Local Wine Shops

| March 23, 2009 | 5 Comments
  • 5 Comments

Chuck Hayward
Chuck Hayward from The Jug Shop

I’m a wine devotée, so I’m also a habitué of wine shops, and a seeker after their treasures. The best stores are often cool, warehouse-like spaces, with cases of wine stacked precariously, row upon row. The wine shops where I’ve worked–in Northampton, Mass., New York City, and San Francisco were all modest establishments, but in each one a customer could find a small masterpiece, a miracle of art and nature.

The good bottles, and there were always more good than bad, captured the sun and warmth of a fall day, and the full ripeness of the harvest. Open a bottle, and the wine tells a story about geography and weather, about a winemaker and his or her passions.

In New York one year, we sold 1973 Chateau Mouton Rothschild for just $11.99 a bottle. Not a great vintage, but still a great value– a wine of grace and power. The bottles bore a label featuring a drawing by Pablo Picasso, one of his last commissions. That was the year Mouton won long sought “first-growth” status, the only promotion ever granted after the 1855 classification. See: not just a bottle of wine, but a piece of cultural history.

So I’m writing today about wine shops, and what I look for in them, now, as a customer. Please submit your comments, noting your favorite wine shops, or warehouses, and why you like them.

Chuck Hayward in wine shop
Chuck Hayward from The Jug Shop

For example, I like The Jug Shop on San Francisco’s Polk Street, because Chuck Hayward and his staff are such a gas. Hayward says a good retailer “has an incredible thirst for knowledge, and an incredible thirst.” He talks very fast as he says that, and then explains how he began specializing in wines from the Southern Hemisphere in the early ’90s, to distinguish his store from bigger chains. Now he’s the man to see for hard to find New Zealand Pinot Noirs, and Australian GSM wines (that’s Aussie Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre).

“We have to be like record shops and book stores, and come up with unique offerings.”

I especially like Hayward’s disdain for wine snobbery, what he calls “The piss down approach to wine sales. If you don’t like the wine I recommend, you’re stupid.”

Instead he flatters his customers. “They’re very smart, he says, they know good wine, but these days they’re looking for the $10 wine that tastes like $20; and the $20 bottle that tastes like $40.”

I asked for two recommendations, a red and a white, for the modern, budget minded shopper; say someone celebrating landing a half-time job just good enough to pay the rent. He showed me a bottle of 2006 Sebastiani Sonoma Unoaked Chardonnay, a crisp, golden delicious apple of a wine, and a deal at $9.99. For a red he suggested The 2006 D’Arenberg Stump Jump, an Australian GSM wine full of raspberries and spice for $9.99.

Hayward and his staff host a lot of tastings (recently they coordinated the first Twitter tasting of Pinot Noir I’ve heard of), and that’s also the mark of a great wine shop. It’s one reason I stop in often at Farmstead Cheeses and Wines, with its two East Bay locations, Alameda and Montclair Village. Wine makers and wine brokers stop in on Friday (Montclair), and Saturday (Alameda) to pour in the back of these two tiny shops. You can taste upward of half a dozen wines (Your $3 is reimbursed if you buy anything; there’s no cost to wine club members), before choosing what you want for dinner. It’s very civilized.

Jeff Diamond
Jeff Diamond owner of Farmstead Cheeses and Wines

Owner Jeff Diamond is a warm, effervescent man, a former publicist for arts groups and nonprofits. He embraces the scholarly connoisseur looking for St. Joseph from Yves Cuilleron, or Viognier from Alban Vineyards, as well as the picnicker upgrading from White Zinfandel. His motto: “Relax, it’s just food.” In fact, he got into the wine business to offer an alternative to elitist stores. “I would buy wine and come home really angry,” Diamond says. “And my wife, Carol, would ask, ‘Why are you so upset?’ And I’d say, ‘I just spent $1000 and I had to put up with someone else’s agenda.’”

Diamond says Farmstead has one advantage over other shops, “Wine and cheese speak to each other.” He often has California burrata (a kind of mozzarella with a creamy center). So on a Saturday afternoon, you can stop by the Feel Good Bakery, housed in the same Alameda Marketplace as Farmstead, and buy a baguette to rival any in the East Bay, then taste wine and cheese at Farmstead, tearing off pieces of your baguette to wash it down.

I challenged Diamond, as I did Chuck Hayward, for two wallet friendly wines, bottles to stave off thirst while preparing my taxes. He responded with the 2007 Morandé Terrarum Sauvignon Blanc from Chile ($10). It features fabulous lemon grass and grapefruit aromas, and leaves you wanting more and more. His favorite value in reds (this week) is the 2007 Monte Oton from Spain’s Bodegas Borsao, a raspberry and black pepper treat made with grapes from 50-75 year old Grenache vines ($10).

