The Boston Phoenix December 14 - 21, 2000

[Features]

What's in store

Wine retailers vary vastly in selection and service. Here's a guide to some of the best ones.

by Thor Iverson

Unless you're already a wine expert, navigating a wine shop can be a difficult experience. So many names, so many bottles, so many choices. Although critics, advertisements, and other external sources of information can be helpful, it's hard to persuade most wine critics to go shopping with you. Articles and ads can be clipped and carried, of course, and a lot of wine shops put those little "shelf talkers" next to their wines so you don't have to walk around with a folio of reference materials every time you go shopping.

But in reality, all this can be avoided by two simple actions: finding a good wine shop, and finding a good employee in that shop. In a store that takes wine seriously, the good employees know their selection. They've tasted the wines. They know, from experience, how to match requests to specific choices, and how to interpret the sometimes confused and convoluted questions of wine shoppers who haven't taken the Master of Wine exams. When it comes to actual, on-the-spot help, there is absolutely no substitute for a good retailer.

Of course, Boston wine shops don't make this easy. Many of the best stores are in the suburbs, making them nearly inaccessible without an automobile. (And really, who wants to lug cases of wine around on the T?) And when you arrive at these outlying wine meccas, you realize that many of them have insufficient (or nonexistent) parking lots.

Price is also a significant barrier for the Boston wine lover. Mark-ups at the wholesale level are high, and retailers are not shy about passing these costs on to the consumer. It is a sad but indisputable fact that most wine available in Boston can be had for much, much less money at select stores in Manhattan. And with our Prohibitionistic laws, it's nearly impossible to ship wine across state lines, which leaves local shopping as the only reasonable option.

When wine, overpriced or not, does arrive on store shelves, many retailers do their best to ruin it. Store conditions are getting better, but some well-known shops still insist on baking their wines in highly heated rooms, or locking their most expensive wines in searing-hot glass cases that can turn $500 grand cru Burgundy into $5 cooking wine in a matter of months.

And finally, not all stores do the service thing very well. There are many dedicated professionals in the wine business, who work in wine shops because they love wine and want to share this love with the customer. But there are also plenty of bored college students, diffident wine snobs, and misanthropic eccentrics who can make buying a nice bottle of wine for tonight's burgers a decidedly trying experience.

Nevertheless, the Boston area is liberally sprinkled with stores that have good selections of interesting wine (some fairly priced, some not), intelligent staffs, and the willingness to do what it takes to help match a customer with a wine for a delicious liquid date. These are some of our favorites.

Brookline Liquor Mart

1354 Comm Ave, Allston, (617) 734-7700

Well situated right on the B Line, this store looks as if it belongs smack-dab in the middle of an area overrun with college students. Which is where it is. But the garish neon sign and thoroughly unimpressive exterior give little hint of what's inside. Certainly, many people have passed right by the store thinking it was little other than a corner packie.

Step inside, however, and the truth emerges. This is one of Boston's biggest wine shops and one of the best-conditioned, with store temperatures always on the cool side, even in the middle of August. The selection is broad and interesting, with most of the focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Germany, and producers from the Rhône and Loire Valleys represented by Classic Wine Imports, the company that more or less "owns" the shelf space. This has its advantages, in that the store can offer back vintages and obscure bottlings from some excellent producers, but it also has disadvantages: Classic's line-up of Burgundy producers is, with exceptions such as Bouchard and Lafon, somewhat weak. So there's a lot of well-aged Burgundy, but it's not always from the best or most reliable sources (be wary of older bottlings from Remoissenet, which litter the store -- many Burgundy aficionados do not believe they are always what they say they are). On the other hand, BLM carries a few of the absolute top names from Germany, California, Italy, and other regions of France. And don't miss the rare-wine room, which has a pricey but fascinating selection of top names and older vintages.

What really puts BLM near the top of the heap, however, is its customer service. This starts with terrific Saturday tastings (which, in the winter, tend to vary in time and theme; call for details or visit www.blmwine.com) and continues with a very helpful staff led by manager Roger Ormon. BLM moves a lot of wine, and there's a reason. Changes may be afoot, however: Classic has been purchased by a local competitor with importers of its own, and it remains to be seen whether this will affect the selection.

