West Side Story

In an era of wine and liquor superstores, New York’€™s 67 Wine is a role model for what can be done in a smaller retail footprint: through tight editing, it manages to stand out for some of its sections ‘€“ whether half bottles or Beaujolais or biodynamic wines ‘€“ while also serving as a neighborhood repository of well-priced, highly drinkable finds from all over the world. With a highly decentralized wine-buying apparatus that disperses those duties among many staffers, and a near-absence of office space off the selling floor, regular shoppers from the store’€™s Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan know they can stroll in to find an uncommon array of expertise available to them right there.

67 Wine is located a couple of blocks from Lincoln Center, in what local businesses have taken to calling Lincoln Square, the ‘€œgateway to the Upper West Side.’€ The Upper West Side ‘€“ a long-gentrifying neighborhood that blends upscale professionals with artistic types ‘€“ stretches for a couple of miles to the north. The blocks surrounding Lincoln Center increasingly have become a shopping destination, anchored at the south end by the luxe stores and restaurants (and Whole Foods) of the Time Warner Center and including more mass-oriented chains such as Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Burberry Brit, Banana Republic and Best Buy in close proximity (along with other retailers whose names don’€™t begin with a ‘€œB’€). An always-mobbed Apple store recently opened just a block away from 67 Wine, on Broadway. The store’€™s participation in the Lincoln Square business improvement district is flagged by the 67 Wine logos that adorn the high-design wastebaskets on the street outside.

While the store gets its share of ‘€œcity’€ business from Lincoln Center visitors and Lincoln Square shoppers, ‘€œwe view ourselves as a neighborhood wine store,’€ said wine buyer Bart Hopkins, who’€™s entering his 11th holiday season at 67 Wine (and his 37th in the business). ‘€œWe view ourselves as more like institutions like Fairway and Citarella,’€ he added, referring to expansive gourmet food emporiums situated a bit farther north.

Still, it’€™s not any neighborhood, and not in any city. ‘€œNew Yorkers in general are a little bit more savvy and willing to take a chance on things,’€ Hopkins said, perhaps because there simply are more things available than in the grocery-store shelf sets upon which many consumers mainly rely for their wine in other parts of the country. (Unlike other parts of the country, of course, New York does not allow grocers to sell wine and spirits.)

Certainly, consumers often respond to the store as a welcome neighborhood amenity. A recent poster on Yelp’€™s website recommended the helpfulness and expertise of the staff: ‘€œCome here with a plan (however vague) and if you can’€™t find exactly what you’€™re after, chances are good they can tell you where to find it or you might just find something new and unexpected.’€

When It All Began

The store was founded by Joel Weiser in 1941 at 67 West 67 Street, and moved around the corner to the current location at 68 Street and Columbus Avenue sometime in the early 1970s ‘€“ nobody can recall quite when ‘€“ and added the upstairs floor in 1996 after a restaurant housed there closed. Old-timers among its shoppers sometimes still refer to the store as ‘€œ67 Street Wine.’€ That original location was on a block that has now been subsumed by the ABC television campus.

Bernie Weiser, the current owner, is the third generation to run the store, joining the family business in the 1970s after a stint as a wine importer. Third-generation or not, staffers note that Weiser is hardly a casual or absentee owner, being on the premises about 90% of the time, by the estimate of store manager Evelyn Wing. Still, while he’€™s very hands-on for back-of-the-house activities, such as inventory control and managing the money, and keeps a watchful eye over the staff’€™s buying patterns to insure the store makes money, he doesn’€™t micromanage, Bressler said: ‘€œFor the most part, he leaves the salespeople and buyers alone. As long as people are doing right, he doesn’€™t want to know.’€ As a former importer, Weiser developed a close knowledge of the small chateaux in France and in any case buys the wines he loves, including white Burgundy. Any major deal being cooked up by another buyer he expects to be informed about.

Fairly Narrow Confines

Despite the store’€™s doubling in size a decade and a half ago, the shopping experience there still is dominated by the store’€™s narrow confines compared to your average out-of-city superstore. Wines generally are shelved by different regions ‘€“ except for pinot noirs, that are all arrayed on a single wall upstairs in an effort to dispel many consumers’€™ lack of knowledge of the versatile grape. A surprising proportion of shoppers, even among 67 Wine’€™s relatively sophisticated clientele, don’€™t realize the grape has been around a long time and can encompass everything from Italian, Australian and Hungarian wines to Burgundy, said Bressler. Examples from all those regions are duly arrayed in the section.

Walk-in traffic aside, the largest share of business comes in by phone; delivery is free anywhere in New York State for orders over $125. Orders phoned in from Manhattan are almost always filled the same day. Web orders are processed directly on the premises, by the store’€™s staff.

