In The Heights

From across the street at the northern end of Broadway, PJ Wine and Spirits seems unremarkable, especially when closed, its broad glass front shuttered behind a rolling steel curtain that harkens back to the bad old days in Manhattan, when crime was pandemic and most businesses in neighborhoods like Washington Heights battened down the hatches at night.

And, despite PJ’€™s capacious footprint (20,000-plus square feet in all), first time visitors can be forgiven for not immediately noticing the gem of a store they’€™ve entered. PJ’€™s, after all, is a place where a great amount of energy goes into creating the wine and spirits selection. Its interior is mostly devoid of the highly designed, tightly controlled, marketing-driven trends that are a key part of many of the ‘€œcustomer friendly’€ wine shops that have sprung up all over lower Manhattan ‘€” no fun and festive signs, no kid’€™s play area, no Ikea-style wine shelves, no art-directed display system.

But those thousands of loyal customers who have made PJ one of New York’€™s top wine and spirits destinations know that what’€™s inside the store up in Inwood is choice: one of the best known and sought after Spanish wine selections in NYC, if not the country, and excellent overall European and New World wines from value picks to allocated, high-end selections from the top appellations-all priced aggressively to build customer loyalty.

PJ’€™s is so admired for its sales and support of European wines, in fact, that owner Peter Yi became in 2006 one of the few retail recipients of the European Wine Council’€™s annual Wine Ambassador award, given in recognition of his work passionately promoting and selling wines from participating countries. That makes him a member of an exclusive club whose members include such well-known national wine promoters as Steve Wallace of Wally’€™s Wines and Spirits in Los Angeles and Michael Aaron of Sherry-Lehmann of New York.

PJ’€™s has also been cited by magazines such as GQ and Food & Wine as one of the country’€™s top 50 wine shops.

PJ’€™s basic business concept is ‘€œto showcase wines that we love to drink ourselves. That’€™s putting it very simply,’€ said Yi. ‘€œWe search long and hard for great wines and then we showcase the winery’€™s hard work.’€ Small producers who work their own vineyards and make the wines themselves are often the recipients of the gimlet-eyed PJ’€™s search team’€™s approval, but plenty of large producers who make great wine are also welcomed into the fold. ‘€œWe’€™re not biased: We taste the wines fair and square,’€ said Yi.

Significant Liquor Business

And while well-priced, quality European wines and Spanish wines in particular are what have developed PJ into a destination shop for wine, the store also boasts of a significant liquor business, its floors stacked high and wide with case after case of cognac and Scotch whisky, its two leading categories. On a recent trip, visitors first encounter as they enter the store multiple towers of boxes filled with various formats of the main expressions of all the major cognac marques, among them Martell Noblige, for instance. Many of the leading premium blended Scotches ‘€” Johnnie Walker Black and Gold, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, White Horse and J&B ‘€” filled the aisles just beyond. ‘€œThe primary business side of our store is really the liquor side,’€ said Yi.

Ethnic preferences in beverage alcohol help explain how cognac and Scotch do so well here ‘€” Inwood is home to tens of thousands of Dominicans. They are known to be loyal brown spirits fans. But that’€™s only part of the story. PJ prides itself on a wide-ranging liquor selection, Yi says, which makes the store a party destination for more than just the immediate neighborhood.

‘€œWe’€™re definitely a destination store for liquor as well ‘€” we have many customers that drive in from all over Westchester, Brooklyn and other areas to pick up liquor. We have a large and healthy selection and prices are very sharp.’€
It is this diverse customer base ‘€” from folks on the lookout for everyday specials or large wine events, to high-end spirits bargains hunters, seekers of wine gems with reliable delivery all over town, to a robust internet business from around the country. They give PJ a solid business footing, one that has allowed it to expand back office space to handle the workflow. PJ’€™s delivery trucks tool through four of the five New York City boroughs, while many other customers phone in their orders for same day pick-up as they head to Connecticut, Westchester, New Jersey and other points north and east.

In the Beginning

PJ was established in Manhattan in 1990 in a location up the street from the current store, where the venerable Esposito’€™s, one of the first 50 New York stores to open after Prohibition, had done business ever since.

If spirits form the backbone of the business, that may come from Yi’€™s own industry origins. When he started out in the 1980s in what was then his parents’€™ business, a wine and spirits shop in Astoria, Queens, it was primarily a liquor business. He knew little about wine, but his evolution described a typical American arc: after sampling and experimenting, he became enthralled, at first with California wines, then with exploring different regions and exposing himself to the wide world of wine. As he did so, his palate opened.

‘€œBecause of my passion for European wines, I started to slowly promote and sell them and our business started to grow: now after over 15 years, it’€™s known as a destination for Spanish wine.’€ It is estimated that Spanish wine now makes up more than 22% of PJ’€™s wine volume.