For those with cars, there is, thankfully, a parking lot in front of the store.

Marty's

675 Washington Avenue, Newton, (617) 332-1230

(Full disclosure: I put in a few hours of part-time work here weekly.) If BLM is not the top destination for serious wine geeks, this store is. There's not much overlap in wines, so one need not even choose between the two. Although it's in a somewhat out-of-the-way location (benefit: easy parking), Marty's draws wine lovers from all over the area thanks to one of the best-trained staffs anywhere. And the exceedingly diverse selection, which specializes in sparkling wines and bottles from Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Rhône, is nearly impossible to criticize. Wine manager Tom Schmeisser, one of the true gurus of the Boston wine scene, is considered by many to be the top retailer of fine (although not necessarily expensive) wine, a reputation that is both hard-earned and well-deserved.

The wine staff, however, is not the entire Marty's experience. One also has to purchase the wine, and this is where Marty's suffers a bit; the front-of-the-house staff can be distracted and frequently surly. This is unfortunate, but it doesn't detract from the quality of the wine. What does detract, a bit, is that the prices at Marty's are not exactly low. There are deals to be had (especially on wines supplied by the affiliated importer, Atlantic), but overall Marty's is a fairly expensive store. Storage conditions are good upstairs and excellent in the voluminous cellar downstairs; and much of the wine sold at this store never sees either location for very long, since Marty's does a brisk business in special orders.

For the automobile-challenged, there's a second Marty's (193 Harvard Avenue, Brighton, 617-782-3250) right on the B Line, with a similar though not identical selection. (For drivers, there's a little-known parking lot tucked away in back.) This store is smaller and dingier; it has a staff slightly more attuned to the much younger clientele, and shares the Newton store's difficulties with front-of-store staff and pricing. In addition, this is one of those stores that "cook" their top wines in a hot, brightly lit glass case. But the convenience of the location makes up for the negatives, and the benefits of the location are clear -- the store is nearly always busy.

Bauer Wine & Spirits

330 Newbury Street, (617) 262-0363

With the possible exception of Tom Schmeisser at Marty's, Bauer's wine guy, Howie Rubin, is the most recognized name, face, and voice on the Boston wine scene. Operating out of a relatively small storefront on the less tony end of Newbury Street, and thus unable to duplicate the huge selections of the big suburban stores, Rubin has chosen to feature wines that he likes, and that he thinks his customers will like. Special ordering is always an option, and Rubin's popularity and ability to move a lot of wine to a high-end clientele means that he has little difficulty locating hard-to-find wines. But the best way to experience Bauer is just to walk in and let Howie (or one of his well-trained staff) guide you to some interesting bottles.

Given its small size, it's hard to say that Bauer specializes in any one kind of wine. There's a good deal of American wine on the shelves, but selection is more reflective of Rubin's apparent love for the bigger, bolder styles -- wines that show a lot of fruit at a young age. However, he and his staff are adept at steering customers to different styles as well.

No store on Newbury Street is going to be cheap, and Bauer is no exception. Nevertheless, in return for the slightly elevated costs, one gets a lot of personal attention. Bauer is the kind of store where a customer can develop a working relationship with the staff, be greeted on a first-name basis, and never have to worry about poring over the shelves without assistance. Or, to put it another way, if there were more stores like Bauer, there would be less need for the warehouse-size wine shops talked about elsewhere in this article. (Parking is generally dismal on Newbury Street, but there's a garage across the street from the store.)

Martignetti Liquors

1650 Soldiers Field Road, Brighton, (617) 782-3700

The name gives it away: this is the big daddy of Italian wine. Although there's plenty from Burgundy, Germany, California, the Loire, and Alsace, no other area store can compete with Martignetti on wines from the European boot.

