Costco? Fuhgeddaboutit. In an update at http://www.winecurmudgeon.com, Jeff Siegel reported yesterday that while Costco’s apparent practice of requiring any new wine placements <$15 retail to have already scored 90 points was never official, it was verbalized enough in the marketplace to have been communicated by four independent sources. So it may not have been policy, but it’s pretty safe bet it was shmolicy. Costco corporate brass must have had their reasons—heck, one might even argue that they were saving a lot of potential shelf-suitors time/effort. Whatevuh. My overarching argument remains undiminished: scores are prone to abuse once they leave the wine media; and any sales model that hinges on ratings is inherently flawed and a sign of retail ignorance.

It was gratifying to see the depth and range of comments left on the post, stretching from the 100-point scale itself to the way stores buy and how people shop. I was also stupefied to see the vitriolic reaction my “sausage factory” line prompted over at http://steveheimoff.com. How he took the metaphor as a personal attack I still don’t know. Anyway, I sure didn’t mind the additional traffic to the site, and I was already working on a Sausage Factory sequel of sorts (funnier and more real-world), so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of keeping our bloggin’ eyes on the prize, I’m posting today about the anti-Costco—a brand new retail shop in my general ’hood, Wine Geeks of Armonk {http://winegeeksarmonk.com}. Spawned in a renovated vintage gas station, Wine Geeks is a compact one-room joint that could have hardly been imagined 20 years ago. Devoted entirely to artisanal wine, with a special emphasis on organic and bio-dynamic wines, it is essentially a niche within the boutique genre.

Not meaning to sound too crotchety, but I can’t help but think back to the days when organic wines were firmly aligned with Birkenstocks and patchouli; and people might well have believed they paired with granola and moldy produce. Fast forward to 2009 and these ultra-hot wines-of-the-earth have a jewel-box of a showcase in suburban New York. Rustic wood accents dovetail with industrial shelving, giving the shop a feel that says part country barn, part Soho loft. Above all, quite literally, hangs an artistic (and environmentally correct) statement: and 18-foot triptych mounted high on a wall. Dubbed “Burst,” the colorful yet muted piece appears at first glance to be a painting, but it is actually a collage of recycled, flattened foil wine capsules, which artist Allen Stafford secured into an abstract design using copper tacks.

The personal touch at Wine Geeks is unmistakable. Every wine gets a homespun {and tweet-length!} descriptor card; there is not a rating to be seen. There can’t be much more than 150 SKUs, but who cares? The bottles ringing the room represent every major region in winedom, with so many diverse and evocative options that it took me a good 20-30 minutes before I even considered what types of wine were missing. Rosés? Check. Txakoli? Txeck. Dry Furmint? Sure. Napa, no problem. Malbec? Both in bottle and Tetra Pak. Pinot? Plenty. And for the wine-lovin’ locavore, some Channing Daughters from across Long Island Sound. The store also features a long, narrow tasting table; a score of options at the $15 and Under Table; and a central display whose theme will revolve. Right now, it is appropriately awash in summery pink tipples.

Who are the Wine Geeks? A reverse-commuting husband-wife team, Derek and Carol Todd, who both started (and met) in the Manhattan theater scene and grew to become veteran food/winers. {Derek was recently the wine director for Blue Hill at Stone Barns; Carol still dabbles in film.} They are taking this, their first plunge into retail, slowly at first. Website not quite fleshed out; delivery and shipping yet to come; events in the near future.

Carol & Derek Todd, chief geeks at Wine Geeks in Armonk, NY. In background, "Burst" triptych, made entirely from reclaimed foil capsules

Carol & Derek Todd, chief geeks at Wine Geeks in Armonk, NY. In background, "Burst" triptych, made entirely from reclaimed foil capsules.

For now, what they have going is a wine vibe that you just don’t get at any big store, whether it’s sell-by-numbers Costco or even a big city retailer. The vibe at Wine Geeks is getting some of its mojo to the au courant \geek chic, perhaps best captured in the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory. Nerds are kinda cool. And some of the coolest wines happening today are coming from vine nerds and cellar geeks.

Classic (non-wine) geeks and nerds love stats and numbers, but the Todds don’t need ratings because they have hand-picked every wine in the shop and can tell you exactly what you want to know. I went expecting to stay ten minutes but was there almost an hour, just browsing and chatting. What did I find? More flashes of truly unique wines than I can ever recall in a small shop. Two really grabbed me:

  • Nikolaihof 2008 “Hefeabzub” Gruner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria ($27). High-end Gru-vay from a vineyard that is not only the first in the world certified as biodynamic, but also, according to Derek, perhaps the oldest continuously producing vineyard in the world, period. It has been planted with grapevines for more than 1,000 years.
  • Scholium Project 2005 “Riquewihr” Lost Slough Vineyards, California ($30/500ml). This enigmatic bottling sat like a meditative monk in its squat, practically black bottle. No real info on the label to go by, but then again, that’s the way Scholium Project rolls. {In fact, Scholium’s Abe Schoener (who might be described as a wine geek’s geek?) was there for the grand opening the day before.} Derek filled me in: it’s 100% Gewurztraminer, grown in the Sacramento River Delta; serious, rare juice of which only a couple hundred cases are made. And 15.8% alcohol, just about guarantees both total dryness and ample body that set the stage for Gewurz’s exotic complexity.

Which brings me to the true nugget of worth in this otherwise mundane tale. The wine-buying experience, for me and a great many evolving wine lovers, is the most enriching and enjoyable way to learn about wine. Yes, you learn at a vineyard and at wineries. Yes, you can learn by reading, old and new media alike. But, more importantly, I admire merchants who have the palate and guts to edit the vast universe of wines down to a manageable slice.

Are they out to make a buck? D’oh! Are they biased? You bet: they believe in the wines they sell. But they do so on their own terms, applying their own standards, and they put their reputation on their personalized recommendations. Much of what good retailers say is opinion. As it should be: wine is subjective! They are not afraid to tell me what they think stands out from the pack. They share opinions of which wines deliver quality above their price points, and which labels compare stylistically. They advise me sensibly on which wines will work best in varying contexts, whether that be a specific menu or, say, a wine I need to show in a tasting to contrast with another wine.

As an event developer, I buy between $25K and $40K worth of wine at retail every year. I rely on good merchants all the time to help me pick bottles that will make wine’s magic come alive when I lead tastings, dinners, seminars, parties. Last week, I felt the need to spank Costco. This week—and every Tuesday moving forward—I plan to devote a post to a specific wine shop, a retail revelation or some other aspect of the wine-buying experience. These are the quiet critical heroes in today’s wine scene.

Please feel free to share your favorite retail wine heroes as well. They deserve our attention and support.

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