I enjoy wine, but because I'm not a globetrotting consultant, I've spent a considerable amount of time looking for wines that I could enjoy with a nice homemade risotto or Bolognese sauce without having to worry about having enough money left over to pay the rent. The other problem I face is the explosion of wines featuring cutesy animals, mostly of the Australian marsupial variety, which leaves even me with a sour taste at times. It's more possible than ever to find a good bottle for cheap, but you're just as likely to find a cheap bottle that isn't good.
Seeking to alleviate this is Best Cellars, a small, seven-store chain that believes picking out a wine should be as fun and easy as picking out ice cream. It breaks down the barriers to wine selection and appreciation through an unassuming staff and a nose for what people want.
Even before I walked into its New York City location, I knew Best Cellars was unlike any other wine shop I'd been to. Gone were the knee-high bins of dusty bottles, replaced with vertical rows of cubbyholes that were lit from behind. Because Best Cellars only carries about 100 different wines, far fewer than most other wine shops, the bottles are allowed to breathe in the store. And although the bottles average about $10 a bottle, you won't find the usual Beringer or Gallo brothers suspects here; about 40% of the wines are labels made exclusively for Best Cellars. Instead of being divided by growing region, wines are sorted by eight unpretentious categories—"fizzy," "juicy," "smooth," and "sweet," to name a few—and each wine's description is headed by a whimsical nom du vin. Where else would you see a syrah titled "Rhone City Roller"?
Of course, having the right wines in the store solves only one part of the wine-buying problem. Being able to ask for help without being condescended to is the other. Looking as clueless as I could (which isn't that hard to do), I attracted the attention of one of the employees, who gamely helped me pick out wines for a picnic, a potluck, and a home-cooked dinner for a hypothetical girlfriend. Not knowing I was playing dumb, the most wine-centric term I heard was tannic. "You're not going to deal with a wine geek or somebody that's not going to speak your language or make you feel foolish or dated or snobby," says Steve Yacker, Best Cellar's vice president of merchandising. "People don't want to know about the soil. Some just want a bottle of wine that will go well with pizza."
And the pizza-lovers have responded. Best Cellars' New York store brings in an excess of $2.5 million a year, mainly by customers who live in the store's zip code. The company's half-dozen other stores average more than $1,200 per square foot, and the company is doing brisk business online, mainly through Fresh Direct sales. "Unlike many other industries, with wine, customers will really believe you and buy what you tell them," says Yacker. "We're good for people who know nothing about wine, and we're good for people who know a lot about wine and know you don't have to spend $100 for a good bottle and cellar it if you're not going to use it for a special occasion."
And if that Merlot you buy misses the mark, Best Cellars lets customers return the bottle—half-drunk or even empty—for a refund. "Customers think, 'Is it supposed to taste like this?' You don't know, and it's intimidating to send it back," Yacker says. "And here we're saying it's okay."
I went home with a 2004 Il Borgo Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a 2003 Mont Pellier Syrah from California, and a 2005 Manta Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. Best of all, my wallet was only $27 lighter. I sat down that night to a nice meal of olives, a little chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and oriechette with (my) homemade tomato gravy. And the wine that washed it down? Perfetto.