That's not to say it's perfect. The staff is knowledgeable but often distracted, and the quality of the service seems to depend on mood and chance more than anything else. Storage conditions are good, but not terrific, and for whatever reason this store is afflicted with an unusual amount of dust (though a recent store redesign might help). On the other hand, prices overall are quite reasonable for Boston (though oddly erratic), and the store, like many others affiliated with specific importers and wholesalers, can offer some amazing deals on wines those companies handle. Martignetti also offers, from time to time, some very inviting prices on older Italian, Loire, and German wines that it can import directly from the producers. And the sales are extensive and extraordinary.

The store exterior is ugly, but so is BLM's, so that shouldn't discourage anyone. Although parking is plentiful, the location is a problem for those without a car. For T-bound folk, the North End location (64 Cross Street, Boston, 617-227-4343) is a poor alternative. Since it's a much smaller store, selection is definitely abbreviated, and service is nearly nonexistent. Nevertheless, some wonderful French and Italian obscurities do make their way to this location, and given the other attractions of the North End, this store is nearly always worth a visit.

Wine & Cheese Cask

407 Washington Street, Somerville, (617) 623-8656

The Wine Cask (as most people call it) is sort of like Bauer's alternative and somewhat rebellious younger brother. The stores aren't related, but customers of one will find much that is similar at the other.

They'll also find much that is different. The Wine Cask seems to revel in selling wines from overlooked regions and appellations, digging up small-production obscurities from well-known regions, and generally flouting the conventions of wine retailing (which dictate that there are certain mass-market wines a store must carry). For the adventurous wine lover, this is heaven on earth, but for the timid it is more than a bit bewildering. The store specializes in the Loire, Burgundy, Spain, and Italy, though (like Bauer) it really emphasizes style and character more than it does specific regions or countries. Manager Steve Mosher likes quirky wines that express terroir and individuality above all else.

Prices are mixed, but since many of the wines sold at the Wine Cask are unknown or underappreciated, some truly amazing bargains can be found. The location is somewhat difficult, but not impossible, to manage without a car (with a car, parking is a cinch), and the other advantages of the store (a great cheese selection) and the location (Dalí and other nice restaurants surround the place) make up for it.

Overall, this is a store for the consumer who's willing to be introduced to something new, something out-of-the-ordinary, something authentic and true to type, but perhaps not totally in line with modern mass-produced wine. It's a store where one must be willing to take some chances, and accept some failures, but where the rewards of experimentation are beyond measure.

The Wine Bottega

341 Hanover Street, Boston, (617) 227-6607

The opening of this very individualistic store right in the heart of the North End should be celebrated by wine lovers as, unquestionably, the most exciting recent development on the local wine scene. Manager Peter Nelson, who was at BLM for a while, then at Biba, has forged ahead with a singular vision of personalized wine retail, where the selection is more about the unique and the worthwhile than it is about moving hundreds of cases of the latest Woodbridge product.

In other words, it's similar to Bauer and the Wine Cask. The store is cramped, but makes wonderful use of its limited space, and has managed to combine some nice aesthetics with standard shelving in the downstairs tasting room. It is probably one of the most attractive stores in the city (second only to Best Cellars), but there's still an awful lot of wine per square foot here. Since wines are not subdivided by region or grape, it's hard to identify specialties, but Nelson has a keen palate for good wines from any region and at any price.

And what about the prices? Well, they're high, but not unreasonably so (especially given the location). There are certainly deals to be had, though one must do a little digging to find them. The staff ably assists in this effort, although it would be fair to say that enthusiasm often outweighs actual information. But the store is young, and enthusiasm is not unimportant in wine. We should all look forward to the staff's development, because this is definitely a store to watch.

Best Cellars

1327 Beacon Street, Brookline, (617) 232-4100

The hook here -- a concept imported from New York-- is the $10 price ceiling. That and the David Rockwell-designed architectural wonder of the store, which features tons of wasted space, artsy lighting, and display racks.

The idea is unquestionably appealing, but does it work? Well, yes and no. Certainly a lot of effort goes into finding interesting wines under 10 bucks, and there are certainly many wines that are much more expensive but no tastier sitting on other retailers' shelves. And for beginning wine drinkers on a budget, much can be learned with very little downside.

