Every other week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 15 questions to a wine shop owner. This week, we’re featuring Jamie Wolff, one of the partners behind Chambers Street Wines in New York City.
I paid Jamie a visit at the shop while passing through lower Manhattan last week. The store is impressive, particularly given Manhattan’s space limitations. High ceilings, a few tall racks of wine forming aisles, and racks along all the walls. The scene was bustling with customers but by no means mobbed. Definitely a pleasant place to browse.
And there’s quite a bit to look at! Chambers St. has one of the most impressive collections of old, rare, and expensive wine out on the floor that I’ve ever seen. As I spoke with Jamie in one of the aisles near the middle of the store, several bottles of Italian wine from the 1960s eavesdropped on our conversation.
Jamie tells me that he’s been devoting most of his palate lately to old Italian wines — Barolos and Barbarescos especially. Chambers Street has recently sourced a good deal of old Italian wine directly from The Boot, so they’re raving about the 20- 30-, 40-, and even 50-year old Italians in stock. Jamie feels that Nebbiolos from 1978, 1982, 1985, and 1989 are peaking right now.
As you might expect, his attention to detail when it comes to tasting is tremendous. He didn’t feel that he tasted things as clearly in the late afternoon as he would say, after getting a second wind later in the evening. Air pressure today — or air pressure 40 years ago at the bottling — could have a huge impact on how we experience the wine.
Rarely have I taken the barometer into account when cracking open a bottle, but he’s got a point. And those variations are part of what makes tasting wines — particularly old ones that may have changed so much in the bottle over the years — fun.
The rest of our interview with Jamie is below the fold.
How did you end up owning a wine shop?
In 1999-2000, David Lillie and I thought it made sense to start a store that focused on wine from small artisanal producers. No one else was doing it, and while you could find the wines here and there, no one offered a concentration of them.
What makes your store unique?
We have almost no brand name wines here. We have a very large selection of organic and biodynamic wines. We offer mature vintages of wine no longer in the market — Piedmont, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, etc. We have very knowledgeable staff. We buy and sell what we love — we don’t use anyone else’s opinion to do so.
What are the biggest challenges in owning a wine shop?
Inventory management / data entry!
How do you stay up to date on wine news and trends?
We taste, we read, we travel.
What wine regions or varietals are you most excited about right now?
Sicily, Champagne, Beaujolais, Jura, the Canaries.
Where do you look for new wines – and how do you decide which ones to sell?
Importers bring us samples, and we travel a lot, including to some wine fairs. We sell what we love — or at least what we like best. Usually it works.
Tell us about some of the best perks you’ve taken advantage of as a retailer when traveling to wine regions.
There’s nothing like a good dinner in someone’s home!
Do you stock old and/or rare wines? Which currently stocked bottle excites you the most?
We do stock old/rare wines. Some bottles that recently caused lost sleep: 1999 Truchot Charmes Chambertin; 1999 Verset Cornas; 1971 F Rinaldi Barolo; Huet 1971 Bourg Moelleux…
Are you a collector? Tell us about the wines you bring home.
The retailer’s dilemma is that we are actually supposed to sell the stuff. Lots of great wine — some not at all expensive — slips through our hands. Being around the stuff all day does dampen the acquisitive urge a little because in a few minutes something else interesting will appear.
What’s the wine that got away? In other words, has anything ever passed through your store that you wish you had held onto for yourself?
All the time! For me, most recently, some 1968 Carema from Ferrando — not expensive, but super rare, and according to a few customers, a great bottle.
What was the last wine you opened for a special occasion?
Does Saturday night count? Selosse Champagne Originale — holy cow.
How can a customer signal that he or she is knowledgeable about wine, so you steer them to something a wine geek would appreciate?
We try to talk with everyone who wants to talk. It doesn’t usually take long to find out what a customer’s level of interest is.
If a customer presents him or herself as not knowing that much about wine, do you steer them to interesting and unusual or recognizable? Why?
We don’t have a set approach — it really depends on the customer — what they ask for, what they’re having for dinner, if they respond well to the idea of trying something new, etc.
Any tips for finding a good bargain?
When in doubt, buy the importer. I have never gone wrong with a bottle from Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, Rosenthal. Now in New York we have some excellent new importers like Jan d’Amore and Zev Rovine to add to that list.
Do you advertise scores from publications like Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, or Wine Enthusiast when bottles you stock do well? What’s your take on the current push back against scores?
We’ve never used scores here or reviews written by others. We understand that scores sell wine, but outside the giant retail chains it’s depressing and hard to understand why smart, discerning and otherwise independent wine merchants have become so dependent on them. We have very strong feelings about this, so if pushback is occurring that’s a great thing.
Do you have any special events — like weekly tastings, winemaker dinners, or classes? How much do they benefit your business?
We’d love to have classes but don’t have the space for it. We have 2-4 free tastings a week, and frequent wine dinners. The tastings, in particular, are a really important part of our business.