Patrick Watson and his wife Michele Pravda have built a mini empire on wine and cheese–they own the cheese shop Stinky Bklyn, the wine bar JakeWalk, and the wine shop Smith and Vine, all within a few blocks of each other on Smith Street in Brooklyn. This week, they opened a second, larger wine shop called Brooklyn Wine Exchange (138 Court Street), which focuses on organic, biodynamic wines, and will have a large New York State wine selection. (The store is not related to the Wine Exchange on Vanderbilt Street in Prospect Heights.) Starting in January, tastings will be scheduled in the shop’s “learning center.”
We caught up with Watson to talk about the new venture, New York wines, and finally find out exactly what “biodynamic” means.
So since you also own Smith and Vine, are you worried the two stores will compete?
No, we’re definitely far enough away. And since eight liquor store groups were bidding on this space anyway, we’re glad it’s us.
Do the selections at the two stores differ?
We’re not big fans of cloning one good idea and putting it somewhere else, so we wanted to make sure the two stores have completely different personalities. In this one [Brooklyn Wine Exchange] we do have a touch more room, so we can do more New York State wines, biodynamic and organic wines, and more New World wines in general. At Smith and Vine we organize the reds on one side of the room and the whites on the other, and here we’re lumping them together by country.
The only thing we wanted to be sure we brought with us is the $12 and under table: That’ll have 30 whites and 30 reds.
What will the New York selection be like?
We’ve been following New York state wines closely for years, and just haven’t had the space before that we do now. So we’re going to have 100 wines from New York, and we’re getting there as fast as we can, but we’re being very careful–meeting with the winemakers, and tasting so that we can find the top 100 wines in the state.
What are some of the best you’ve tasted so far?
Definitely Marcari Vineyards Early Wine Chardonnay from 2008, for $18. It’s outstanding. They harvest it in the first week of September for the sole purpose of maintaining the grape’s natural acidity and freshness.
And then there’s the Red Hook Winery–I think we are the first retailer to offer their wines. I have the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rose, and Cabernet Franc, which range from $23-$45. The fruit is from Jamesport Vineyards on Long Island, and the winemakers are Abe Schoener and Robert Foley, who are stylistically polar opposites but are among the best winemakers in America right now. It’s pretty exciting to have them in Red Hook. I mean, Abe’s red bottlings can go for upwards of $200. It brings us to a whole new level.
I also like Shinn Estate on the North Fork of Long Island. Upstate, I like Salmon Run Pinot Noir from Seneca Lake for $18. It’s just outstanding.
Any favorite budget-friendly choices from New York, say under $12?
That’s sort of tricky. There’s one $13 bottle called Pump House White, a big white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. It’s aromatic, beautiful, and refreshing.
Why is it harder to find lower-priced wines from New York?
It’s just a new industry. If you want to open a winery, say in Napa, you’ve got to have 20 million in the bank, and the time to wait five years to get the fruit you need to start producing good wine. A new winery is a huge capital investment.
Whereas, in Europe, some of those families have owned the same wineries for generations, and the mortgage is essentially paid off.
So if you had to name the best winemakers working in New York right now, you’d say Abe Schoener and Robert Foley from Red Hook Winery?
Yeah, definitely, and I’d lump Channing Daughters in there [on the South Fork of Long Island]. Channing made the first world-class white wines I ever tasted from New York. There’s a specific white wine called The Envelope, which is a blend of Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Malvafia, for $22 a bottle. I’d drink that over a lot of white Burgundy at the same price point. It’s world-class in every sense.
New York right now is like Napa used to be: In the beginning it wasn’t as popular. It didn’t have longevity, and they were working with young fruit. In New York, we’ve now got 30-year-old vineyards and we’re producing really complex wines. And a lot of the wineries are working organically and sustainably.
What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic wines?
The biggest difference, and the easiest way to think about it, is that with organic, the focus is on the plant, and with biodynamic, the focus is on the earth. Organic farming uses no herbicides, no pesticides. Biodynamic is about the health of the earth, and the health of the entire ecosystem.
So you get winemakers, for instance, encouraging and inducing natural fungi. There’s a fungus that attaches to vine roots like barnacles on a whale, and protects the roots from outside pests. There are winemakers who go out of their way to encourage white onions to grow in the vineyard, and then you get bees, and all of a sudden you’re working with a whole ecosystem.
Why white onions in particular?
It’s just one example of a cover crop: Basically, when you see a vineyard where they irrigate and spray, there’s just brown dirt where the roots come out of the earth. But at a vineyard where they don’t irrigate and spray, you’ll see dandelions, herbs, wild onions, weeds–that’s a cover crop, and now that whole earth below is so healthy, and is spreading all these great nutrients and minerals into the soil.
The best example is a rain forest. How do you get your vineyard to act like a rain forest, to self-sustain, to remain a healthy and structured ecosystem? It actually makes the work of a winemaker a lot easier — they don’t have to be out there everyday worrying about their crop. The crop is doing it itself.
I’d say about 80 percent of the wines in the new store abide by those agricultural philosophies.
So what’s a good, budget-friendly biodynamic wine to bring to a holiday party?
There’s a phenomenal Barbera from Colli Tortonesi, it’s from Piedmont and goes for $17. You can just smell how healthy those vineyards are.
And from Faillenc Corbieres in Languedoc, there’s a 2007 red wine blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Cinsaut. It’s $15, vinified organic, and has wild strawberry and eucalyptus meets wet dirt. That doesn’t sound so appealing, but it’s phenomenal.
Besides your own, and your wife’s, are there other New York wine shops that you think do a good job?
Chambers Street is probably my favorite store in the city. Sip Fine Wines on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope is also a fantastic store, one of my favorites. Vestry Wines is amazing, just a fantastic group of people with all the right intentions.
What are you drinking when you’re not drinking wine?
Delicious beer from the high Alps of Bavaria from a family called Hops [really]. They make the best wheat beers on the planet, hands down.