Friday, June 18, 2010

Urban Grape: Saké, Sean, & Passion in Chestnut Hill

I am always interested in checking out new wine stores, especially any that are going to carry a large selection of Saké. So I was excited when I was invited to visit the Urban Grape, a new wine store located in the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center. Based on a Twitter chat with one of the new owners, I learned of their plan to stock about 30 Sakés, as well as that they would carry Sean Thackrey's Pleaides, one of my favorite wines. It certainly sounded like my type of place.

Easily located on Rt.9, there is lots of parking as the store is located within a large shopping complex, next to a Star Market. The Urban Grape only opened last Saturday and I visited it this past Tuesday, on their Media Day. Numerous members of the media, from bloggers to reporters, were invited to check out the store. While I was there, I ran into a few people I knew, including Bob of The Wellesley Wine Press and Kate of The Second Glass. I know some other bloggers who visited the store at other times on Tuesday, and the feedback I have heard from them has been largely positive.

I met the owners, T.J. (who once worked for Ruby Wines) and Hadley Douglas, a young and passionate couple, who gave me a tour of the store as well as answered all of my questions. They were very upfront in their answers and sincere about seeking feedback and suggestions. It was very pleasant to chat with them, and I feel they spent much time planning and thinking about the type of store they wished to own and the clientele they desired. As it is a new store, obviously everything is not yet in place and small changes are still being made. But I got a good idea of where the store is headed, and T.J. and Hadley's plans for the near future.

This is a panoramic view of most of the store, which is a lengthy rectangle. They have made good use of their limited available space. It is a store of clean lines, with generally a modern flair except for a more antique-looking table near the front of the store. The left hand wall has a lengthy rack of wines, with the potential to hold up to 850 wines. The right side of the store has the Enomatic machines, racks with Saké, beer and spirits, the cashier counter, refrigerator cases and a wine cooler unit. It is well lit, so easy to see all of the bottle labels.

Just to the right as you enter the store are two Enomatics, one for whites and rosés, and the other for reds. These wine dispensing machines each hold eight wines, and the selection rotates about every two weeks. All of the wines within these Enomatics are stocked near the machines so you can easily pick them up after tasting if you find any you like. There is no tasting fee for using the Enomatics and you can taste any or all of the wines.

I have long been a fan of Enomatics as it gives customers an easy way to taste a variety of wines at any time they show up. How many wine stores do you know where you can always taste up to 16 wines, no matter when you show up? There is no need to wait for a specific scheduled tasting date. Instead, you always have the opportunity to taste some wine, and hopefully find something you enjoy. The Urban Grape gets kudos for the Enomatics.

Just past the Enomatics are the shelves of Saké, beer and spirits. They only had 9 Sakés on their shelves, but will eventually carry about 30 different ones. That means they will have one of the largest selections of Saké in the local area, which really intrigues me. Hopefully that will help spread a passion for Saké. They will also be bringing in two Shochus, one made from sweet potato and the other from apple. That is good too as I need to broaden my tasting experience with shochu. It is a very interesting alcohol, yet it is even harder to find locally than Saké.

As for beers, they anticipate eventually carrying about 200 craft beers and hard ciders, including the Woodchuck Hard Cider. That selection should be very compelling to beer lovers. They also carry a diverse assortment of spirits, and will be adding more, including some high-end bourbons (a passion of TJ), tequilas, and more. They have no plans to carry any food items, especially considering the proximity of Star Market.

At the left side of the above photo, you can see a table which has flowers on top and packaged wine below. The table is located in the middle of the store, closer to the front. It holds their Urban Sampler 4-Packs, a hand-selected group of four wines priced at $50, though the actual value of the four wines might be $60-$65. These are four rather than six-packs as it is thought to be lighter to carry, closer to the weight of a six pack of beer. Plus, it is thought that most people only need four rather than six wines for many occasions. They even have cloth bags that are intended for four, rather than six wines. I own several wine bags that hold six wines, and if full, the bag is rather heavy and I do worry about it breaking. The four pack seems better in that regard.

The left side of the store is their lengthy wall of wine, which has not yet been fully stocked, but can hold up to about 850 wines. In general, the wines are separated into whites and reds, stocked in a progressive style, based on their "weight" or "body." Based on TJ's palate, the wines have been grouped together, based on a ranking of 1-10, from the lightest to heaviest. This considers how the wine feels on your palate, and can be a factor in food pairing. Each bottle has their ranking listed on a back label.