You can’t beat the attention and care that Diamond and Hayward take as they match their inventories to the tastes of their customers. But I confess I also buy wine at Safeway, which features utter commercial dreck next to incredible values. This week I’m drinking the terrific 2007 Ménage à Trois California Red from Napa’s Folie a Deux ($7.98). They blend Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet into a wine that’s full-bodied, spicy, and gulpable. For a white, I grabbed the 2007 Clos la Chance Unoaked Chardonnay ($6.98). It’s crisp and lemony, and without another thought in its head. These are great bargains, but you won’t find interesting imports at Safeway, or knowledgeable staff to help to match the wine to your meal.

Here in Northern California, we have dozens of other fabulous stores (and I hope you, my readers, will tell us about more of them). K&L features a dazzlingly deep selection online and in its three stores (San Francisco, Redwood City, and Hollywood). The East Bay features Kermit Lynch, arguably the most influential shop in the U.S., but narrow in its focus (France and Italy), and pricey. North Berkeley Imports has carved out a niche for its exclusive imports from Burgundy and Champagne. Solano Cellars pours oodles of good wine at its wine bar, and Paul Marcus shows off his impeccable taste at his store in Rockridge Market Hall.

The best thing is finding a store in your neighborhood– (it’s nice to walk home, not drive, after tastings!), where they get to know you, in the same way your barber or hairstylist knows you. And if you say you want a fruity red, with a little off the top, they know just what your palate needs.

Next time, I’ll talk about buying online.

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About the Author ()

Cyrus Musiker is the Evening News Anchor at KQED Public Radio. But he also worked for a decade in the wine industry in Massachusetts, New York City, San Francisco, and Napa Valley. Cyrus sold wine retail and wholesale in New York, supplying Roederer Crystal and French Burgundies to celebrities in the Hamptons who didn’t appreciate how good they had it. He moved west in 1978, and worked as a cellar rat shoveling pomace, and pumping over for some of Napa’s best winemakers. He also did public relations and wine tours at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. Cyrus has traveled and tasted through Champagne, Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhone Valley, and up, down, and sideways in California’s great wine regions. His one great regret in life is not buying land in Yountville when he lived there in the late 1970’s, when vineyards were “just $15,000/acre.” Cy’s most memorable wines—a 1904 Lafite Rothschild at a Heublein tasting in Boston in the late 70’s, a Nuits St. George “Les St. Georges” 1953 with Henri Gouges in his cellar in the Cotes De Nuits.
  • Cristin

    Great post! My favorite wine shop is William Cross on Polk St. I am new to the neighborhood, and the first time I went in I selected and bought a few bottles. Since then, each employee has not only remembered me, but the specific wines I bought on my last visit. We discuss our thoughts on each bottle as well as how they paired with whatever food I served. The store is tiny, but they change the selection often, and if you have a question they will be able to answer it and pick out something to fit your needs. It may not be a Napa Cab or Chardonnay, (which they stock if you must have one) but I consider this a strong point.

  • http://soupandsong.blogspot.com Soup and Song

    Don’t forget the Wine Mine in Oakland! Friendly service & great selection, no matter what your budget.

  • Christina

    Love William Cross on Polk….and also around the corner, Biondivino on Green, between Van Ness and Polk. The lady that owns it is great, and always offers up reasonably priced selections that are fun to try!

  • Dan

    The Wine Club, on Coleman next to the San Jose airport. Don’t let the name throw you — it’s open to the public.

    VinoCruz in Santa Cruz carries Santa Cruz mountains wines (exclusively, I believe) and is very knowledgable.

    Beltramos has a wide selection and is about a mile south of K&L’a Redwood City location. Their inventory and prices are online and they often beat prices at K&L, BevMo, or The Wine Club.

  • Vincent Pinard

    I like Paul Marcus when I’m over in Oakland. Biondivino in The City is a kick, featuring loads of unusual, if often pricey, Italian selections. My all time favorite in the Bay Area is down in Burlingame and it’s worth the trek from San Francisco. It’s called Weimax and they have an amazing array of wines. They sort of specialize in Italian, but there are numerous inexpensive French wines from unusual areas. I bought a Marcillac, Madiran and Chignin on my last visit. But they have some great Spanish wines and numerous Portuguese bottlings. There’s a tasting room in the back. The owner is a real student of wine and has constructed a web site that’s sort of blog-like and offers a lot of opinion and educational material. http://www.weimax.com

    Oh, yeah, William Cross in The City is another delightful shop.