What's more, the staff is both enthusiastic and helpful (not that there's all that much to remember, given the small selection), and this too is a good thing for novices to experience. Consumers can do much worse than Best Cellars.

But they can also do better. Although the store's concept is a good one, I think it has been somewhat leapfrogged by reality; for better or worse, $15 is a more reasonable ceiling for good wine these days. And limiting one's purchases to such a small store is somewhat restricting; those who catch the bug here usually move on to bigger specialty retailers fairly quickly. Nevertheless, a talked-about expansion into the Back Bay can only advance this store's mission of making wine more accessible to the masses. And this, we can all agree, is a good thing.

Blanchard Liquors

103 Harvard Avenue, Brighton, (617) 782-5588

Like Marty's down the street and (to a lesser extent) BLM, this is a store that has to cater to the neighborhood clientele: a lot of cases and kegs of beer are purchased here by people who don't even notice the wine department. Others come in only to find obscure brews they've tasted at the nearby Sunset Grill & Tap.

This is a shame, though. Blanchard doesn't excel in any one particular area (Alsace, Burgundy, California, and Italy are well represented), but it does well in many. Prices are reasonable for Boston, and conditions are good on the sales floor. The salespeople seem to prefer chatting amongst themselves to chatting with customers, but they can be quite helpful and friendly once their attention is gained.

Overall, there's nothing special about this store, but there's very little wrong with it, either. If you're in the area, it's definitely worth a visit.

Honorable mentions

The foregoing hardly covers the extent of high-quality wine retailing in Boston. Pickings are somewhat scarce downtown, with a lot of overpriced and badly stored wines in pretentious little shops, but both Merchants (6 Water Street, Boston, 617-523-7425) and Federal Wine & Spirits (29 State Street, Boston, 617-367-8605) serve their clients well. The former is a standard sort of wine shop, perhaps a little pricey, but with a good general selection and a knowledgeable if somewhat standoffish staff. The latter is helmed by Len Rothenberg, known as the mad professor of local wine retailing (though whether this is due to his wild shock of hair or to his early adoption of electronic tasting and retailing aids is hard to say), and sells a lot of high-end wine via direct special orders. Nevertheless, a few gems hit the shelves upstairs and in the must-be-seen-to-be-believed basement (a real basement), and Rothenberg has a good palate for standouts, especially from the boutique regions of France. In the Back Bay, Geerlings & Wade (218 Newbury Street, Boston, 617-247-8902), the well-known catalogue retailer, makes the least of a fantastic location with a poor selection, absurd prices, and an obnoxious staff. So why am I even bothering to mention it? Because once in a while, it unearths a real gem and offers it at a low price, and because the location is so good, and because it could do a fine job if it really wanted to. But its customers deserve better.

Mall Discount Liquors (202 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, 617-864-7171) has some absurdly overpriced wines mixed in with some nice values. The store seems to deal in leftovers, of a sort, and thus can get small allocations of otherwise hard-to-find wines that wholesalers are trying to clear out of their warehouses. Conditions are not good and help is nonexistent, but the savvy wine buyer can find some very interesting wines here. Look especially for dessert wines; this store has the largest selection I've seen in the area.

Other, more distant stores of note include Berman's (55 Mass Ave, Lexington, 781-862-0515), notable for its selection of otherwise generally unavailable wines from proprietor Joel Berman's Arborway Imports, despite its high prices and minimal staff assistance. See also Gordon's (892 Main Street, Waltham, 781-893-1900), a huge store with a great selection, a very inconsistent staff (some salespeople are helpful, others are flatly rude), and marginally higher prices than many other stores. It's worth a trip to Waltham, however. And even farther afield, many local wine lovers make frequent journeys to Table & Vine (122 North Kind Street, Northampton, 800-474-2449), where Paul Provost and his crack staff oversee a massive selection of very fairly priced and perfectly stored wines from all over the world. Is a store so far away so good that it deserves a mention in an article about Boston wine shops? Yes, it is. Not only are the prices and wines terrific, but the inventory is kept reasonably up to date at www.tableandvine.com/, which makes the whole experience that much easier for those willing to make the trip.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.