The focus on Spanish wine started emerging more than 10 years ago, noted Executive Wine Director Justin Berlin, and continued to grow long before the current popularity of Spanish wine, which has accelerated so rapidly in the past few years. Yi and Berlin are proud of what they believe is one of the best selections in the country, and not only among emerging Spanish regions and in current vintages. For instance, on the shelf right next to a 2000 Marques de Murieta Rioja sits its 1978 sibling. Nearby is a 1981 from Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia.

And as other areas like LaMancha, Jumilla and other Spanish regions emerge in the U.S., PJ’€™s is poised to profit from the continuing surge, they say.

In their present location, PJ’€™s is blessed with the kind of space that makes it the envy of other Manhattan shops: about 6,500 square feet of selling space, 8,500 square feet for storage and another 5,000 square feet for offices, meeting rooms and a tasting space upstairs, part of the latest expansion two and a half years ago.

(The store soon will also be launching a new enterprise level inventory system that will be ultimately tied into a real time website, a behind-the-scenes, back-office investment that they expect will pay great dividends for the business and customers in terms of service, especially in order tracking. ‘€œWe’€™re looking forward to that coming into place this year, and the web’€™s next year; these will make a big difference in the customer experience and, hopefully, customer growth potential,’€ said Yi.)

Focus on Value’€¦and the High End

The storage and floor space is part of what allows PJ to focus tightly on the value end of the business as well as expensive fine wine, and Yi and his associates strive to continue to seek out exceptional price/value deals. In their catalog, for instance, where shops could be expected to highlight highly profitable bottles, PJ lists not only Bordeaux futures at prices from $23.97 to $759.97, but also bottles of $7.97 Spanish La Mancha 2005 Bodegas Ercavio and a $9.97 2005 Terras Gauda O Rosal AlbariÀo blend. Stocking as many unknown, but high-quality wines priced under $10 and $20 as they can find is part of the PJ philosophy, Yi emphasized.

‘€œSpanish wine stands out from all the European countries right now because, I feel, it’€™s the best value. There are diverse types of wine available from Spain and you really can’€™t beat the value.’€
The love of Spanish wines extends even into PJ’€™s sherry selection, which Berlin describes as one that would be the envy of most wine shops in Spain. ‘€œWe have so much great sherry, even though it doesn’€™t exactly fly off the shelf,’€ said Berlin. The store even carries a selection of the two official sherry age classifications that were added recently: Very Old Sherry (VOS), certified to be an average age of at least 20 years; and Very Old Rare Sherry (VORS), certified to be an average age of at least 30 years.

PJ’€™s is as rigorous about what sherries it buys as any other product. Only a very small percentage of wines that make it to the PJ’€™s second floor sampling room, or that they try at the various New York held portfolio tastings, get past the evaluation of the three-man team of Yi, Berlin and buyer Dan Parseliti.

‘€œThere are so many wines,’€ said Yi. ‘€œWe taste about 10,000 per year and I believe we buy less than 5%. We really try to taste as much as we can. We emphasize getting to know the wines, what’€™s available out there, and we try to carry only the highest quality for the price. In every category.’€

Frequently these searches pay off and PJ’€™s can deliver on its value goal. ‘€œWe found a great pinot noir from Chile that sold tremendously well,’€ said Berlin. ‘€œAnd it was only because we said, ‘€˜Okay, you have a pinot worth trying, let’€™s give it a shot.’€™ In cases like that, it’€™s really gratifying after all those mediocre wines to get one that’€™s so good and you put it on shelf and ‘€” poof ‘€” it sells. There’€™s a desire among customers for good stuff; if you can find it, they will buy it.’€

The buyers also take annual trips to Bordeaux, Spain and other parts of the world where they not only taste wines but also build relationships with producers they like. ‘€œPart of that commitment to Spain and other countries is not just getting ahead of the curve, but investing in building relationships’€ said Berlin. ‘€œIt’€™s not just tasting a lot of wine, but also getting to know what’€™s going on in the countries.’€

The Selling Floor

Their buying decisions are bolstered on the selling floor the old-fashioned way ‘€” the PJ’€™s Super Values and best wines under $10, $20 and $30 are placed prominently up front on the floor, close to the monthly personal selections made by their staff members. They support those selections via tasting notes and stories prepared for their website and their section of the free quarterly, ‘€œDrinks’€ magazine. In the summer 2008 edition, for instance, six of PJ’€™s wine staff each recommended wines for five food categories (‘€œBurgers & Steaks’€, ‘€œSpicy BBQ’€, Grilled Vegetables’€, etc.). On the back page they ran brief notes for their Best wines under $10, $20 and $30, as well as their 12 wines called ‘€œSuper Values’€; those offering the ‘€very best price/quality ratio value’€.

