When small wine shops are great–and when they disappoint

Eric Asimov has a long piece in today’s NYT about small wine shops. He highlights a number of local, independent shops mostly around New York City. If you are familiar with our map of NYC wine shops, then you knew about virtually every store in his story already! I’d also highlight Le Vigne, which is a good, new shop that didn’t get mentioned. I’ve also recently discovered UVA Wines in Brooklyn, which has an excellent selection of wines from the Loire and Burgundy. Thirst Merchants in Fort Greene also merits a shout-out since they have a lot of the hard-to-find wines from the portfolio of importer Kermit Lynch. Hit the comments with faves in your area.

I love a good, small wine shop. When people ask me to recommend a wine, I often tell them that the best practical advice I can give them is to find a great, small shop near them.

To be great, in my view, the small shop must have an interesting selection. Not huge, but well-curated, which can mean having off-the-beaten path selections or a certain specialization, be it a regional focus or from an astute distributor or importer.

The best small shops also have excellent service, with at least one staffer who is knowledgeable (and being nice is a plus, too). If the staff makes good suggestions and even remembers a customer’s likes and dislikes, then that is terrific. Staff-written shelf talkers, if any, can add character. Adding tastings or other community aspects are a tremendous service too. And mixed cases (or three packs or six packs) selected by the staff can be great for introducing consumers to new wines.

One place where small wine shops can disappoint is on price. Granted, these shops don’t treat wine as a commodity and aren’t seeking a low-price, high-volume business model. But unless they aspire to only serving a three-block radius of lazy, oblivious and/or wealthy customers, they should really not charge more than the full, 50% markup above wholesale cost. If they do, they are firing the very customers they seek to educate and bring into the wine-loving fold. To give but one example: the La Gitana manzanilla sherry makes for a refreshing aperitif and if you poke around, you can find it in NYC for $9.99. But I saw it in a neighborhood shop recently for $18. One small shop owner recently told me that he wanted his customers to come to his shop for all their wine needs. But charging significantly over the price of other shops might tax the loyalties of even the most dedicated customers.

Hopefully, the best of these neighborhood shops at least offer mixed case discounts or loyalty programs so that the regulars don’t have to pay the full, chump premium. That way, knowledgeable shoppers can have their sherry wine cake and eat it too.

Let’s raise a glass to the best of these innovative, tireless, enthusiastic wine shop curators!

New Wine Shops in New York Put Patrons at Ease” NYT
Frankly Wine’s Christy Frank – NY wine shops – a 2,400 part series

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31 Responses to “When small wine shops are great–and when they disappoint”

  1. As one of those tireless, enthusiastic small wine shop workers, I am particularly happy to see this post (ditto the article in today’s NYT). Just one small disagreement with you on what constitutes excellent service. Knowledgeable, makes good suggestions, remembers you — I agree with all that, but I don’t think being nice is “a plus.” It’s part and parcel with all the rest of it. No amount of wine expertise and good suggestions will make up for an indifferent (or god forbid, rude) staffer. I work in the wine service industry. If I can’t deliver that service with a smile, then I’d better go looking for another line of work.

  2. God Bless you Doc. Thank you for championing the small independants who bring thought and care to their selections. I agree that more than standard mark up on most wines is a hard pill to swallow, but so is rent, insurance, staff, electric… If you have not guessed I am a small independant Wine Shop owner. But notin the NYC I am in Bergen County NJ. You are correct that there is a right way and a wrong way to keep the GP up so you can survive. In my experience I have to say service is key, that is what I have built my business on, and I have found that people do not mind paying a little extra for the service. Also it is very important to give back to the consumer via case discounts, rewards programs, and free sampling. If you ever get out to NJ and you have time while going to visit Gary V (great episode by the way) you should stop by and say hello.

  3. Doc, there are two local wine stores within walking distance from my apartment, and both are rather unimpressive establishments intent on milking money out of college students who don’t know better. They sell their wines well above the RRP, their selections are far from inspired, and they don’t offer anything in the way of loyalty programs; yet they still get away with it, I suppose because there isn’t much competition. I’m getting most of my supply from online vendors for the time being, but I do envy folks who have a local wine store where they can enjoy service at a personal level and score hidden gems.

  4. Spot on my man!

    It is all very simple.

    If a wine merchant can’t pull off your minimal, yet powerfully significant, requirements than something is wrong.

    It takes no time at all to inform a customer about a wine.

    Someone (or more than one someone) Should know something about every wine on the shelves.

    Unconscious knowledge.

    I would add to the list:

    Smile and ask the customer to please come back and let you know what they think.

    I mean, what are we doing this for?

    There not many things better than seeing and hearing from the people you opened for smiling and saying, “Hell yeah. You hit on the head”

    Or the look on their faces when they enter the discount program and it’s time for that 10% off.

    Dig it.