The store is a triumph of tight editing, cramming 7,000 sku’€™s in perhaps 2,500 square feet of floor space divided between the two floors. (That number, which includes multiple vintages of high-end wines as well different sizes of spirits, includes 3,200 individual items, 2,800 of the wine.) The pair of offices that line the north wall of the second floor are so compact that it’€™s easier for staffers to conduct meetings right in the aisles of the store (where they’€™re also free to jump in to serve any customers who look like they might need some help). A small rare-wine room also houses a pedestal-based stage for photo shoots of bottles, not only so the store can create its own art if acceptable material isn’€™t available from the manufacturer, but also so that rare-wine customers can see the fill level, label and capsule before they buy. (On one visit to the store, it was 1971 Rieslings that had just received that treatment.)

Even the exterior display windows are fairly shallow, perhaps a foot deep. Still, they always seem to house inventive arrangements that seek to artfully entice consumer into the store. As fall hit New York, the windows featured quirky, two-dimensional images of fall-associated foods perched above wines that might make a good match, against a backdrop employing richly textured textiles in brilliant fall colors. The store hires an outside window dresser, but boasts a proficient staff member who can tweak things between visits.

Shoppers enter the narrow swing doors at the corner of 68 St. and Columbus Avenue to confront an L-shaped sales counter whose poor use of the space ensures that it will be one of the casualties of the next renovation, staffers say. That floor houses white wines, spirits and sparkling wines, along long aisles reminiscent of old record stores and on library-style shelves with wheeled ladders. Toward the south end of the floor is an island where deliveries are packed for shipment and a stairway that leads up to the second floor.

The Second Floor

That floor houses categories like red wine, single-malt Scotch and eau de vie. New world wines are toward the south end of the floor. But Spanish wines get an entire wall ‘€“ one of the more extensive such offerings in the city, justified, Bressler said, by the fact that it’€™s the largest wine-growing country by area, with unusual diversity among its regions and a lot of good wine. ‘€œThe high end is outstanding, but still at good prices,’€ he noted.

Italy gets four standing racks and a wall and one of the narrow windows. The intent is to group wines of a given country by region, though Spain’€™s are shuffled more as individual items come and go, Bressler said.

Also shoehorned into the second floor are accessories such as an extensive collection of hand-crafted bottle stoppers, ornamented with everything from salvaged doorknobs and pool balls to delicately blown glass butterflies. Also for sales are Riedel and Stolzel glassware and decanters.

But most notably, the second floor contains the store’€™s outstanding selection of half bottles ‘€“ big enough to draw shoppers from all over the metropolitan area. It contains three large cases for red wines and another three cases for white wines and dessert wines ‘€“ space for about 350 sku’€™s in all, though, as Bressler acknowledged, it’€™s hard to find that many half bottles of acceptable quality. During recent visits the racks contained about 300; staffers are confident that, as fall season heats up, the remaining 50 slots will be filled. (See sidebar.)

The second floor was renovated in November 2007, replacing long aisles running longitudinally through the space with free standing racks that created the appearance of greater width while allowing consumers to more easily navigate the tight quarters. The result is a shopping floor that doesn’€™t seem cluttered, even though bottles and accessories are shoehorned into every available space, including the windows. The street level is due for a similar renovation at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Considering its compactness, the store is surprisingly clean in look. That accomplishment is aided by the complete absence of shelf-talkers or experts’€™ wine ratings. The latter, Bressler said, ‘€œis a completely conscious decision. We pride ourselves on our staff and won’€™t substitute somebody else’€™s judgment for ours.’€ A touch screen in the Bordeaux section directs shoppers to detailed information on that selection, but that’€™s about the only concession to outside advice that shoppers receive in their visits. But often enough, the person who bought the category is right there on the floor, offering expansive opinions and advice.

The small tasting table on the second floor acts as a sort of community center for the store. It’€™s where consumer sampling occurs every evening, where staff training is held, where meetings with wine salespeople are conducted. It’€™s equipped with a camera and mounted microphone so that visiting vintners can be recorded on the spot and their remarks posted on YouTube, to which visitors to 67wine.com are directed.

