When it comes to wine, the gap between high-end-wine stewards and drinkers has gotten smaller than ever. A return to older techniques with low or no sulphur added accounts for a radical boom for natural wines, while an abundance of online resources has shifted the roles of everyone from importers to consumers to dogs who like to chew on popped corks. In any case, it’s an incomparable market for wine buying out there right now. A few wine stores do it better than everyone else; these are the best.
2. Astor Wines & Spirits
399 Lafayette St., at 4th St.; 212-674-7500
It’s easy enough to flash a photo of the limited-allocation Alain Graillot you had with the trout at Charlie Bird around town in the hopes of making a match. Because its website is so comprehensive, Astor saves you some trouble by letting you do the same thing with ease from home. (As a bonus, delivery options are also among the absolute best in the city.) The store famously moved from Astor Place to the De Vinne Press Building in 2006 and became something of a beneficent superstore in the process. Staff scramble to meet any need or budget, whether that’s a full case of decent, cheap cava for $100 (there are four to choose from), or a bottle for the friend mourning the death of her betta fish (Bloomer Creek Finger Lakes pét-nat, obviously). Not all stock in the nifty cool room is high-end — some of the fringe-y organic stuff just happens to be more volatile — but the rarities tend to be Sotheby’s-style ultra-rare. The entrance to the subterranean space is flanked with sweet specials on niche wines, and most cost less than $20. Tastings are always free and come with a 15 percent day-of discount. Astor is educational without being pushy, and staffers’ descriptions of wines are on point and pointed — ”I do not worship at his altar, but gosh is this wine well done,” goes one sample kicker. Well done indeed.
3. PJ Wine
4898 Broadway, nr. 204th St.; 212-567-5500
The same Chenin Blanc that costs $52 at one shop may retail for $64 at another, which in New York often has less to do with markups and more to do with the fact that rents are beastly and the city is a horrible place to do business. It’s unclear if anything is cheaper in Inwood, but it still wouldn’t explain how PJ Wine’s prices are so much better than everyone else’s. You’ll find cheapo Chocolate Shop “Chocolate Lovers” NV mixed alongside the obscure Corsican Patrimonio, next to a life-changing pair of premier cru value burgundies from Camus-Bruchon that come in for under $100, total. There are former anarchists looking for Sicilian wines and line cooks seeking deals on their day off. Tastings are supersized: A recent grand slam of summer wine had a $10 cover, but that included healthy sips of all pink bottles and a $10 gift certificate. One recent weekday, a customer seeking a single bottle spent 20 minutes deciding between a 2004 “Santo Stefano di Nieve” Barbaresco and a 2008 “Asili di Barbaresco,” made by Piemontese master Bruno Giacosa, before he was distracted by a display of $7 reserva from Portugal. I’m not sure what he decided on in the end, but his cart was full at checkout.
4. Frankly Wines
66 W. Broadway, nr. Murray St.; 212-346-9544
Christy Frank’s fantastic shop is all of 320 square feet. It’s right around the corner from Chambers Street Wine, and in many ways just as mighty, in part because Frank cannot afford shelf space to anything for which she does not have emphatic feelings. Its staff are matchmaking specialists: Say you’re looking for an orange wine with a nose of broken sticks and grape soda you sipped at a speakeasy under a Berlin toll bridge; they’ll see what they can do. The rush-hour crowd also gets in and out with a good bottle and a minimum of shop talk, but on the opposite end, a manager recently went to lengths to compellingly suggest a powerful wine made by Julien Courtois, the son of a Loire titan who decided to get a little iconoclastic. “You’re going to want to clear your schedule and take your time with this one,” she said, comparing the experience to a gateway drug. At the register, she gave its trippy black-and-white label a vaguely sentimental look before slipping it into the bag. “I’m glad it’s going to a good home,” she added. It hasn’t been cracked open yet, but let’s just say some of next month’s appointments have been rescheduled.
