BRIX Wine Shop Opens on Windy Way
by Marie-Claire Rochat
Co-owners and friends Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski have fused chic appeal with wine retail at the two-unit BRIX Wine Shop in Boston.
It was a bitter, blustery January day—a day that made even the toughest New Englanders want to hibernate. But the cold couldn't keep the crowd away from the 1,800-square foot BRIX Wine Shop, located on Broad Street in Boston's Financial District. In fact, a line of oenophiles spilled out the door and down the street waiting for a chance to meet Lidia Bastianich, leading light of Italian drinking and dining.
Inside, staff members poured Bastianich wines—made by Lidia's son, Joseph—as Lidia signed copies of her book "Lidia's Italy" in the private tasting room. "The tasting room was packed," says Brix co-owner Carri Wroblewski. "It wasn't long before we ran out of books. We had to run to Barnes & Noble and Borders to buy more."
Though the average day at BRIX isn't quite as hectic, there is a kinetic energy present at the stores' two Boston locations. Perhaps it's caused by the stylish, lounge-like interiors and open floor plans, or maybe it's the down-to-earth attitude of the owners. It might also be the offbeat, obscure selection of wines that makes clients feel as if they've found the sip of the century at an affordable price. "When we opened our stores, we viewed them as an extension of ourselves," explains co-owner Klaudia Mally. "When you step into the tasting room, it's almost as if you are at one of our houses." And this chic yet homey appeal has made BRIX popular with Bostonians.
The cornerstone for Brix was laid in 1999, when an ownership change at a small publishing company left editor Carri Wroblewski disenchanted. "The company I worked for was purchased by a large publishing house, and I wasn't quite as in love with my job as I once was," she explains. After leaving her job, Wroblewski began attending tastings at a local liquor store in her free time. Soon after, she joined their sales staff. That same year, Mally, a shopper, walked through the door. "We had a two-hour conversation," Wroblewski says. "We were instant friends and have been close ever since."
Wroblewski soon left retail to work in the wine industry, first for winemaker J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines and then for supplier Frederick Wildman and Sons Ltd. as an area manager. After a few years, Mally and Wroblewski decided to open a store together. The pair was confident that a joint venture would succeed.
"We have the same work ethic but very different skill sets," Wroblewski explains. "We always knew that we would work well in business together." Wroblewski's strengths were in customer service, wine sales and wine buying, while Mally, who had business and finance experience at a software company, excelled at general operations, public relations and bookkeeping.
In December 2003, the two friends opened the 1,250-square-foot BRIX location in Boston's South End. Their different talents came into play in February 2008, when they added the 1,800-square-foot location on Broad Street in the city's Financial District. Having two stores forced the duo to multi-task. On a daily basis, Wroblewski handles wine buying and tasting, while Mally focuses on general operations, financial matters and growth. "We used to taste together, buy together and stock together," Mally says. "Now we focus on what we do best and meet to update each other." Wroblewski adds, "If BRIX was a restaurant, I would be front of the house and Klaudia would be back of the house."
The stores focus on boutique, unpretentious wines. "Our passion and the backbone of our business is really 'quality over quantity,'" Wroblewski explains. "Though we have mainstream brands, we celebrate unique products from smaller growers and producers."
The South End location, which has a neighborhood feel, attracts customers on their way home from work who stop in to buy a wine to pair with dinner. Alternately, the Broad Street location attracts a corporate clientele that prefers traditional wines like Brunellos, California Cabernet Sauvignons, Super Tuscans, Bordeaux and Burgundies. The business employs seven people (six full-time and one part-time) and offers an array of artisanal classic cocktail ingredients, garnishes and liqueurs, such as Crème Yvette violet petal liqueur ($48 a 750-ml. bottle), that are in high demand from area bartenders and restaurateurs.
