Review: 5 New York City Wine Shops

With my newfound interest and desire to learn more about (and question the practices of) wine and wine culture, I've paid closer attention to how wine store staff treat me and other customers. Here are 5 short reviews of wine shops in New York. (See below for a list of the shops and their locations.)

Trader Joe's Wine Shop
Trader Joe's Wine Shop in Union Square (New York City) has been my preferred wine shop in New York City because bottles that I've seen elsewhere in the city typically sell for $1-$2 less there.

On a recent visit, an employee asked, "You need help with anything?" and quickly moved on when I answered, "Nope. I'm still looking." I listened in on a few other exchanges. One customer asked about a specific bottle, and the staff member said she hadn't tried it, but would go ask her colleagues who had. When she came back, she said, "No one has had this particular vintage, but everyone liked the other one we had." What to make of that response? On the one hand, it's unpretentious and honest. On the other hand, could it be more vague about how the wine smells and tastes, or what to eat with it?

At a little table in the back, another Trader Joe's employee poured a half ounce of two different kinds of wine into a few dozen miniature plastic cups: Acacia Chardonnay (I think it was 2006, for about $17) and Stag's Leap Merlot (about $26, and I think it was also 2006). I tried them both and asked if the Chardonnay was oaked. "I don't know, but I would think so, judging by the taste." That was a very generous way of saying, "Uh, ya think?"

I ended up with a 2007 Sancerre Rouge for $15.99 (a helpful note card suggested this would be a good pairing for mature cheeses) and a Penfolds Koonunga Shiraz for $9.99, which I'm saving for the next time we have barbecue for dinner.

Trader Joe's Wine Shop boiled down to its essentials: 1) best prices, 2) a focus on budget wines (there are some wines in the $45 range, but not much beyond that), 3) having some staff members on hand who know some things about the products, 4) completely unpretentious, 5) almost always packed to the gills with customers.

Absolute Wine & Spirits
Absolute Wine & Spirits in Astoria is not the closest wine shop to my house, but it's within walking distance, and I stumbled into one evening accidentally and have gone back two more times since. Oddly, the shop doesn't have a web site, but it has a video tour on Youtube (hold onto your lunch; this one comes with free kinetosis!).

Absolute's selection included dozens of labels I had never seen in Trader Joe's before, and a good number of highly rated wines in the $20 and under group. The two employees on hand (I have a hunch one of them was the owner, or an owner) offered help a few times but wasn't at all pushy or intrusive, letting me take my time pouring over all these new bottles.

I picked up a 2007 Domaines Les Yeuses Syrah les épices ($12). "Very spicy, that wine!" the shopkeeper said. "Sounds about right," I said. Again I could tell he wanted to converse more, but I was just too timid.

Boyfriend and I drank that spicy wine with merguez and Moroccan-style chickpeas, and it was excellent, a bright garnet color with plenty of spice, black pepper, and berry.

A few days later, we returned to Absolute together, but this time we were kind of in a rush. "I felt bad not making small talk with that guy," Boyfriend said. "He seemed really nice, and he was obviously trying to make conversation." Rushed as we were, we managed to find a 2008 Domaine de Larzac Roussanne and Charonnay for $11.99, another very good deal from southern France.

BottleRocket is a wonder to browse. I've gone back a few times, even though the prices are a touch higher than elsewhere. At some point, the dollar or two or three that I might save gets washed out by the education I can get just reading the staff recommendation cards in a well-designed store, or the travel time I save by going somewhere local (BottleRocket is close enough to my office to make a trip on my lunch hour).

BottleRocket had a tasting over the weekend, which I attended: a wine and chocolate pairing. Heaven. I got to try a sparkling Australian red called The Chook ($19), a rare treat for me and highly educational.

Chelsea Wine Vault
Chelsea Wine Vault also holds free tastings, and even more often than BottleRocket. The selection is geographically comprehensive as well as a bit more focused on wines that cost more than $20. An entire bookcase of half-sized bottles is a nice touch for neophytes like me who don't want to commit to 750ml of something untried.

The staff is helpful enough, but the store is so busy on weekends (when I've been there at least) that there isn't an intimate atmosphere. Dialogue is more about efficiency than enjoyment. Sure, I've seen some customers corner and employee so they could show off their knowledge, but by and large the approach doesn't favor intimacy. And for many people, that's a good thing. Some of us cringe when we feel compelled to fake a bit of chit-chat.

Oddly enough, out of all the wine shops listed here, I've probably been to Chelsea Wine Vault the second most number of times (second to Trader Joe's), but I don't think I've ever made a purchase.

I went out of my way to visit the sunny and clean Appellation Wine & Spirits on 10th Avenue in Manhattan after a number of people recommended it. It specializes in biodynamic, organic, and sustainable wines.

The day I visited, at 5:30 on a weekday, I was the only one there. Browsing the medium- to small-sized store takes time, as each bottle is accompanied by a good deal of written information about its taste and its producers. Two employees manned the store, one hefting boxes and tables around to set up for a visiting winemaker (they were holding a tasting that evening, purportedly at 5:30, but everyone was behind schedule), the other quietly and meticulously reviewing paperwork at the register, librarian-like. They both asked if I needed help or had questions, and both approached me with the ease of someone you run into frequently but don't necessarily have a close friendship with, like a neighbor.

A decent amount of the store's stock fell into my $10-$20 price range, though they also had more than a few bottles that cost upward of $100. I bought a sparkling Cristalino Rosé ($7.99); I'm a sucker for sparkling rosé, and while I wouldn't pull this out for any major celebrations, I would drink it with dinner any day of the week. For $12.99, I picked up a bottle of Domaine Barou vin de pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah, a much bigger red than I had anticipated, but nice.

At the register, the librarian-like clerk chatted with me for a minute or two, asking how I had heard about the store, and thanking me for coming. Of all the shops, I felt the most relaxed here, maybe because I was the only customer at the time, and maybe because the attitudes of the employees meshed with my personality best.

To be honest, I probably will end up at Trader Joe's any time I need to buy more than a bottle or two, like for parties, because the prices are the lowest and I feel extremely confident in my ability to navigate the sections that I know best: California red blends, California Zinfandels, Italian reds, and sparkling wines. I also know that when I shop for a party, efficiency is key. I don't want to browse and read and chat.

On the other hand, if I'm just out shopping for shopping's sake, I'd be most likely to swing by BottleRocket. It's a fun shop.

Appellation is definitely where I'd go if I were buying a bottle as a gift or for my own celebration. I would probably drop by more often if the store were situation in my work-live-play geographic triangle. I know myself well enough to admit that hoofing out to 10th Avenue just to browse wines isn't something I'll do regularly.

Near to where I live, I might actually start going slightly out of my way to hit up Absolute. It's two heads above the other shops I frequent, and only 10 minutes out of the way.


Absolute Wine & Spirits
34-13 30th Avenue
between 34th and 35th Streets
Astoria, NY

Appellation Wine & Spirits
156 10th Avenue
at West 20th Street
New York, NY

BottleRocket Wine & Spirits
5 West 19th Street
between 5th and 6th Avenues
New York, NY

Chelsea Wine Vault
75 9th Avenue
located inside Chelsea Markets
New York, NY

Trader Joe's Wine Shop
142 East 14th Street
between 4th and 3rd Avenues
New York, NY