Like in many stores, the choicest items are kept behind glass; in this case, it’€™s an eclectic selection featured in the front of the store including rare single malts and other limited bottlings like Buchanan’€™s Blue Seal Scotch Whisky, Ballantine’€™s 30 Year Old Scotch, plus the hip hop bling favorite Champagne Ace of Spades from Armand de Brignac in metallic pink or gold bottles.There are also some rare vintage Armagnacs, Madeiras and dessert wines, including a $1,499.97 3 bottle set of 1905 Amontillado, Oloroso and PX.

As noted before, PJ is unusual in that its leading categories are not vodka or rum or cordials, but cognac at number one and Scotch at number two. ‘€œIt’€™s certainly different than the typical store,’€ said Yi. ‘€œWe sell much more cognac than anything else, including vodka. The cognac and Scotch businesses are very brand-driven and they’€™re our bread and butter.’€

Tequila Getting Hot

Right now, what’€™s getting hot at PJ Wine and Spirits is tequila, growing ‘€œby leaps and bounds. We can’€™t keep superpremium tequila in stock,’€ Yi said. ‘€œThere’€™s no category on the liquor side that can match the growth of tequila.’€

In other categories, even as the New York economy began to suffer earlier this year, PJ’€™s still had no problem selling high-end spirits across all categories; in fact, it has been the more popularly priced vodkas that have slowed.

But like many retail businesses today, the team at PJ’€™s is waiting to see where the economy goes. As passionate as they are about the wine business and as large a customer base as they have, they’€™ve seen the high-end wine side go soft well before the most recent Wall Street implosions. With great inventory turnover and a customer count increase, the action is in low- to mid-level price point wines.

That said, PJ’€™s will stake a claim on more esoteric, higher-end wines they feel passionate about.

‘€œWe’€™ll buy something that we love knowing that we’€™ll keep it around for 10 years; we love it so much and we don’€™t even want to sell it quickly; we want to be the last store that has the wine,’€ said Yi.

Doing Good

Two of the ways PJ Wine connects with New York’€™s vibrant wine and food scene is through its sponsorship of two major charitable events: the Spanish Wine Festival and the Grand Tasting. Both events usually sell out ‘€” and are considered good for the store’€™s Spanish wine connections, for building customer loyalty in a trend-driven town and for doing good while doing well.

More than 150 Spanish wine selections from every major wine region ‘€” Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Jerez, SherryToro, Bierzo, Jumilla, etc. ‘€” are matched with Spanish foods at the Spanish Wine Festival each June. Spanish cheese and ham, tapas and other cuisine celebrating the country’€™s culinary tradition and music round out the popular event.
Among many other wines highlighted in 2008 were Benjamin Romeo Rioja Contador, Ribera del Dueros Vega Sicilia Unico, Felix Callejo Reserva de la Familia, and a selection of rare Sherries.

The Grand Tasting 2008, its fifth year just past, matched world-class wines from all over with high-end cuisine. A Champagne VIP ticket offered Dom Perignon, Krug and Veuve Clicquot rarities plus unusual vintage Madeiras.
Also in the lineup of hundreds of wines: Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Kistler Chardonnay, Muga Aro, Sassicaia, Bruno Giacosa Barolo and Château Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape.

Mailing It In

PJ Wine and Spirits executive wine director Justin Berlin noted that about 50% or 60% of the store’€™s fine wine business comes from Internet sales, whether ordered for pickup, local delivery or national shipping. In addition to the comprehensive website so essential for business today, Internet sales are also bolstered by the PJ email newsletter sent out multiple times per week to subscribers, an enviable fact-filled marketing tool that entertains and educates at the same time.

‘€œCertainly, the web and email is great exposure for us,’€ said PJ’€™s owner Peter Yi. ‘€œWe try not so much to be selling the wine through our email blast or our catalog. And in some ways, it’€™s not really just about the business, but just about loving wine.’€
A recent email, titled, ‘€œThree Dolcettos and Five Friends,’€ offered this quick overview of the Italian wine before segueing into tasting notes for a total of eight wines:

‘€œWhile white wines are the obvious choice for warm weather drinking, many great summer foods ‘€” from monkfish to cured meats to beef ribs ‘€” find their ideal pairing with reds.

‘€œItalian reds with lively acidity, fine tannins and bright fruit are particularly well suited to achieving summer pairing success. These wines manage to pack both lift and impact, offering weight and structure from acidity and tannins instead of heat-inducing alcohol.

‘€œDolcetto is a particularly good choice as a summertime red. Grown throughout Piedmont, the name means ‘€œlittle sweet one,’€ and the wines crafted from Dolcetto tend to be fruit-driven with moderate levels of tannins and acidity. With chewy tannins and at times racy acidity, they pair well with a wide variety of meats and cheeses. Try with an antipasti of prosciutto, mortadella, tallegio and fresh mozzarella. Of course, Dolcetto also pairs fantastically well with lightly dressed chicken or grilled, thick-cut pork chops.’€

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RALPH MASULLO

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *