Beyond the Glass

Wine shops are now acting as social centers, schools, restaurants, even travel agencies, offering far more than just free tastings.


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Wine shops today are a new breed. Part social club, restaurant, music venue, even travel agency, they’re doing a lot more than just offering free tastings. And owners are finding that going beyond the glass is a great way to win new customers, keep old ones and distinguish themselves from ho-hum competitors who just sell bottles. 

Swirl—one of many wine shops doing a lot more than merely selling drinks—took customers on an 11-day trip to Sicily last year, where they at an Italian farmhouse and visited eight wineries. Next summer, the New Orleans-based shop is planning on a trip to Tuscany.

In the meantime, they host weekly and monthly events. Their Friday Free for All, which offers $4–6 tapas dishes prepared by local chefs coupled with free wine samples, is so popular that city dwellers and their dogs spill onto the street. At the monthly themed Tuesday tastings, you can select from a half-dozen wines, including some from Spain, Greece or France, and order food for $12–24. They also recently had a sit-down tasting and talk with Marc de Grazia, an Italian wine exporter and pioneer winemaker on Sicily’s Mt. Etna under the Tenuta delle Terre Nere label.

Inside the popular New Orleans wine shop, Swirl.“We love introducing people to new wines and new ways to experience them, from travel to pairings and events,” says Beth Ribblett, co-owner of the shop that she opened in 2006 in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood. “There’s a real social aspect. We know the names of most people who walk in.”

To enhance socializing, Ribblett opened a four-seat wine bar inside the shop, where customers can select from 35 wines by the glass or 275 by the bottle, and order cheese, cured meat, jam and chocolate plates. Swirl even fundraises for charity: its team in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Louisiana chapter bike-a-thon, which had 57 participants, raised over $41,000 in the latest 150-mile race, beating big corporate teams.

But Swirl isn’t the only shop introducing such activities. At Portalis Wine Shop + Wine Bar in Seattle, visitors enjoy weekly three-course dinners, monthly art shows and tastings led by the likes of Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen, a German Riesling maker, and Dominique and Henri Schoenheitz, co-owners of Schoenheitz Estate in Alsace ($16–19 for six wines, including a $10 store credit).

“My idea was to open a wine shop where you have wine and look at art. A wine shop in Dresden I used to go to had two-thirds of its inventory open for tasting. You need to experience wine to have a better idea of what you’re drinking,” says Jens Strecker, the German-born owner who opened Portalis in 2003 with his wife, Julie Howe.

Three years ago, the duo hired chef Tracey Stoner to host a weekly $25 dinner on Saturdays. The menu offers such dishes as game hen with pomegranate molasses, black cod with sesame seeds and mango ginger upside-down cake with house-made coconut ice cream. Portalis’ e-mail newsletter and blog are crammed with photos of food, wine regions and winemakers for upcoming tastings.

At Bacchanal Fine Wine + Spirits in New Orleans, you can buy a bottle of wine, an artisanal cheese or a New York-style Reuben sandwich up front, then dine in a the backyard shaded by crepe myrtles, oaks and oleander, where live jazz and swing is playing. Chef Joaquin Rodas, whose own tapas bar, Mimi’s in the Marigny, is nearby, recently prepared bucatini with duck leg ($10) and beef short rib with cherry tomatoes and strawberries ($12) for the wine shop menu. 

New Jersey's Amanti Vino offers a certification program as well as tastings.“It sort of organically grew,” says owner Chris Rudge, who opened Bacchanal in 2002 in the Bywater neighborhood (also called the Upper Ninth Ward). “Customers wanted to drink here, so I got a bar license.” Bacchanal soon blossomed into a 150-seat wine shop and restaurant, where customers linger until the closing at midnight.

Amanti Vino, in Montclair, New Jersey, takes the subject of wine education seriously. The shop offers classes ranging from $20–40 that include an hour and a half of instruction as well as a four-wine tasting, and for $285, you can enroll in a certification program from Wine & Spirits Education Trust—a London-based wine education program—that hosts classes in this 2,600-square-foot shop. They also sponsor wine-and-beer pairing dinners at local restaurants.

“About 30 BYOB restaurants are within walking distance of the shop. We consider Amanti Vino their virtual wine list,” said owner Sharon Sevrens, who opened the superstore in 2005 and now carries over 700 artisanal wines. “Anybody who walks in the door can get as much education as they desire. If you want a bottle to grab and go, that's absolutely fine. But if you want to learn more, we have all the classes you need,” she says. 

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