5. Le Dû’s Wines
600 Washington St., at Leroy St.; 212-924-6999
The city’s most dapper shop is also its most comprehensive when it comes to education and its Coravin assisted tastings; these even turn (tastefully) raucous on occasion. Owner Jean-Luc Le Dû was Daniel Boulud’s sommelier — a low-key big deal, in other words — so it follows that there’s very classic stuff from some of the world’s greatest producers in the bins. An attractively priced and totally limited allocation of single-vineyard Barolo from Fratelli Alessandria estate once nearly prompted a genteel stampede, and in general there’s a surfeit of great classy options for everyone, from old-world reds that have been kept under rigid temperature control to a hard-to-find dry white made from the Hungarian grape Furmit, which Aldo Sohm likes to pour uptown. When all else fails, go for the pink, bubbly, and unimpeachably refreshing Raventos i Blanc “de Nit” Rosado Cava, and pair it with the new issue of the cult wine zine Loam Baby, which is available at the register.
6. Appellation Wine & Spirits
156 Tenth Ave., nr. 20th St.; 212-741-9474
Don’t be alarmed by the jumbo real-estate placard in the front window: Chelsea’s venerated natural-wine shop will relocate in the near future, but it’s not shutting down. Appellation has long been at the forefront of the organic- and artisanal-wine scene, and its staff are the first to clear cut the jargon and explain what matters about that, and why, when it comes to flavor and composition. (The mission statement extends to liquor, too, so you may see the staff geek out over a new allocation of a terrific watermelon brandy made from heirloom fruit and Mennonite sorghum in Charleston.) Rhône River Valley gems and biodynamic blends from Austria share shelf space with a range from upstart California producer Dirty & Rowdy; there’s Bregeonnette Muscadet, which is good for July rosé fatigue and comes with an unbeatable price tag.
7. Flatiron Wines & Spirits
929 Broadway, nr. 22nd St.; 212-477-1315
Ballers and novices pick through the floor-to-ceiling stock here, which is, hands down, one of the most handsome wine shops in town. The energetic staff seemingly add a handful of new picks each day, so while there’s Domaine Romanée-Conti on a sturdy rack somewhere, a good quotient of the 1,500 bottles, from workhorse Grüner Veltliners to the dark-pink, supercharged sparkler Renardat Bugey, tend to fall on the natural and sustainable side of things. Try a steely Petit Chablis that’s ready to be poured right now, or one of the handful of organic wines from the “$15 and Under” section. The grab-and-go table has more than 100 options that translate to great browsing, and in-store tastings often feature the winemakers up close and personal. One of them, Benoit Roseau, recently flew in to pour three of his Northern Rhone wines, a $20 Syrah and a $65 Condrieu among them. In other words, there’s something for everyone.
8. Crush Wine & Spirits
153 E. 57th St., nr. Lexington Ave., 212-980-9463
What at first seems at first like a poncy, typically midtown-ish approach to wine — ”Do not be intimidated by the beauty and elegance of our space,” the website warns, which sounds a bit like the classic “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” — turns out to be very accessible and wonderfully engaging. Now in its 11th year, Crush tends to lose some of its trademark swank during pre-commute peak hours, when a concentration of suits fills the showroom and the shop’s name turns somewhat literal. The “Fine & Rare” section is a draw for regulars, and Ian McFadden, who runs the department, makes deft use of the shop’s Twitter account to spread word of flash sales on small parcels of sought-after wines. Most of the special offerings can be purchased in a bundled three-pack with a slightly better price break than single bottles, which also turns out to be ideal for customers who are storage-space-deprived but who otherwise want to drink one now, another in five years, and the third in ten.
9. Smith & Vine
268 Smith St., nr. Degraw St., Carroll Gardens; 718-243-2864
The staff is unfailingly great; on Mondays happy hour means 10 percent off wine from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; and the staff hides a “golden ticket” in the store, which means someone gets an instant 20 percent off, and everyone will cheer. Regulars visit Smith & Vine for the relentless enthusiasm and stay for the narratives. Maybe you’ve heard of Rosso del Contadino, the pinkish red made from the up-and-coming hardscrabble grapes of Mount Etna by a rebellious Belgian who hates sulphur as much as he loves pumice? A cheery clerk will fill you in, then will move on to the peachy-dry German wine made from Scheurebe, a cross between Riesling and an unknown grape that has fermented in quasi-obscurity for 100 years. It’s delicious, as is the Chardonnay from Jura producer Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot. It’s sought after, no fuss, and in stock. Even wines at the well-stocked $12-and-under table, which can be a veritable minefield of bad choices anywhere else, have all been selected for a reason, which you can read about in the tasting notes.