Overall, sales are divided into 85-percent wine, 13-percent spirits, 1-percent beer and 1-percent miscellaneous items, including crystal decanters, bottle openers and gift packs. Brix carries roughly 600 wine SKUs, from the 2008 Coltibuono Chianti ($9.99 a 750-ml. bottle) to the 1996 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut Rosé ($650). Because the selection changes frequently, Wroblewski says that it's difficult to pinpoint the top brands. However, Mally and Wroblewski often feature wines from Neal Rosenthal, Eric Solomon, Louis/Dressner Selections, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Maisons Marques and Domaines, and The Sorting Table. "The inventory changes drastically over the course of a season," explains Wroblewski. "We work with more than 30 distributors because the store's tapestry of wines needs to be very diverse. I may buy only one or two wines from a distributor, and this helps us greatly increase the breadth of our selection." Wroblewski cites Adonna Imports' Georg Mumelter Griesbauerhof from Italy ($15.99) as an example of a rare offering.
BRIX offers 150 spirit SKUs, ranging from Rain vodka ($23 a 750-ml. bottle) to Hirsch Selection 28-year-old Bourbon ($280). A few spirits are displayed on a chic bar in the back of each store. "Customers call the spirits they want as if they were at a bar," explains Wroblewski. "We reach for it and give them the bottle." The most popular spirits are Aperitivo Cocchi Americano ($20), St-Germain elderflower liqueur ($26) and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old Bourbon ($115). On display are hand-selected Eagle Rare 10-year-old barrels, and BRIX sells Bourbon drawn from these barrels in numbered bottles, specially customized with a medallion bearing the store's name ($36). "Typically, within 36 hours, we are sold out of all 200 bottles," Wroblewski explains.
Only about four square feet of each unit is devoted to beer, and selections are limited to 24 large-format local craft and specialty beers. Current favorites include brews from Pretty Things of Massachusetts, Hoppin' Frog Brewery of Ohio and Stone Brewing Co. of California.
BRIX has garnered a devoted following, with an e-mail list just shy of 5,000 clients. These shoppers have helped fuel the business by providing positive word of mouth. This type of outreach has allowed BRIX to eschew traditional, costly advertising in favor of guerilla marketing. "From the very beginning, our advertising and merchandising has been unconventional," Mally says. "We promote through weekly e-mails, wine gift packs, complimentary tastings and collaborations with restaurants." For gift givers, or those who want to treat themselves, BRIX offers monthly wine six-packs called the BRIX Six ($75). Each one has a theme, such as "Bottles for Your Barbecue," and contains tasting notes. "We bill this gift pack as 'BRIX Six: the most sophisticated six-pack you'll ever drink,'" explains Wroblewski, who adds that the packs sell out every month.
Wroblewski and Mally seek to make wine a lifestyle choice for customers. "We're lucky to have dedicated, repeat clients who are well-traveled and exploratory," Wroblewski says. BRIX hosts tastings on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the South End location and cocktail party-like tastings—called "Live After Five"—in the Financial District on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. These events are free for consumers and typically include four to six offerings, sometimes paired with hors d'oeuvres from partner restaurants. "It helps the restaurant and it helps us," Wroblewski says. "The restaurant will recommend our shop, and clients can taste their food without paying for a full meal."
In addition, the team hosts monthly educational, seated tastings, called "BRIX by Night" ($45 to $100), which are led by a renowned winemaker or master distiller. "These events have the look and feel of a trade tasting," Wroblewski explains. "We provide about eight different glasses on educational mats, and the winemaker or distiller talks to customers about what he does." Past events have featured Neal Rosenthal of the Mad Rose Group, Jean Trimbach of Maison Trimbach, Jorge Ordoñez of Jorge Ordoñez & Co., Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace Distillery and Craig Beam of Heaven Hill Distillery. One recent event highlighted a vertical tasting of Vertani Amarone from the 1967, 1968, 1973, 1980, 1993 and 2001 vintages.
Not all events are public affairs, however. Wroblewski and Mally offer private tastings for individuals and corporations at BRIX's Financial District location, in office buildings or at homes. The popularity of these events has grown tremendously, with an average of four held per month. A catering company prepares small plates for clients while the tasting is conducted. At the end of the event, while memories are fresh and the winemaker is in attendance, Mally and Wroblewski provide order sheets so customers can select their favorites.
