Sunday, July 20, 2008

Italian Wine Merchants--NYC

Two months ago, I read Passion on the Vine by Sergio Esposito. It is a compelling memoir about Italy, wine and food. Sergio clearly evidenced a deep passion for Italian wine and it motivated me to visit his wine store, Italian Wine Merchants, in New York City. I had to see the type of wine store that such a man would create.

Sergio owns the store in conjunction with famed chefs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Founded in 1999, the store sells only Italian wines and is dedicated to selling the best that Italy has to offer, especially from smaller boutique wineries as well as vintage wines from some of Italy's top producers. As you can see from the picture above, it is a rather unassuming store from the outside, though the shade in the window is usually raised. Yet the inside is more impressive.

As you enter the store, to your left is a long wall with shelves of wine. You will immediately notice that there is only a single bottle of each type of wine. You cannot just grab a couple bottles of a wine off the shelves and take them to the register. You need to ask a salesperson to get the wines for you. This system does help conserve space as well as present a less cluttered look. I did purchase some wine and the process of obtaining the wines from their storage area was quick.

In general, the wines are ordered by price point, from the lowest to highest. Red wines are also separated from white wines. Some of the least expensive wines were around $12 so this is not just a store for high-end wines. The Barolos are kept on a separate section of shelves and they and not ordered by price point but are rather collected together by producer.

The shelves do not display of the wines they carry. Many of their oldest and most valuable wines are not kept on the shelves. If you are interested in such wines, you need to speak to my one of the staff. They have a cellar beneath the store that can hold about 200,000 bottles though it is not full.
To the right of the entrance are some shelves of books, giftware, apertifs and other miscellaneous items. For example, you can find some grappa there. At the counter is a large display of antique corkscrews, all of which are available for sale. It is fascinating to look at those old cork screws, especially as they can be so diverse.

There are some who might assume that the store is pretentious and snobby. But I believe that is far from the case. The staff appears helpful and pleasant and I felt the store had more of a homey ambiance. I spent some time speaking with Steve Iannacone, a Senior Portofolio Manager. He was very personable and accomodating. I observed some of the other staff as well as customers entered the store and they all seemed to try to make people feel welcome.

Behind the main display room, there is a large area for functions, tastings, seminars and dinners. The above picture shows part of that room as it is being readied for a wine tasting. In the picture below, you can see the rest of the room. At the rear of the room is a salumeri where they make their own meats. The function room is impressive and I wish I could have attended one of their tastings but the timing was not right.As I scanned the display shelves, I found so many interesting Italian wines, including plenty that I had not seen before at any other wine store. I saw the names of producers I remembered reading in Passion on the Vine. It would have rather easy to buy a case or two but I was more limited this trip. In the end, I decided to buy a couple bottles of the 2004 Quintarelli Primofiore ($49.50).

"If a normal wine was a paper airplane, Quintarelli's wine is a spaceship." (Passion on the Vine, p.101)

Sergio has nothing but praise for Giuseppe Quintarelli. He is not alone as many consider him an exceptional producer. He is also an absolute traditionalist. The Primofiore is his entry level wine and is made for drinking while it is young. I have never had any of his wines before so I wanted to start at the beginning. In time, if I enjoy the Primofiore, I will progress further through his portfolio.

Italian Wine Merchants is also more than just a wine store. First, I recommend that you sign up for their weekly and monthly email newsletters as they are filled with information about Italian wine and its producers, as well as providing listings of upcoming events. Who can turn up free lessons on Italian wine? Second, they host numerous wine and food events, often having special wine tastings on Saturdays. You can even arrange for a private tasting.

For the serious wine collector, you can work with one of their Portfolio Managers to help learn more about Italian wine as well as assist you in the development of your wine collection. They will customize a plan to meet your needs and interests. If you are truly passionate about Italian wine, this service could be quite valuable to you.

I see Italian Wine Merchants as a place where Sergio is trying on instill his passion for Italian wines into his customers. It does not seem that he is seeking the casual patron, in to buy a cheap Chianti for a BBQ. It seems more that he is seeking converts, people who are willing to be amazed by the wines he has found. He understands the importance of education, to teach people about these wonderful wines. I am very pleased that I visited the store and I definitely will return again. I recommend that my readers stop by too. Take a chance and let yourself be seduced by the beauty of these fine Italian wines.

Update (7/21): I wanted to add one more bit of info about the store that helps explain why there is only a single bottle on their shelves. I was informed that the main reason they only display a single bottle is temperature control, to protect the integrity of the wine. Their wines are generally stored in a temperature controlled cellar. They did not want to have their wines exposed to the variables of light and temperature. I was told: "All of our wines are alive and we really believe in delivering all bottles beautifully maintained, just as if they were produce." That certainly makes sense and shows a lot of care for their wines and the customer who will buy them.


Anonymous said...

The store sounds really interesting and I'll make a point of visiting on my next trip east...however, I'm a little surprised at the museum approach. Do you think having so few bottles on the shelves encourages people to ask questions, or do you think it weeds out the not-as-confident customers from the already converted?

Wine can be intimidating, as we all know, and I think any approach that gets people to interact and engage in a dialogue is a good one. Do you think this works in that regard? Thanks!

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jill:
I think this system does encourage questions and conversation with the salespeople. These are primarily hand sell wines, unless you already know a lot about Italian wines.

I am sure there are some customers who would be intimidated by this approach. But the staff I observed did seem pretty welcoming whenever someone entered the store. With a good staff, I think the intimidation factor lessens significantly.

Anonymous said...

That's great to hear. Thanks for the quick response.

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