  5. Definitely nothing better then a personal recommendation after a few minutes spent talking about other wines, the only places that can really occur is at a local wine shop. Blogs and the net can also help, but those generally come with the added level of complexity of needing to then find the wine in question.

    Both wineries and consumers alike love small shops where the face to face sale of wine is still very important.

  6. There is a really good small wine shop near me (Chicago burbs)…interesting wines, thoughtful tastings, reasonable prices. But I have one small complaint…the depth of knowledge amongst the staff is extremely inconsistent. When one of the 2 owners is in the shop, I get great info and recommendations. Other times, I am “helped” by a guy who has virtually no wine knowledge, which could turn off some first time visitors to the store.

    Maybe this is less of an issue in NYC, though, with more people who are knowledgable about wine?

  7. Whilst I loved reading Asimov’s comments on the fun and the funky in NYC I would also add that in the suburbs there are some really good boutique wine stores too. Not that I want to self advertise here, since that is not the purpose of this terrific blog, I would just say that when I began this journey to sell wine to customers who for years had been devoid of the great experience that buying wine can be if they met the right people in the right store, I have taken this one step further. I seek out really small importers whose passion for the wine is not made up of dollar signs. Because of the stupid laws in NYS I am required to buy wine from a NYS licensed distributor. So I look for distributors who share my mantra – small production wine, family made, with passion, nothing commercial, nothing made purely for money. When you look, it’s amazing how many small distributors really care about the wines they import. Those are the wines we stock and sell

  8. I thought I would chime in as I just opened a new Internet-based wine store called Plonk Wine Merchants, http://www.plonkwinemerchants.com, which hits the mark on many of the points you bring up, Dr. Vino. Only real difference is that my shop is online!

  9. Salud, Ms. Drinkwell. That’s the way it’s done. It’s why our shop has lasted 16 years without ever selling a bottle of Yellowtail or Little Black Dress. It’s why people drive an hour and a half just to come visit with us. And as long as I’m bragging, I might as well make a job of it:


    Y’all come.

  10. Hi Tyler, I love it that you and Eric are championing the diversity of wine shops and diversity of choice in New York. As a NYC retailer who eschews large, mass-marketed producers, thank you for the post.

    For your example, please note that with a 50% markup on the wholesale price of Hidalgo’s La Gitana, the retail price would be $18 on the frontline and $17 on the deepest discount. A $9 retail price is less than current wholesale prices. This retailer is likely selling very old sherry or is selling below cost. Can you count the dust rings?

  11. I love these specialist small wine shops (work in one myself too, hehe). It’s a fact that when you are a chain, you are forced to import and sell wines from producers who are capable of making 10.000+ cases a vintage, so you rule out all the small, honest vintners. As a smaller shop, you have more choice and movement space.

    Cheers, Sander

  12. Now, if THEY (the big guys?/politicians?) would only allow these small wine retailers to ship these small hand-crafted wines made by these artisan producers across state line – now, wouldn’t that be great!!!

    I’ve been joking around that this might happen when I’m 88 years old – only to be able to respond to any inquires at that time: “Sorry, too late!”

  13. “I’d also highlight Le Vigne, which is a good, new shop.”

    So true, not because one of the bottles in the picture is from us (Kuenhof) 🙂 – but because this wine shop is trying to showcase those top-quality Italian wines that insiders of the Italian wine scene love to talk/write about but wine lovers/consumers having a hard time to track down. Here you can find some of those all in one place.

  14. Thanks for the comments.

    @ Scott – ha, okay, you got me on the La Gitana–that was last year that I saw that. And freshness IS important for manzanilla!

    But still, as a fairly knowledgeable wine enthusiast, I do sometimes find the prices at some neighborhood small shops to be quite high. I can’t help but wonder if demand is more price-sensitive than some owners think and if they cut the prices, customers would buy more, thus boosting the store’s top and bottom lines.

    Anyway, it seems that one reform that would benefit small shops in NY would be if they could apply a volume discount from a distributor across all wines purchased instead of a single wine (as happens in NJ, for example). That way a small shop could buy 10 cases of Muscadet, say, and a couple of cases of higher priced Vouvray or Burgundy and still get a volume discount.

    Or greater liberalization of interstate shipping as James Koch suggests above. Or even direct importing…

    What do you think? Do the retailing laws sometimes work against you–and consumers?

  15. Ah. Where were these writers ten years ago when my partner and I started is-wine on East 5th Street?

    In fact, that pic of Alphabet City could very well have been our shop, furniture and all. That book shelf of wine brings back memories.

    It was a good idea then, and it’s a great idea now to have a wine shop that is small, dedicated, offers wines that you don’t see all around town, and so on.

    Disclosure: I have nothing to do with the present is-wine, which has moved to the West Village.