Out Front on Organics, Biodynamics

The store also is out front in carrying an extensive selection of organic and biodynamic wines, more than 200 all told, and they are fully integrated into the regular displays rather than segregated in a ghetto within the store. (Each organic is flagged with a green ‘€œorganically grown’€ price sticker that pops out among the regular orange stickers and occasional red stickers that scream, ‘€œSale! Sale! Sale!’€ Occasional compact placards herald, ‘€œHealthier Choices: Look for the Green Stickers.’€

Not that 67 Wine has drunk the Kool-Aid on organic: some staffers can best be described as open-minded but still somewhat skeptical about organic wines. ‘€œTo me there’€™s a lot of hocus-pocus’€ involved in the buzz about biodynamic wines, confided Bressler, and the benefits of organic farming can be overstated. Still, carrying organics and biodynamics ‘€œis a chance to reward people who’€™re doing things right.’€

Others in the store, including Hopkins and Wood, are more proactive in seeking out these wines, and Hopkins pens an occasional ‘€œBiodynamic Blog’€ on the store’€™s Web site. He takes a more pragmatic view, lauding the natural winemaking that’€™s now occurring in Austria for yielding wines that tend to be a better fit with food than the heavily oaked, extracted wines of the past. He notes that his view is endorsed by the growing numbers of restaurants that are incorporating Austrian wines into their lists for that reason.

Drinkable, Everyday Wines

As for the store’€™s overall wine philosophy, it tilts towards drinkable, everyday kinds of wines offered at good values, in contrast to other well-regarded neighborhood stores ‘€“ like Acker Merrall & Condit on West 72 Street ‘€“ that tend to push their customers toward higher-end offerings. ‘€œWe carry a big supply of stuff people can actually drink, and it’€™s not priced way out there,’€ as Bressler put it. You don’€™t have to hold it. And the store carries a lot of second wines, because they provide great value.

‘€œWe like to find treasures that make the store special ‘€“ but we’€™re also businesspeople’€ who take pride in seeking out good wines at ‘€œadvantageous’€ prices, said Bart Hopkins, the chief buyer. ‘€œYou can always be first-growths, blue-chip wines, but that’€™s not what buying is about. It’€™s about finding things below the radar, trying to catch a wave’€ of an emerging trend.

67 Wine is currently riding several of these waves. It’€™s deep in Italian wines, including some from regions ‘€“ like Sicily ‘€“ that may be off some drinkers’€™ radar. Hopkins rates himself a big fan of Rhone-style wines from California’€™s Central Coast, which are similarly underrated and hence can be obtained at good values. Also in the U.S., he leans toward old-vine zinfandels, a concentrated style that is still underrated, and Willamette Valley pinot noirs.

In Eastern Europe, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Rumania all offer outstanding wines at good values, yielding a surprisingly deep selection at 67 Wines. Then there’€™s Austria. Hopkins views that country as ‘€œa hotbed of good stuff waiting to burst on the scene’€ ‘€“ not just the dry white wines that are most familiar but reds, too, often from locally bred grapes.

On the New World side, Hopkins appreciates the regionality of Australia, particularly the wines from Victoria state, which are a bit more structured than the over-the-top wines most consumers associate with that country. It’€™s a trend he feels the country’€™s winemakers would do well to continue in the coming years. ‘€œSince the bubble burst, Australia needs to retool itself and will do so through the branding of its regionality,’€ much as California had to do in years past.

The store engages in some direct buying from overseas vintners, about a dozen petit chateaux, identified on the back label as a 67 Wine item under names like Chateau Bel-Air and Chateau Guillou. They start at $8.

A Diversity of Buyers

Wine-buying responsibility is dispersed among eight members of the staff, and they all spend most of their time right out there on the sales floor. That makes for an unusual situation in which the caliber of expertise likely to be encountered by a shopper is exceedingly high, with the salesperson able to discuss with first-hand familiarity the regions and vintners under consideration.

On first glance the particular buying assignments might seem to make little sense, growing as they did out of a mix of owner dictates, employee enthusiasms and sheer horse trading. Oscar Garcia handles all Spanish-speaking countries, both Old World and New, while Bressler buys Rhone wines and California Chardonnays. Evelyn Wing, the store manager, manages Alsace wines, white Loire wines, port and all sparkling wines. One of the youngest members of the staff, Ben Wood, buys wines from the south of France, red Loire wines, Beaujolais and all of the store’€™s half bottles, no matter the category. Bordeaux is domain of owner Weiser. Bart Hopkins, nominally the store’€™s ‘€œwine buyer,’€ handles most of what’€™s left. Spirits buying is the realm of Mike Vickery.

Evelyn Wing, the store manager, said the parceling out of buying duties among so many staffers means ‘€œwe’€™re all experts in our field.’€ Assignments are a blend of requests from staffers and those from management. Wine buyers are encouraged to work out space allocations with one another so that a given section can be expanded if there’€™s a good reason for it.

Deep wine experience isn’€™t a prerequisite for being hired at 67 Wine. In making hiring decisions, Wing ‘€“ who previously worked as a food photographer for consumer magazines and did some light catering on the side ‘€“ assesses candidates for the likelihood they’€™ll be able to work cordially with their colleagues, any expertise they might have and ‘€œthe ability to work within our framework’€ ‘€“ meaning, scheduling, knowledge, the amount of information the worker seems capable of absorbing. Staffers schedule their own buying trips.

