Who Needs Street Signs? Just Read the Wine Bottles

Neighborhood identity extends to grape choice.

Forget your accent, your shoes, your annual paycheck or your iPod playlist. With apologies to Brillat-Savarin, tell me what you drink and I may be able to tell you where you live.

Even within our 21st-century megalopolis, in a way we’re still clansmen, clustering in neighborhood tribes with people of similar worldviews and, in the process, becoming even more alike. It’s not news that we tend to vote and worship as our neighbors do, but evidently we drink that way too. Like birds of a feather, burgundy drinkers flock together.

Some neighborhoods’ wine habits are just what you’d expect. Vinnie McCabe, beverage manager at Maloney & Porcelli says, “Midtown diners for the most part are not adventurous in their wine drinking. Many are in the financial business and I guess their (appetite for) risks goes with the job, preferring to stick to their tried-and-true Californian cabs, pinots, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs” to go with their porterhouses and rib-eyes.

The Upper East Side also trends towards tradition-and often for France-when it comes to wine. “I would say pinot kills it at Park Avenue,” the restaurant that changes its menu, decor and name with the seasons, says Michael Stillman, president of the Fourth Wall Restaurants group, “as it is perceived as the upper-crust wine.”

But the economy has also put a cork in the neighborhood nobility’s bottle-buying binges-sort of. “Folks may be collecting less and cellaring a few fewer bottles,” allows UES collector and wineau Don Martin. “People who were collecting purely for investment may be slowing down, but people who drink the wine, they certainly aren’t turning toward cheaper wines,” he says as he swirls and sniffs a glass of “a nice little” Château Pavie Decesse from his own heavily Bordeaux-leaning collection, while sniffing at the idea of downscaling either the price or prestige of his own daily libations.

But sommeliers and wine shop staff are finding that the twentysomethings on the neighborhood’s edges are more receptive to those so-called downscaled wines-as well as to lesser-known varietals and to new-world wines-whose price points allow those with pint-size budgets to drink by the gallon. According to studies by the Wine Market Council, these Millennials-so named because as a group they began attaining drinking age in the year 2000-show a distinct openness in picking their potables, making them more likely to embrace the Yellowtail shirazes that more traditional drinkers like Martin scoff at. But other neighborhood drinking trends surprise even the experts.

“It was pretty amazing,” says Rory Callahan, president of Wine & Food Associates, a market development firm, about what he’s noticed while helping New York State winemakers sell at city farmers markets. For years he’s made a living studying Gotham’s wine ways and consulting with wine associations from around the world on how to market to New Yorkers. Still, when he brought Empire State vintners to more than 10 city Greenmarkets-Union Square and others from Tribeca to Inwood-he marveled that some neighborhoods were much more receptive to certain wines than others. “We had wineries that had off-dry rieslings and rosés who in many neighborhoods would sell a few bottles of these varietals, but in Inwood they were going gangbusters, they could go through 12 cases in a day.”

Peter Saltonstall of Treleaven Wines and King Ferry Winery sold his pinots, cabernet francs, merlots, rosés and rieslings at a market on the Upper West Side and at another in Manhattan’s northern tip. While he enjoyed Caroline Kennedy sightings on the Upper West Side, Inwood is the place he prefers to pour. “Up there I sell a lot of rieslings and dry blush. There’s a greater variety of people with differing tastes.” He cites cultural preferences (“the wonderful little old Dominican ladies would come up to our table and know exactly what they wanted.”) but also a regional receptivity: “People there were really open to learning about new things.” A hundred blocks south, his customers take a different approach. They’re “well-traveled, often through Europe,” he says, and it shows in their wine buying, sticking to well-worn, tried-and-true varietals. “They loved this rosé we did from cabernet franc, but in the end they mostly bought chardonnay and pinot noir.”

Amanda Reade Sturgeon, sommelier at the neighborhood’s Dovetail, is all too familiar with the devotion to this duo. She was previously assistant wine director at Babbo, where the wine list is exclusively Italian with “grapes and varietals (that) can be unfamiliar.

People were really open to trying new things and asking for suggestions all the time.” But on West 77th Street, she’s finding drinkers are seriously set in their ways or, as she says, in their wines. “Longtime Upper West Siders know exactly what they like and are very comfortable with that. They solely order chardonnay and pinot noir. If they do branch out, they go to Burgundy”- which, she points out, is made up of, yes, pinot and chardonnay. “I can’t keep them in stock.”

The exception? Again, younger clientele. Reade Sturgeon finds that they’re “more adventurous, willing to try a region or grape they haven’t heard of,” (such as) the Languedoc “because they are such a great value” or, say, whites from Germany and Austria, “which are gorgeous and feminine and such a great value.”

Downtown, where unconventional choices have long been the norm, even if gentrification has smoothed out some of the extremes, oenophiles are altogether more adventurous-perhaps because the Bohemian ways of the once-wild West Village are now best expressed in pairing your risotto with an unusual wine from Bohemia.

Yun Ko, wine director at Recette on West 12th Street, admits that it’s still somewhat of a Sideways world downtown as folks flock “to pinot-driven French wines. They are well versed in Burgundies and world-class producers such as Domaine Boillot, Château Olivier Leflaive and Domaine Potel, all known for making some of the choicest white and red Burgundies.” But Ko is also finding West Villagers very receptive to new-world wines and unfamiliar grapes. “Argentinean malbec is our most popular selling wine, but I’m also seeing interest in South African sauvignon blancs, chenin blancs and agritiko, a great grape similar to a Rhone.”

Located at Fourth Avenue and 13th Street-just below the 14th Street border that imaginarily yet intensely delineates uptown from down in the eyes of many a New Yorker-Union Square Wines and Spirits draws drinkers from all over the city, but wine director Jesse Salazar says many core clients are downtown drinkers.