To complement these tastings, BRIX hosts book signings roughly four times a year featuring famous faces in food and wine. Akin to the Bastianich signing, one recent event featured Neal Rosenthal, author of "Reflections of a Wine Merchant." Wroblewski describes the events as exciting. "These signings grew out of nowhere and are taking on a life of their own," she adds.
To provide for every beverage need, Brix is in the process of launching a catering division that will deliver wines, spirits and beers for Boston-area events. This amenity will be powered by BRIX's delivery service, which is free for orders of $100 or more.
Though Wroblewski and Mally are amenable to opening BRIX concepts in new locations, the expansion could take quite a bit of time. "After we opened our first unit, it took five years to find a place we wanted in the Financial District," Mally explains. "We're pretty particular and we're not in any rush." Denise Schnurr
With locations in the South End and the Financial District, BRIX Wine Shop displays its booze in stylish spaces–unlike the warehouse feel of most liquor stores. They provide places to linger and learn from a welcoming staff.
Beer comes in six-packs, so do abs, so why not wine? Every month the mavens at BRIX Wine Shop in the South End pick three red and three white quality wines and pack them into nifty cardboard panniers that could have been designed by Philippe Stark. There's nothing routine or predictable here except the price: a titillating $65. The September Six includes a pinot gris from Hungary and a tempranillo from Catalunya. Next month—who knows? These are serious wines, so don't expect to see any labels with little penguins or red bicycles. —Stephen Meuse
by Liza Weisstuch
On a Tuesday in late February, Frankfort, Kentucky was sunny and spring-like. The air at the BUFFALO TRACE distillery was thick and heady with the smell of grains and barley.
“It’s the drying smell on Tuesday,” said Obie Kemper matter-of-factly. Obie, who several at the distillery refer to as “the warehouse guy”, is about as much of a fixture at Buffalo Trace as the mash tuns. He’s been working there for 4O years, beginning almost straight out of high school. (His grandmother worked in the bottling house for 4O years before him.) He introduced himself to the out-of-towners, asking each to sign their names in his dense, weathered guest book that sits atop an empty upright barrel.
The crew that Tuesday was from Boston and beyond and included Eastern Standard’s bar manager, Jackson Cannon, and the restaurant’s chef, Marco Suarez; BRIX Wine Shop’s co-owners Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski; Mike Morganti, wine buyer for Fifth Avenue Liquors; David Sardella, Massachusetts field sales manager for the Sazerac Company, and yours truly. The formalities were over with pretty quickly – Obie is not one for formalities. Besides, he had barrels to roll out. In the cozy sepia-toned front room of one of Buffalo Trace’s warehouses, you get the sense that not much has changed over the decades. Watching Obie position three barrels side by side, it was clear that this is his turf. Obie has cobalt eyes and what Dave calls “Popeye arms”. Dressed in baggy jeans, a grey tee-shirt and a chestnut colored hoodie, he wields a wooden mallet like a ball player handles a bat. Use it to strike the barrel just right and the bung pops out and the whiskey meets the world.
The group had arrived at the distillery to take their pick. As participants in the barrel selection program, the representatives from each outlet toured the distillery’s grounds and warehouses, met some of the people who work the day-to-day operations, and then choose a barrel of bourbon to call their very own. The bottles would be slapped with a sticker that indicates to consumers the elixir was hand-selected. When you buy a barrel, you try three samples, each from a different barrel of the same whiskey, and pick your favorite. A favorite, you ask? Yes, even though the same bourbon went into the barrel at the same time, nuances in flavor and smell come through after ten years aging in the warehouses. On this day, the bourbon of choice was Eagle Rare Single Barrel 1O Year for all three parties, and it happened to be a landmark day for these particular barrels.