There’€™s no question the division of responsibility among so many buyers can make for complicated dealings between wine salespeople and the store staff: during one visit by Beverage Dynamics, Hopkins was just concluding a meeting (on the shopping floor, by the tasting table, of course) with a pair of salespeople pitching four wines from a California vintner. Affirmative decisions would have to be made by three 67 Wine buyers if all four were to be brought in.

Among those buyers is Mike Vickery, who handles spirits. A four-year veteran of the store who moved to New York from Georgia and spent a year on wines before moving toward the spirits section, he tries to tap into many consumers’€™ recession-induced preference for single malt Scotch at reasonable prices ‘€“ say, Gordon McPhail’€™s 8-year-old at $35.99. With vatted malts also enjoying their moment in the sun, he makes sure to stock brands like Compass Box, Sheep Dip and Pig’€™s Nose. ‘€œIt’€™s a question of real estate,’€ he said, gesturing at a glassed-over wall containing 150 single malt Scotches. ‘€œIt’€™s very concentrated, but it represents all the regions, even if we have fewer (items) than some other stores.’€ He added: ‘€œWe carry the names, but try really hard to bring in smaller producers.’€ Cognac lovers can expect to find a selection of XO entries, but no labels the store feels are ‘€œoverpriced.’€ Again, value often reigns in making 67 Wine decisions. As the cocktail revolution has sparked interest in small producers, Vickery has done his best to tap into the trend by carrying labels like Clear Creek McCarthy’€™s (from Oregon). While irksome to some customers, the fact that the selection is locked up behind glass provides a great pretext to talk to the customer, Vickery noted.

Buyer Ben Wood has the most diverse responsibilities of the group. A three-year employee, Wood’€™s path toward a hectic raft of involvements in the store seems typical of the opportunities offered at 67 Wine to those willing to hustle: he first asked to take a hand in the Beaujolais section because he liked the style but didn’€™t find anything to his taste among the two or three items that Hopkins had selected for the store. Now, he believes, he’€™s assembled one of New York’€™s better selections, up there with praised local rivals like Chamber Street Wines, down in the Tribeca section of Manhattan.

As one of the youngest members of the staff, it’€™s no surprise that Wood also takes a lead role in the store’€™s social-media activities on Facebook and Twitter. Wood handles much of the blogging for the store’€™s Web site, though he laments that Hopkins, with a more elegant writing style, is harder to coax into a regular presence as a blogger. Hopkins himself handles advertising-oriented copy. (Though so far it’€™s been hard to calculate precisely what the return is on such activities, the retailer works Facebook and Twitter hard so as to stoke its presence on Google’€™s Caffeine search engine, Bressler noted. Part of the social-media and Internet philosophy appears to be just to get conversant and see where it all goes.)

Wood also is heading up a staff-education program that was recently inaugurated at the behest of owner Weiser ‘€“ though his role mainly consists, Wood notes modestly, of recruiting the in-store expert to handle a particular topic. He characterizes the project as ‘€œan effort to improve our knowledge in areas we don’€™t personally buy.’€ As with so much else at 67 Wine, the training sessions occur at the tasting table, 30- to 45-minute sessions conducted while the store is open, first with one half of the staff, then the other. At the sessions, attendees taste at least a couple of wines ‘€“ perhaps four Beaujolais grand crus. Sometimes they’€™re blind tastings, sometimes open. The store’€™s shipping clerks and cashiers are encouraged to attend, too, if they can break free.

In the end, it’€™s pretty clear that the energetic buyers and staff are passionate about what they do, and help make 67 Wine an outstanding operation in one of the most competitive retail environments in the country.

Half-Bottle Mecca

67 Wine has a collection of half bottles of wine that numbers well over 300 brands. The selection, arrayed along one wall of the second floor, is big enough to draw shoppers from all over the metropolitan area and encompasses three large cases for red wines and three more for white wines and dessert wines.

So who are the customers for all these half-bottles? A significant portion of older couples, in which one might prefer reds and the other whites, or in which perhaps one doesn’€™t drink at all, perhaps a pregnant wife. There are also those customers looking for an enforced method of ‘€œportion control,’€ as one member of the staff put it diplomatically.

To Ben Wood, who buys the section, ‘€œit’€™s a question of: If you build it, they will come.’€

He figures only the Landmarc restaurant, in the nearby Time Warner Center, shows a comparable commitment to that size bottle. Under Wood’€™s stewardship, the section has become not just larger but more diverse, including wines from Morocco, India, Slovenia, Greece and Mexico (‘€œif we can find it,’€ he emphasizes). Certainly, for many New Yorkers, it’€™s the feature with which the store has come to be most distinctly identified.

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