“Since moving off Union Square West in 2006 we’ve drawn a younger clientele from the East Village while maintaining a loyal following with friends in the NYU area and further west in Greenwich Village.” He finds that the typical USQ customer is well informed about up-and-coming appellations and always eager to hear about the next big thing, a habit encouraged by the shop’s Enomatic automatic wine dispenser, which allows customers to sample dozens of often-unfamiliar wines before buying.

“As far as preferences and patterns go, I’d say we’re pretty spoiled by our customers in that they respond to whatever we’re excited about and enjoying ourselves,” says Salazar. “It could be simple Bourgogne rouge and blanc one weekend-Ramonet’s ’07s came

and went this past Saturday afternoon-and Txacoli the next.”

Master sommelier Joe Campanale, co-owner of West Village restaurants Dell’anima and L’Artusi, also considers himself “really lucky. My customers are pretty savvy and really open minded,” allowing him to stock his wine lists with choices unfamiliar to many

Americans-like Cerasuolos, aglianicos or the Soffice di Vincigliata, a fresh vibrant red created by a winemaker who wanted to celebrate the fact that his vineyard outside Florence was a popular makeout spot for Florentines. The label features an abstract yet fairly identifiable image of a couple performing an intimate act. “We have it on the list for an appropriate $69,” grins Campanale with a wink that might not go down as well in a more staid ‘hood.

The East Village is equally adventuresome. Wine director Paul Greico, who won a James Beard Award for wine service when he was at Gramercy Tavern in 2002 and is now co-owner of Hearth and Terroir in the East Village, where he is renowned for his edgy, opinionated and super-focused wine lists, agrees that downtown drinkers are more likely to drink something different-whether it’s Austrian or Slovenian. “Speaking broadly, I have to say that Midtown is more about the California chardonnays while in the East Village anything goes-people are willing to try whatever I’m pouring.”

He does admit that since he doesn’t stock the usual offerings, his customers have little choice but to drink more idiosyncratic options. “I don’t know if it all comes down to the restaurant, the neighborhood or whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Do his customers drink offbeat wines because that’s what he offers, or is he able to offer these curious choices because of where he is? Which came first, the Kidonitsa (a spicy, citrusy white from Greece) or the Kidonitsa drinker?

There’s no denying that a wine list or wine shop with a point of view can influence a neighborhood. “We try to steer people toward cooler-climate European wines,” admits Steve Flynn, owner of September Wines on the Lower East Side, betraying his own inclinations. “Our focus is on old-world traditional wines, but perhaps a little skewed toward more unusual varietals.” Customers have responded well to the shop’s focus on small-production wines, “supporting family farms that have been doing this for generations and haven’t sold out to one of the majors.”

While that anti-corporate attitude taps long-established sentiments in the LES, one doubts that Chelsea was a bastion of ecoconscious wine drinkers before the arrival of Appellation Wines & Spirits, which specializes in organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines. But while some customers make the trip for the shop’s mission, for many Chelsea residents it’s just the local spot to stop for a bottle on the way home. They might have come in looking for a simple red or white-not green-but when they try (and enjoy) what’s on offer, the shop’s philosophy over time changes the ‘hood’s habits. Some are now buying big: “Many of our customers like to combine avant-garde with quality and quantity. Our organic box wines and magnums have been extremely popular,” says owner Scott Pactor. “We have a three liter bag-in-box that is a Côtes-du-Rhône. It maintains its freshness for up to three weeks once it has been opened.” The shop’s eco spirit has infused the neighborhood in nonalcoholic ways as well: “The outer box is wooden, and we have seen empty boxes being used as bird-feeders in the neighborhood!” says Pactor.

Murray Hill has also fallen under a specialty shop’s spell. Longtime residents and wine afficionados Susan and Stuart Byron have noticed a definite drift in their drinking over the years as their neighborhood has changed around them. “I learned about wine while studying in France,” says Susan, “so that has always been my sweet spot,” whereas husband Stuart traditionally turned to the big bold wines of his native Australia. But over the last decade they have found themselves going Italian.

“It started with the Enoteca at I Trulli, on 27th Street, a wine bar where we could sample a flight of unfamiliar wines in a really low-key and not terribly expensive way,” recalls Susan. When the restaurant owners opened Vino, a wine shop devoted to exclusively Italian producers, there was no turning back. These days, the couple finds that when they invite neighbors to dinner, the vast majority turn up with an Italian bottle.

Then again, says Vanessa Conlin, manager of Harlem Vintage, maybe it all comes down to the food. Conlin has slowly worked her way up the West Side in wine shops and notices a pronounced difference in neighborhoods. “At Bacchus on 70th and Broadway, it was definitely all about the premium wines. At Pour on 75th and Amsterdam we were surrounded by sushi restaurants, so people would come in with their takeout on the way home looking for fishfriendly crisp whites and kabinett rieslings.” While at Harlem Vintage, which has an impressively wide-ranging list, including a Wines of Color section that features wines made by African Americans, “We are surrounded by all sorts of cuisines, spicy foods, a worldclass barbecue place, so now I’m recommending more fruity reds or malbecs to go with the BBQ, and something with residual sugars-rieslings, gewürztraminers and chenin blancs-for spicier foods. An Italian restaurant just opened nearby and are BYOB until the liquor license comes through, so we have lots of people asking for recommendations about pairing with Italian food, which is new and fun. And now we’re getting questions about and requests for greener wine. The neighborhood has been really receptive and adventurous.”

Regardless of where you live, we can all raise a glass to that.

Photo credit: Michael Gross

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Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for Time magazine when she isn't busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.