10. Dandelion Wine
153 Franklin St., nr. India St., Greenpoint; 347-689-4563
The focus is biodynamic, natural, organic, and artisanal. Moreover, there’s a residual charm at this shop near the Greenpoint waterfront that borders on magical. One of the managers changes the vinyl on the turntable, and a customer leaves a suggested donation — wine shops can’t sell groceries — to leave with a She Wolf Bakery sourdough boule to pull apart with her pétillant naturel. The wide range of chilled bottles includes 40s of Muscadet and slightly higher end J. Lassalle Champagne Brut Rosé. There’s also Josef Leitz Dragonstone Riesling, a shop-endorsed Game of Thrones pairing and a sign of the staff’s down-to-earth nature. They are also savvy: When asked for two festive bottles in the under-$30 range, a manager gave four suggestions at $20 and under, including a vegan wine, and one of the crisp-bubbled Sauvage, made by organic New Mexico producer Gruet.
11. Vintry Fine Wines
230 Murray St., nr. West St.; 888-686-8767
Of course Goldman Alley’s liquor depot has buttoned-down American Psycho swagger, but the curvy, contoured shelves also suggest a cool, subdued futurism, as if Deckard had moved on to telling dad jokes and nursing his Pinot Gris habit somewhere in a haute shopping mall sometime after the end of Blade Runner. Harry Poulakakos, the famed Wall Street restaurateur whose son Peter co-owns the shop, contributed a pricey range of showcase Bordeaux, but less formal, newer-world options include former Screaming Eagle winemaker Massimo Vincenzo Di Costanzo’s first namesake release, and Résonance, the Burgundian-influenced Pinot Noir from Maison Louis Jadot’s only venture outside France, which happens to take place in the Willamette Valley. For the most part, the shop tends to hinge on approachable bottles, like a Langhe Nebbiolo made by a young couple in Piedmont. It’s perfect to pair with tonight’s mapo tofu.
12. Leon & Son
995 Fulton St., nr. Cambridge Pl., Clinton Hill; 347-689-9253
Maybe you don’t believe in Goldilocks wine — well kept, just right, geared to your exact preference. It’s okay, because the staff at this year-old Brooklyn shop want to believe hard enough for the both of you. At first, its layout seems spare, but those cubbies are stocked with exquisite old-growth Gamays at a relatively low price point, and limited allocations of Hirsch from the Sonoma Coast. There’s the same Ridge “Geyserville” that Kimberly Livingston Prokoshyn pours at Rebelle, the Domaine Leroy ’99 that flows by the centiliter at the Four Horsemen, and the odd Scholium Project release or two. You’ll notice there’s no fortified barricade of rosé up front by the register. Maybe this is because the pretense-free staff cares less about marketing — there’s plenty of pink wine on both sides of the aisle in the back, after all — and more about finding the right fit for each customer. Whatever it is, it’s working.
13. Burgundy Wine Company
143 W. 26th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-691-9092
As the first of its kind to zero in on a single region, Burgundy Wine Company opened in the West Village long before prices got stratospheric and addicts weren’t yet cruising auctions for trophies. (Michael Madrigale, former Boulud sommelier, apparently once got his start here with an inauspicious question: “Where’s Burgundy?”) The Chelsea showroom where the business relocated in 2002 has an endearing, creaky old New York feel. Listen to the subdued staff describe why each bottle in the hardwood bins was hand-selected, and you’ll notice desks and office space toward the back of the store take up as much room as the retail footprint because management spends a good deal of time chasing vintages for urbane clientele. Some send photos of some rare Chambertin or slinky, muscular Romanée they encountered in the white tablecloth wilds of Michelin-land, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the same the next time you spend happy hour at Racines. There are some great entry-level and offbeat picks from the motherland for us mere mortals, in other words. When all else fails, there’s a giant bathtub of bubbly.