  16. […] Vino, who I read regularly, recently posted a great article on what makes a small wine shop great. Photo by Paul […]

  17. […] Ms. Crow.” Couldn’t she bring her glamor to another part of the wine biz, such as an independent shop owner? The cougars have to buy their Merlot from somewhere, after all. Permalink | Comments (1) | […]

  18. If I had a dollar for every customer who comes into our ship asking “Do you ship?” I’d be a rich man. We ship where we’re allowed to ship, which is not very many places. So yes, we are definitely hurt by shipping restrictions.

  19. I frequent two outstanding small local shops in Baltimore; they both provide outstanding service and an interesting selection. They both do a $100 case of the month that is thoughtfully chosen to match the season and expand the palate.

    But when I’m going to stock up on wine that I know is going to be pricey ($35+ a bottle) I head out to the burbs to the wine ‘warehouse’, where the service is still good , but the knowledge isn’t quite the same as the local shop… The prices are 10-40% less than the local shops, before I add in the regular coupon.

    I know the local places are in higher rent areas, and I know they aren’t pushing the volume of the warehouse guy, but when I paide $12 for something at the local shop that I saw on sale for $6.99 at the warehouse, I’m going to buy more at the warehouse.

  20. […] 27, 2010 di Riccardo Porciatti Segnalo questi due bellissimi post apparsi su Dr. Vino e The Pour dove si parla delle piccole enoteche. Bravi!! Su uno di questi post ho trovato il link al […]

  21. Tyler I agree with all of your points. My experience is that many of the smaller wine shops do not pay enough attention to price and is a major reason they fail.

    For the smaller shop, relationship, service, I have never mind paying a little above what the same wine would be at a larger retailor, but not much. One would hope though that the majority of wines are a little exclusive to the shop and off the beaten path.

    There is a good retail shop near my home, but I don’t buy much there because I have seen too many times wines that were sold for an unreasonable mark-up. In fact a cava that I buy for $9 was $14 in the small retail store.

    Big turn off.

  22. I sell for a small wholesaler in Chicago and an tell you that most small shops do not go over the 50% mark up except for an unnamed franchise wine store. The problem is when the buy national brands that the big stores get great deals on. The small shop is not gouging, they just are not buying smart. I want my customers to only be a $1 or $2 higher than the big chains on a wine under $15. That wont happen with the large wholesalers since most of their reps don’t have a clue what the big guys are selling it for and they are trying to get as many placements to meet their pumped up goals.

  23. As someone who is not in the industry, is the 50% markup over wholesaler prices a pretty reliable metric for retail store pricing? Can I assume that if a wholesaler offers a bottle for $10, that the retail store would then be offering it for $15? Does this 50% markup work the same at various price points? ($10, $40, $75)

    Thanks for the education….

  24. Hi Dan,

    Yes, that is considered standard. But there are many differences across states–Ohio, for example, has a state-mandated minimum 33% markup for all wines. That means a price-competitive Champagne can’t be marked down at year end, for example.

    States also apply discounts for bulk discounts differently. So some wines may have a greater profit margin even if they still are at suggested retail because they were purchased with bulk discount.

    If a store can get an exclusive on a wine, then they might be able can charge a higher markup.

    So even within a store, wines can have different margins. But a 50% markup from the initial wholesale price (“frontline”) is considered the standard.

  25. Thanks for the writeup. Very helpful.

  26. “But still, as a fairly knowledgeable wine enthusiast, I do sometimes find the prices at some neighborhood small shops to be quite high.”

    Obviously, you haven’t been in our neighborhood.

  27. […] by RSS, or daily email. Thanks for visiting! A couple of months ago, we had a discussion about what makes a great, independent wine shop. Here’s a bit more about one of excellent example of a neighborhood shop: Thirst Wine […]

  28. This may be too late in the game for the responding consumers to take note, but many times distributors cut pricing for large orders. Big boys like Total Wine, CostCo and the like easily have the moola at-hand to purchase say, a pallet of Languedoc red, and they most certainly will get the best price in town. Even the local grocery store gets Loire Sauvignon Blanc at 8.99 while we struggle with 13.99 pricing because they can afford to commit to a much larger number of cases up front. Pity party for small retail shops? Nah, just a little perspective.

  29. Totally agree with you. It’s vital that small independent stores survive otherwise all we are left with is the large multiples. But to do so and overcome the undoubted attraction of the one-stop-shop offered by the multiples, indies must differentiate themselves, most easily by range and service. They have to charge more per bottle, there is just no way round that if they are to thrive, that level of service that we enjoy isn’t free, but lets not bite the hand that feeds !

  30. ‘lazy’ customers paying full ‘chump’ prices at small wine shops? Clearly you have never owned a small retail business. Better the shop owner work 85 hours a week and live on beans so you can pay him the same price you’d pay Gotham Wines here on the UWS? Harsh from the ‘academic’ writing his blog.

    Also – ‘poke around’ NYC to save $8.00? That’s funny! Where do you live?

  31. Dear Sir / Madam.

    We wishes to purchase Wines,Champagne

    Provide a quote and advise payments options?

    Your response will be appreciated.

    Best regards.


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