Wine Stores in Spotlight during Christmas Season
Updated: Sep 18, 2021
It is heartening to see how many superlative wine stores we have in Greenwich. At a time when so much of the wine business is consolidating, and super-stores are proliferating, Greenwich caters to an increasingly sophisticated wine, beer and spirits client by providing stores that carry well-conceived stocks and libraries of fine wine, as well as loads of apt value choices that just make me smile.
Last week, I wrote about Glenville Wine & Spirits. Today, we go to Old Greenwich, Riverside, and Putnam at the top of the Avenue. Tomorrow, more stores before the Christmas rush starts in earnest.
Old Greenwich Wine Merchants
Long a sleepy little store with high prices and an uneven selection, as well a owners with ambitions elsewhere, the O.G. finally has a wine emporium that really is O.G. Peter is the Assistant Manager here, and there are two other salespersons on staff.
OGWM will deliver anywhere from Byram to Darien (and probably even further than that). They use the Drizzly delivery service. Charlie takes no small satisfaction in relating the story of the customer who called to get a single can of beer delivered to him at Greenwich Station: “he was testing us. But he’s a regular now!” On special orders, Charlie makes it a point to compete with prices from other stores. “Let’s be realistic: customers usually know the price of what they’re looking for, and we usually come to agreement on a fair price.”
Most of Charlie’s customers are from Greenwich, but he figures about 25% come from the Internet. OGWM gets a lot of calls from overseas (England, Israel, Germany) for gift deliveries in Greenwich.
Uniquely, OGWM has a Napa Technology WineStation to taste customers on up to 8 wines. Unfortunately, Covid has closed this down, but it demonstrates the clear spirit of innovation at OGWM. Soon, there will be two new sections in the back of the store, sporting a bigger beer refrigerator and an expanded international selection. Some minor cosmetic changes are also planned.
An unsung move was to send an email out to customers about the single bottle of Pappy van Winkle that OGWM received this year. Most stores would offer that bottle to a best customer, and that’s valid. On the other hand, this method showcased a nice instance of allocative democracy.
Beer is strong here, with customizable six-packs and lots of IPAs from Connecticut producers Knob Hill and Two Roads, as well as Castle Island Beer from Massachusetts and other beers from Maine. The wine selection is generally very good, with strong Burgundy and domestic Pinot Noir sections. Customer favorites are the Fever Tree mixers, OTR (On the Rocks) pre-mixed cocktails, and Five Farms Irish cream.
Parking can be an issue at OGWM, so don’t forget the spots that exist in the back of the store. In any case, the store is worth the search for a spot.
Another store that has come a long way – from an unflatteringly rigid corporate structure, as I remember it – is Balducci’s under the leadership of Wine Manager Tom O’Brien. The store has no Assistant Manager, but it does have a staff of 3, whose competence was demonstrated shiningly by Catherine when I was there. Her service exemplified the house style: know people by name; know their favorites; ask the customer to keep an open mind when making a recommendation, and give them a pairing to go with it.
Apparently, sales have doubled in the 3 years Tom has been the Manager at Balducci’s. Parking is never an issue here, since Balducci’s owns its own lot. Deliveries are welcome – most go from Stamford to Rye – undertaken by the grocery delivery service Instacart, which uses on-call drivers, similarly to Uber Eats.
Balducci’s used to be all about the brands every average store carries, and it certainly still makes a lot of its revenue from Tito’s, Casamigos, Woodford Reserve, Whispering Angel, Hess Alomi, and High Noon. But take a closer look, and you’ll notice a really nice roster of 1/2 bottles behind the counter. There are Grower Champagnes here, not just the Grandes Maisons like Veuve Clicquot. Balducci’s hasn’t given up on Australia and New Zealand, with unusual, well-considered selections in both areas. And their Argentinian section is quite nice.
There’s a really well thought-out German/Austrian section here that gives a nod to the Riesling lover, while acknowledging the sadly underrated purgatory that Riesling occupies in today’s wine world: Mönchhof, with its great flavors and reasonable price; a 2016 Dönnhoff entry-level Riesling and a similar example from Schloss Johannisberg; and the star, a Dönnhoff 2016 Niederhauser Hermannshöhle Spätlese. Hopler Zweigelt, a red from Austria, also brings the store credit.
The beer section sports the national craft brands everyone knows already: Sixpoint, Lagunitas, Dogfish, Allagash… And the Connecticut beers here are very good, but not original: Half-Full, Two Roads, Hooker, Athletic. There is a nice Ale from Mill House, in Poughkeepsie, though.
I also liked the Spirits, with nice, full sections of gins (Botanist, Nolet, Greenhook, Apostole), mezcals, and Bourbons. Litchfield Bourbon has an outsized representation here, with their regular Bourbon, 5-year, and Maple. Deservedly so! And I was happy to see a Barbados Rum, from 4-Square.
Wine Wise used to make me laugh. Now it makes me giggle. Previous ownership was apparently trying to re-create Sherry-Lehmann on Putnam Avenue. Or was it Tiffany’s on the Post Road? The mixed market-phor turned a lot of people off. As did the wines.
Since September, 2016, Wine Wise has been transformed into one of the best wine stores in Greenwich, with a selection you just don’t see in many Connecticut wine stores anymore. The fine-wine room in the back of the store contains gems from Fontaine-Gagnard and Bonneau du Martray in multiple vintages and lieu-dits, as well as fantastic bottlings from Pavie and Pichon-Longueville.
The collection of Lou Dumont is second to none; it is one of Owners Steve and Chiharu Millhouse’s personal favorites, and also reflects Chiharu’s Japanese origins as well as Steve’s affinity for Japanese culture. (The owner of Lou Dumont, Koji Nakada, and his wife, Jae Hwa Park, named their estate for the mountains in the area of Japan where Koji grew up. Dumont means “from the mountain” in French.)
The back room also contains Opus One, Dominus, Shaffer Hillside Select, and Jordan in back vintages of ’01, ’03, ’06 and ’07. 2007 Penfolds Grange – in Magnum! – DRC La Tache and Romanée St.-Vivant, Vega-Sicilia, and Yquem.
Still… what started me giggling was the selection of more reasonable wines. Wines that had their time in the sun 5 and 10 years ago, but were shamefully set aside, then shooed out the door in most wine stores when middling West Coast Chardonnays and Cabernets stole back their perches of mediocrity. Soría, a Frappato from Firriato, and Aglianico – Barolo without the sticker shock – from southern Italy. Grower Champagnes that aren’t found just anywhere, but go a step further, like the gems Sapience, from Marguet Père et Fils; Corbon, from Avizé; and Marguet Shaman 16.
There are American Classics, like Flora Springs, Frank Family, Jordan, and Freemark Abbey. Steve strictly refuses to carry Josh, Kendall-Jackson, and Bogle. Which is bold. Really, really bold. Because even the snootiest wine stores have KJ lying around.
But a store with such a fantastic – and value-laden! – selection of Spanish and French wines, or California Cabs and Oregon Pinots is not really snobby, now, is it? There are more than a dozen half-bottles here. Is that snooty? The prices are super reasonable. Is that snooty?
One last thing: have you ever been in a wine or spirits shop that actually understands the variety of Japanese whiskies now available? I never have. There is a collection of them at Wine Wise that would probably make certain shops in Tokyo blush.
I often wondered whether parking was a problem at Wine Wise, since the spaces on Putnam always seem filled. The parking lot in back often seemed to be remembered after the fact. But while I was there recently, 4 different customers came up the stairs from the back lot. So just remember to use it! Delivery is free within a 4-mile circumference, at a minimum $100 purchase.