14. 24 Hubert Wines
24 Hubert St., at Greenwich St.; 212-810-2899
In 2013, the former Vestry Wines was reborn as a new concept that went heavy on Napa Valley and evangelizing the so-called New California scene.* (“I believe in those wines as much as I believe in French wines,” we were told, at the time.) The Tribeca shop has an appropriately palatial layout, including a large back area with restaurant-style tables for events and seminars with the people who make the wines. West Coast picks range from a stone-fruity, lemony Cameron Giovanni Pinot Blanc to stock like 2005 Pisoni Vineyards Pinot Noir on the more expensive side. Notes are laconic, and of late, the new direction of 24 Hubert has shifted to include more classic and emerging wine regions, and overall, a renewed emphasis on winemakers whose product is created with a strong sense of identity.
15. Slope Cellars
436 Seventh Ave., nr. 15th St., Park Slope; 718-369-7307
Hallmarks of a solid neighborhood wine store include staff who remember your preferences, reliable but not predictable inventory, and lots of cute dogs sniffing the Champagne. Slope Cellars has those, and more: The standard mixed-case discount for wine is 15 percent, a step up from the typical 10, and the expected roster of California wines veers off into bottles made from obscure grapes like Valdiguié. Throw in a diverse range of chilled whites, fortified wines, and bubbly, as well as a formidable stockpile of decent boxed options, and it is easy to understand why this place draws in devoted regulars who have long since left the neighborhood but still come back.
16. Mission Fine Wines
1610 Richmond Ter., at Tompkins Ct., Port Richmond, Staten Island; 866-511-1811
Staten Island’s most interesting wine shop is, for the most part, an online business. Thing is, though, a visit to this Port Richmond industrial waterfront warehouse is possible, and even encouraged (appointments are recommended). Mission was founded by ex-bankers who now seek out clutch bottles for financial types, but that doesn’t mean all dealings are unicorns and dusty cult Bordeaux. Co-owner Joe Palmiotti, in fact, rails against what he calls “red muck,” the high-ABV bottles that tend to score high and loom large in the Parkerized world. Carefully handled inventory goes heavy on Italian and French, such as the “gateway” Bourgogne Blanc made by Dominique Lafon in Meursault, but farther-flung finds include a small-production wine made from the unique Spanish grape Mencia, as well as bottles from South African winemaker (and former surfer) Eben Sadie.
17. Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit
5 W. 19th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-929-2323
Several great shops throughout the city are the epitome of practicality. Table Wine in Jackson Heights is perfect if you need something to go with your weeknight plate of pasta and bespoke black bourbon cream from Rochester. The genius of Hunter’s Point Wines & Spirits is that the quick-service bottles are up front, but the shop opens to a world of wine in the back. Mister Wright Fine Wines & Spirits on the Upper East Side manages carbon-neutral plastic bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for $10.99 to close-out deals on serious white Bordeaux with aplomb.
Bottlerocket in Flatiron has the most ideal meta layout — look for the sign that says “green” for tetra packs, or “takeout” to find some cheapo dream pairing for General Tso’s — and tends to strike customers as either inspiration or oversimplification. Maybe it’s both. No-nonsense displays are fantastic for anyone seeking a quick hit of Jam Jar Muscat, while quirky, detailed descriptions found at each station throughout the store are better suited for browsers. Sales — like the run on half-bottles of Villa Sparina Gavi for those who made poor New Year’s Eve choices, or three-for-two on stained-label wines — have a delightfully random, off-the-cuff quality. Bottlerocket is ideal for people who feel like they want to have fun with wine, but who perhaps aren’t sure they want to be wine people.
* This post has been updated to clarify that Rom Toulon, former managing partner of 24 Hubert Wines, no longer has an affiliation with the business.