NYC is experiencing a golden era in wine, as retailers have access to more wines from more importers from the farthest reaches of the globe than ever before. As I set out to distill those retailers down to a forthcoming list of the 10 best (which will build on last year’s list), I reached out to the public to see which stores hit their “favorite” lists, and why. One store received repeated nominations: Brooklyn Wine Exchange (138 Court Street, 718-855-9463). Thus, I decided to take my questions about what makes a good wine shop to the owner of the lauded store, Christopher Modica. We chatted about developments in the retail industry, wine trends, how he defines a quality shop, and why his staff and learning center make his retail style unique from the rest.
Modica grew up in Carroll Gardens and roasted coffee at D’Amico Foods for many years. He felt compelled to enter the retail sphere because retail was all he’d known, and Brooklyn had been his home his whole life. His interest in wine grew gradually over the years, as he discovered the many parallels between the processes of transforming grapes into wine and coffee beans into coffee. Because D’Amico had an ambiance that fostered a chat over one’s espresso, Modica wanted a wine shop with a similar philosophy: a place at which neighborhood folks could meet and converse about wine. Modica opened Brooklyn Wine Exchange in December of 2009 on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.
What is the scope of your selection and why?
We have tremendous diversity in our customers’ interest, knowledge level, and passion for wine. We sell skin-fermented white wines just as frequently as we sell Bordeaux. Wines from Piedmont, Italy are given just a much shelf space as Malbec from Argentina. And while we feature over 50 wines at all times that are $13 or less a bottle, we are also selling Premier Cru white Burgundy and Grower Champagne with serious frequency.
Who are your clientele?
We are at the epicenter of four major well-known and fashionable Brooklyn neighborhoods: Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, and Boerum Hill, so we have serious wine geeks, people new to appreciating fine wine, and people looking for a nice, inexpensive bottle to pair with Tuesday night dinner. We also see new customers every week due to the fact that we are located next to Brooklyn’s only Trader Joe’s location. Their clientele, who travel from all over the city to shop there, often shop here as well, and it is extremely important to us that they are made to feel welcome.
What sets your store apart from the rest?
We are extremely proud of our customer service and feel that it is the best in the city. If you come to our shop, you are going to get the same level of attention if you are purchasing an $8 bottle of wine or a $100 bottle of wine. We also have a very unique 40-seat learning center, located in the back of our store, where we host up to three free classes a week on a variety of wine and spirits topics which are led by our staff, our importers, and often the winemakers and distillers themselves.
Do you feel there are more quality wine shops now than five or 10 years ago? Is there room for more, or do you feel we are hitting a saturation point?
There definitely are [more quality shops]. New York City is in the midst of a serious wine shop boom, and almost all of these shops are presenting quality wines that tell a story about where they come from. Neighborhoods all over the city continue to reinvent themselves and attract more population, and people always need wine!
Have you spotted any trends in the wine retail world?
In New York, the trend seems to be retailers now selling what has been in the past referred to as “restaurant wines.” This means that shops are more likely to sell wines that pair well with food from actual family-owned wineries, and not “fantasy” brand wines produced in a factory and sold with clever packaging. The other big trend that we are extremely happy about is that point ratings from wine publications do not drive sales in New York City like they do in other parts of the country. I can’t even remember the last time a customer asked us about how many points a particular wine received.
What are characteristics of the better shops in NYC?
The best shops are those that, like Brooklyn Wine Exchange, hire people with serious wine and food knowledge. Former sommeliers, wine directors, cooks, and bartenders. A cashier can ring you up, but what can they tell you about the wine? We have found tremendous success in creating a team of people who truly love and appreciate what they are selling. And we find that similar dynamic in the other wine shops we love.
What types of wines are getting New Yorkers excited, and what are becoming unfashionable?
Because of our supreme access to imported and domestic wine in the city, we often see mini-trends and fads come and go that may never reach other parts of the country. For us, Loire Valley red wines and the wines of Jura have taken off like crazy, mostly because they are such great food-pairing wines. We have noticed huge interest among our staff and customers for Greek wines, as well as Spanish wines from Galicia. The wines that have become less saleable are those “retail brand” wines that have been doctored and synthesized to taste big and rich and, ultimately, quite boring.
What other offerings do you have: newsletters, classes, winemaker dinners, etc.?
Our customers receive a twice-weekly newsletter via email that helps them stay up-to-date on class schedules and specials. The Learning Center, where we feature our weekly free classes, is really the heart of the store. We watch our neighbors attend these classes and build friendships, business relationships, and more just from attending. They sit together, learn, taste wine and experience a connection not just to the wine, but to each other and the neighborhood as well.