“It’s exactly ten years old today – it’s birthday bourbon. If you can’t tell, we’re tight on supply,” said Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s Master Distiller – the sixth since the Civil War. Indeed, “February 18, 1998” was scrawled with chalk on the barrel. Obie handed Jackson the mallet. “Show me how it’s done,” Jackson urged. Obie counted – one, two, three – and did a slow motion demonstration of how the head must fall close to the side of the cork-like bung to release it. Jackson took a thwack, then another. Out it popped. Three small glasses were filled and he and Marco set in sniffing, swilling and sipping. They solicited Harlen’s expertise. “As far as aroma, number two has to be the best,” he said. “Number three has a good taste.” Jackson took another taste. “It’s grassy, it’s got a good finish.” Harlen took a few more sips. “Two has the best nose. That’s the thing – you’re probably not gonna go wrong. One’s probably a little better,” he said. Jackson held the glass under his nose. “I get a little more corn after number one,” he said pensively. “I like the nose on two, the middle on one and the finish on three.” When Marco was ready to chime in, he decided number three was his first choice. Number one “didn’t quite have that finish,” he said. “Try the mouth feel on that number two. Three’s beautiful, but I’m leaning toward two,” Jackson said. Harlen tossed out a casual reminder that that the product they were tasting still had to be processed and cut to proof before it went into the bottle.
Decisions, decisions. Carri and Klaudia each took a small swig. “Stylistically, I’d go for three,” Carri suggested. “This is not a finished product,” Klaudia pointed out. “It will change with the processes left. My natural inclination is to go with two. It’s more vibrant. I think it has more symphony of flavors. The corn is almost separate in the others, but in this, it’s perfect.”
“I gotta go with two,” Jackson said.
And with that, Barrel #26 became Eastern Standard’s personal stock. Angela Traver, public relations manager, inquired about a few of the logistics that go along with the personal bottling program: Do they want the barrel? Do they want a DVD? Have they already talked about the label? Soon after, Carri and Klaudia tasted three separate samples. After waffling a bit, they agreed that Barrel #29 stood out among their three. Only by tasting these samples side by side do seemingly infinitesimal differences become readily apparent, making it thoroughly clear that aging whiskey is a delicate, complicated science. “You can really tell the difference six months picks up. It deepens the color and brings out more flavor. If I took three barrels and put them on paper, they’d look the same, but they wouldn’t necessarily taste the same.” The primary determining factor? It’s the age-old adage that rules so many industries: Location, location, location.
“Different warehouses have different aging spots. Each individual warehouse ages differently. For wheated whiskey, we want a spot kinda low so it mellows out, but don’t want it all the way on the bottom. Whiskies for four-, six- and eight-year-olds, we put on an upper floor,” said Harlen. Dryness, ventilation, temperature and even exposure to light are all factors in the precarious equation. “We’ve got our sweet spots for sure. With a ten-year-old, we know better than to store it on the tenth floor of the warehouse.” He said, explaining that the barrels lose an average of three percent of the contents each year. On higher floors of the warehouse, they barrels can lose up to six percent in a year. That adds up. After the angels help themselves to their proverbial share, a 53-gallon barrel can end up with 26 gallons when it’s cracked open after ten years. Spend ten minutes talking to the warehouse manager, Ronnie Eddins, and you start to understand that the strategy for aging bourbon – where barrels sit, how long each style stays at different levels of different warehouses – is as tactical (not to mention complicated) as the logic and foresight possessed by a chess player or military general.
Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States and the only distillery to operate during Prohibition, turning out whisky for medicinal purposes, of course. There are presently 3OO,OOO barrels of whiskey aging in 11 warehouses on the 11O-acre property. From 1971 to 1982, a million barrels were produced. On May 8 of this year, the six millionth barrel was rolled out for bottling. But for all that volume, the process of getting the whiskey from the still to barrel to a bottle on the shelf has a remarkable intimacy. Take, for instance, Elmer T. Lee, a single barrel bourbon named for the Master Distiller Emeritus. Elmer, who turned 89 in August, still remains an active presence to keep a careful watch over every bottle that comes out carrying his name. That’s to say he tastes every barrel that’s to be bottled as his brand. Only if it has his approval – and that of the six-member tasting panel – does it go to the market. Buffalo Trace produces a total of 26 expressions of 13 different whiskies made from five recipes. The panel tastes every barrel in a lab that has a rotating table that on most days is crowded with a neat arrangement of samples from the barrels that are ready to go to the bottling house. There are mechanisms that appear to have been part of the lab since before the Cold War began, and individuals overseeing the day to day operations who arguably have some of the most discerning palates this side of the Himalayans.