This is certainly a different, and less frequently used, way to stock a wine store. You are probably more used to seeing wine stores divided wines by country or grape. All methods of stocking wine shelves have their advantages and disadvantages, and this is something I will address in more detail in a separate post in the near future. TJ and Hadley stated to me that many customers have voiced compliments about their stocking system.

This progressive style is intended to cater to the average consumer, who has a limited knowledge of wine. A consumer can describe to a staff member the type of wine they like or desire, and then they can be directed to wines with a similar weight. So, if you enjoy light Pinot Noirs, you would be shown similar light wines, though it could include wines from other countries and grapes. The though it that a customer will enjoy wines of similar weights.

This does place a significant burden on the staff, and they must not only be knowledgeable about the store, but also wine in general. They must explain to customers how the wines are stocked, the ranking system, and help select a wine according to the customer's preferences. Fortunately, TJ seems to have understood this point and has been very careful with who he has hired, trying to get people who already possess a fair amount of wine knowledge. As many customers will also need assistance, they will need to ensure the store is adequately staffed.

This is also not a store where a person generally will pop in quickly and grab a bottle. It is intended more to be a place to spend some time, to learn a bit about wine, and to find wines that you might enjoy. Due to the store's location, in a larger shopping complex, it is a place where people can easily find parking and thus spend more time within the store. This contrasts to those wine stores with limited parking where customers often have only a few minutes to spare. Such wine stores probably could not sustain doing a similar progressive style.

For a more knowledgeable wine lover, the progressive system might cause some issues. For example, if you wanted to view just the wines from Spain or just wines made from Cabernet Franc, you would have to hunt through all of the wines shelves to find them, or ask a salesperson for assistance. You might not always want to seek help, or spend all that time searching the shelves. Though there are benefits to just perusing the shelves, you might not always want to take the time to do so.

A panoramic view of their wine wall. (I love the cool types of pictures I can take with my new digital camera.)

Though the wine wall is mainly separated into whites and reds, there are a few separate sections for Sparkling wines, Rosés and special wine promotions. Currently the wines lack any shelf talkers, and use of wine scores is almost non-existent, which is a good thing. That though is in line with the store's philosophy, which is much more for the staff to hand sell the wines, rather than to rely on the reviews of professional wine critics.

Wine prices seem to be average, such as the Sean Thackrey Pleaides XVIII ($38) and the 2007 El Nido Clio ($67). About 30% of the red wines and 50% of the whites, are priced at $15 or under. They don't want people to choose wines just by cost so they placed the price on a back label, not on the front. They do have a couple of discount programs. First, you get a 15% discount for a case, mixed or the same. Second, each Tuesday afternoon, on Twitter and Facebook, they announce a wine that will be discounted 20% that week through Saturday.

I really liked their selection of wine, and they carry only a small number of the "usual suspects," those common, mass produced wines that can be found in almost any wine or liquor store. You'll find interesting wines such as the Y+B Torrontes, Ravines Cellar Riesling, Kanonkop Pinotage, and Westport Rivers Sparkling wines. They carry a selection of Kosher wines and not just from from Israel. I was intrigued to see the 2007 Backsburg Kosher Pinotage from South Africa. They have a good selection of Spanish wines, including Cavas from Pares Balta and Castellar.

Personally, I would like to see some wines in the store from some of the less common regions, such as Greece, and wines from smaller producers. Wines such as those though will likely show up at the store in the future. Currently, the owners have only dealt with the larger wine distributors, but look forward to doing business with the smaller ones too, so that they can provide an even more diverse selection. They have done an excellent job so far, and I look forward to seeing it get even better.

For those seeking more high-end wines, you can check out the wines located to the left of the cashier counter, in a temperature controlled cooler. You'll find items such as fine Bordeaux, top-notch California Cabernet and Sauternes.

Near the back of the store are the refrigerated coolers for chilled beer and wine, and the stairs in the back, off-limits to customers, lead to the basement storage area.

Overall, I am very pleased with what I found at the Urban Grape and it has much potential. TJ and Hadley possess an infectious passion, and have worked hard to create a wine store that should appeal to many consumers. They have a very nice selection of wines, which will continue to improve, and I look forward to monitoring their progress. It is definitely a store which I will now make a regular stop in my travels, and I recommend that my readers check it out as well.

Urban Grape
7 Boylston Street
Chestnut Hill, MA
Phone: 617-232-4831

1 comment:

Travel Eat Love said...

This is a great post. I really enjoyed my visit to The Urban Grape this week and look forward to bringing my husband back.