Whole Foods Bowery: yes food, no wine


The gleaming 72,000 square foot Whole Foods Bowery, opening today, has a “fromagerie” complete with an aging room. Cheeses come from Neal’s Yard in London, French affineur Hervé Mons, and some American classics such as Jasper Hill. The cheese manager was formerly at Artisanal Premium Cheese. There is a French fry station, a culinary center for classes and events, and two dining areas including conveyor-belt sushi. They can sell beer, local micro-brews and national macro-brews.

But there will be no wine.

Yes, it’s time for another edition of “New York’s crazy wine retailing laws!”

Law #1: Thou shalt not have more than one wine retail license in the state of New York. This is the fourth Whole Foods in Manhattan and the seventh in New York State. None of the NY stores sells wine (you never know what might happen if you could buy Sancerre the same time you buy Camembert), unlike Whole Foods stores in renegade states California, Illinois and Texas–where, I hasten to point out, levels of social unrest are no higher than in New York as a result of selling wine.

Whole Foods did have a wine retail license at their Columbus Circle location when it opened. They pulled the pulled the plug on that location voluntarily if somewhat mysteriously–there was something about it not being a street-level entrance, another instance of NY wine retail craziness. Apparently, WF still has the right to transfer the license to another location. Which brings us to…

Law #2: Thou shalt get down on bended knee and ask locals for the privilege of selling them wine. As Eater.com has been chronicling in their excellent series on the “drying of NYC,” this law affects bars and restaurants a lot more. Think about it: bar opens in your neighborhood, spills loud people into streets while you are trying to sleep. Fair enough, that could be worth getting riled up about.

But a shop? People go in, buy wine, take it home to drink it. It’s closed by 9 PM. I fail to see how that can cause angst in the neighborhood. Unless of course you are a competing wine retailer and you are attempting naked economic protectionism.

And apparently that’s what’s really happening. According to the NY Sun, Frank Geresi who owns local wine shop Elizabeth & Vine fears Whole Foods as a wine shop. He said “If I were a small hardware store and you were Home Depot, who would come to me to get a hammer once you moved in?” Nice try, Mr. Geresi: hammers are commodities and Whole Foods isn’t a discounter.

I don’t doubt that if Whole Foods got permission from the Community Board for the at-grade store-next-door-to-the-store that they would do a good job filling it with tons of interesting, biodynamic, organic or otherwise natural or even local wines. Look at all the TLC they’re putting into the “fromagerie” after all. And it would be convenient. But anybody who’s been to a WF in another state that does sell wine knows that you pay for that convenience: shopping around other wine stores will cut probably 15% off your wine bill.

So to New York officials: down with state laws limiting licenses! And to the Elizabeth & Vine: drop the resistance and let WF in! Just step up your game. Get great wines. Offer great prices and service. Heck, offer shipping to increase your reach. Who knows, WF selling wine in the neighborhood might just make more people in the neighborhood want wine. And to Community Board 3: do your bit and help make wine more accessible in America. Grant them the license!


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12 Responses to “Whole Foods Bowery: yes food, no wine”

  1. I live on Houston and think it’s ridiculous they don’t have a wine license—the LES/EV is the epicenter of drunk in Manhattan, with all the crazy bars, and you’re not going to let Whole Foods sell wine? The wine stores in the neighborhood are great, and like you said, Whole Foods is not a discounter, so I don’t see what they’ve got to worry about if they’ve already established a proper rapport with their customers. There’s nothing like going to a small store that specializes in something and talking to an owner who can tell you about every single thing he has in stock.

  2. You missed the law that says that you can’t sell beer and wine/liquor in the same store. Or the law that says you can sell wine/liquor only 6 days a week, but they can be any six days of the stores choosing. Beer and soft wine can be sold 7 days a week in grocery stores, but not before noon on Sundays. There are also laws preventing serving alcohol in restaurants located too close to churches.

    These issues aren’t stemming from New York City, they’re coming directly from Albany.

  3. Great points, Lia!

    And oh yes Dave, there are many more laws–I was just getting started! Thankfully some of the more bizarre ones have been repealed, such as no free tastings. In fact, the 6 days out of 7 law has also been repealed and you’ll find many of the top shops in the city are open 7 days now–but still not before noon on Sundays.


  4. Eh, no big deal, in Connecticut no supermarket can sell wine or liquor, only beer and malt beverages (Smirnoff Ice etc), and only until 9pm and not on Sundays. Liquor stores sell everything (same time/day restrictions).

    Alcohol restrictions are quite often byzantine and a result of outdated laws. What can you do?

  5. […] Whole Foods Bowery: yes food, no wine [Dr.Vino] (Photo: JasonJT) […]

  6. Come on, Nate! Just because other states have crazy wine retailing laws too doesn’t mean we can take this lying down! We’ve got to fight…for our right…to drink wine!

  7. Where’s the law saying the little local wine shops in Manhattan shall not be grossly overpriced and have a terrible selection? If it exists, places like Elizabeth and Vine would be gone in a heartbeat.

  8. This is really well put, but I also wondered about the efficacy of simply making a reasoned argument, since the responsible forces (Albany, even local political bodies) are intransigent. On the other hand, I did not realize that the six of seven law, itself of recent vintage, had in fact been modified. I do admit that I have started to wonder which day certain venues had chosen since they are always open when I pass.

  9. The community board includes on its membership, several wine store owners…so you do the math. It’s people using something that’s suppose to serve the community to serve themselves. People like the owner of nice guy eddie’s who miracuosly has several bars and wine stores, because he doesn’t hold the licenses to all of them…his son does, his wife does, some more of the sopranos do. you get the picture? Welcome to new york.

  10. as far as i know, there’s only ONE member on the community board that owns establishment(s) with serving liquor and that member does not have a son (so get your facts straight). but if you’re implying that there’s some anti-competitiveness going on … well, i’m not going to comment on that.

  11. […] our Riedel stemware: the new Whole Foods on High Street Kensington in London beats the snot out of Whole Foods Bowery from a wine perspective. Roll the tape from the Financial […]

  12. To say that Whole foods is not a discounter is to be either disingenuous or simply misinformed. First of all, they sell a range of wines under private label – available only through Whole Foods and therefore entirely free from any constraints from your evidently sacrosanct laws of free market competition. Secondly, wider profit margins on these items – or on cheese, organic popsicles or what-all, allow them to operate with particularly narrow margins on high-profile items, giving the general impression that the wine selection is well priced over all. Finally, Whole-Foods wine buyers – at least in my state- routinely pressure distributors for illegal, under the table extra deals (extra cases on volume purchases, concert tickets, etc.) which allow them to purchase wines for less than any other purchaser in the state, thereby competing unequally with those smaller stores you seem to think are habitually bilking you. If the only thing that matters is buying Flying Saucer red, Fat Bastard ‘Shiraz’ or whatever the Chardonnay of the moment is for a dollar or two less, then this seems fine, I am certain.
    In any case, the idea that in NYC the choices are between over-priced shops with terrible selection and something like Trader Joes’ or Whole Foods is downright silly. The City teems with shops with carefully selected line-ups, great staff and shockingly competetive prices, given wht theypay in rent. And no, I am not a wine retailer in NY.
    Finally – Exactly like hammers, many, many, many of the wines we drink today are just that – bulk commodities – the California wine sea is available by futures contracts – just like pork bellies – to whomsoever wishes to invent a fictitous winery, buy juice, and affix a multi-coloured label with a silly name. Decent small shops offer one of the only means of negotiating ones’ way through the oceans of mediocre swill about.


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