Christopher to give me his top three points, the most important items that a new customer should know. First, the entire inventory is sustainable and consists of wines you are unlikely to find in most other stores. Second, the store is devoted to being "green" and that is reflected in all aspects of the shop. Finally, customer service is key, as it is a hand sell place where the staff will share the stories of the wines with all of the customers. All very valid points, and I find the third point the most compelling.

There is a small beer selection, mostly local, artisan beers, and including some gluten free beers. You will find some chilled beers in their refrigerated unit too. Their emphasis is on wine, but they wanted to carry a select assortment of beers too.

As the store is a work in progress, much more will be coming in the near future such as recyclable 6 pack wine totes and assorted wine accessories. The customers' feedback will also be influential in the future path of TerraVino, though I am sure that Christopher will always remain true to his principles. Christopher has not chosen an easy path, creating a boutique wine store which doesn't sell consumer friendly, mass produced wines like Yellow Tail. He will have to work hard to persuade consumers to take a chance on the type of wines he sells. But he deserves much credit for taking on such a challenge.

This is the type of store that requires much from its owner, who cannot just sit behind a cash register and let the wine sell itself. Rather, Christopher must take a very active role in promoting his wines, in convincing consumers that they are worthy wines. He must be seller and storyteller, a passionate advocate of his selections, and I believe he is up to that challenge. All you have to do is spend some time talking with Chris, and you will realize the deep reservoirs of passion within him for wine, especially the type of wines he chooses to sell.

I bought five different wines while I was at the store, including: 2010 Vera de Estenas P.G. Bobal ($13), 2008 Monje Tradicional Tinto ($22), 2010 Tintero Rosso ($10), 2009 Meinklang Burgenland Red ($16), and 2010 La Roche Buissiere Petit Jo Rogue ($20). I needed some wines for every day drinking, and these wines intrigued me.

Since my visit to the store, I have drank one of the wines I purchased, the 2010 Vera de Estenas P.G. Bobal. I had tasted and enjoyed this wine at the store, so expected that I would enjoy it later at home too. the wine is from the Spanish D.O. of Utiel-Requena and the winery is the oldest in that region. The wine is produced from 100% Bobal, an indigenous grape which has been around since at least the 15th century. It derives its name from the Latin term "bovale" which refers to the shape of a bull’s head.

This wine was fermented in stainless steel and spent a few months in oak. It is light bodied, with delicious fruit flavors complemented by a subtle earthiness and hints of spice. I paired the wine with veal parmigiana and it went very well together.  It is a wine with plenty of character and is an excellent value which I highly recommend. I am fairly confident this wine will end up on my 2012 Favorites list.

So check out TerraVino, meet Christopher and learn about some intriguing and delicious wines.

Terra Vino=Story Wines!

Update: 4/10/12, 7pm--Christopher informed me that his store's wines are now organized by country rather than grape variety. As I stated, it is still a new story, subject to change, and I am pleased to see this change, especially as I think it better reflects terroir, a sense of place.

Update: As of the end of August 2012, Terravino is now closed. 


Jason Phelps said...

Great review Richard! I'll get in there eventually, Chris, so many things to do, so little time...

I think the natural/real wine movement has a problem, it's not rooted in history as much as people would like. Prominent beer and wine writers have studied the progression of products from areas with long histories of producing them. It is commonly known that wines that were natural then were out of necessity and were as frequently pleasant and drinkable as their modern peers. Technology has produced benefits that most makers won't shed. Look at Belgian beer, most of it now is pop-beer made to a "new style" that is not often like the rustic traditions that it came from.

That out of the way I do think that knowing more about the choices winemakers make in the pursuit of the best wines they can make won't hurt anyone. Most winemakers are interventionist in some way and I don't think that alone makes their wine any less real. People who sell out for scores and big production are in a different business and have to deal with the inevitable degradation of their product in their quest.

Artisanal producers can still intervene and produce real wines with a story, and some of them may even be friendly to vegans, people who only eat organic or have any number of other views about food. But we shouldn't try to force that on an industry that is doing some of its best work ever.

Discovering new wines is the draw to a shop like this for me. With omnivorous tastes and a bit of winemaking experience I can imagine feeling like a kid in a place like this.


Jason Phelps said...

I just noticed my above comment had an error. This is mostly for you Richard as I know you read the contributions.

"and were as frequently pleasant" in second paragraph should be "and were not as frequently pleasant"

Dale Cruse said...

I certainly agree the terms "real" & "natural" have fuzzy meanings. But since they are open to interpretation, what if we reframe the question of their meaning? How about, in addition to asking Christopher what he means by them, we also ask customers what they think those terms mean. What does "real" & "natural" mean to a customer? What wines do they think they'll find there? Or not find? I'm sure the answers will be varied, but I find those answers as important as Christopher's.

Regardless, I wish him luck with the shop.

Kerri Platt said...

Stop stressing about definitions and just drink! Real/Natural wine is like pornography, you know it when you see it or well, taste it in this case.