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
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
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.)
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.