The personal barrel selection program has been an increasingly successful element of Buffalo Trace’s operations, as evidenced by the repeat business they see from customers. “It’s a value-added thing for customers,” says Meredith Moody, director of marketing services. “They took the time to pick this, and it shows an extra step for quality, which makes customers feel good. That’s what sets it apart in a retail environment. Everyone looks for an extra something, that’s it. They have memories – they can varnish and stencil ‘Buffalo Trace’ on the barrel.” She added that the program has expanded greatly this year. “A lot of liquor stores want to get barrels for Christmas. We expect to increase this year significantly, depending on the sales force in a field. A lot of what we do here is making sure people are aware of it. We want to get to 7OO barrels a year. That’s not going to be a big challenge. It’s not something we want mass produced, though. We don’t want to take away from the special-ness.” Once having passed through the proper channels, bottles take about six weeks to arrive at the liquor store or restaurant. The purchaser can specify bottle sizes.
Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, perfectly exemplifies the kind of repeat customer that’s boosted the program. He started visiting the distillery in September 2OO4 and selected two barrels – Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace. It was so popular that the following July, he bought six barrels, including two Eagle Rares and a Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year. He’s continued to participate in the program. By this year, he was up to seven barrels. This time it was three bottles of Eagle Rare plus the Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, as well as Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel and Sazerac Rye (six-year-old).
“It’s a rarity with whiskey and bourbon to be a little ahead of the curve,” said Ryan about selecting barrels for five years. It’s garnered not just interest from his customers, but devotion – so much so that a few of his regulars joined him on a recent jaunt to Frankfort. “It’s fun and that’s the whole thing with this. There’s a story within a story, which is always cool. If you’re passionate about something, people love hearing about an experience. Buffalo Trace is the same way – they’re very passionate about what they do. They’re searching for the perfect bourbon, like a Holy Grail quest. The journey to see if you can do it is the fun part. If you actually saw it, you might be disappointed. The journey itself is own reward. When you see a company like Buffalo Trace reflected in what you’re doing, it makes a perfect match. That’s the neat part.”
The bottles arrived just before the Kentucky Derby. On April 3O, Carri and Klaudia of BRIX sent out an email announcing its imminent arrival and that they were accepting pre-orders. It took 36 hours for them to sell out of the 15O bottles they made available to customers.
“I’ll never forget the moment I opened the car door and the smell of the distillery wafted into my nostrils. It’s all about the experience of going there and making the selection and bringing it back. Walking into the bottling room and seeing 12 people hand labeling Lot B Sazerac Rye really made an impression of the intimacy of the whisky and the love that goes into them,” said Carri. “We were looking for something with lots of personality. Ours is a little more aggressive and has moiré flavor complexity and more bite. It was smooth, but it had aggression. It was interesting to wrap our heads around that what we were tasting was different from what the finished product would be. We were envisioning our customers. We were buying it to bring back to our clients. The style was something we were proud of.” The speed at which they sold out was astonishing, but in retrospect, Carri doesn’t seem all that stunned. A large part of the reason they jumped at the opportunity when it was presented to them by Dave Sardella was because of their customers’ growing interest in American whiskies and the increasing rate at which many labels, especially those from Buffalo Trace, are going on allocation. She says in the past few years, more and more customers have been asking about the high end brands. After its rousing success, there’s no doubt that they’ll select another barrel in the future.
Eastern Standard’s supply from Barrel #26 was depleted rather quickly for a bar. It’s important to note that their selection marks the first time a restaurant in the northeast took part in the program. “I was nervous about it, committing to 3O six-packs in a restaurant environment like that. If it sucked, we were really gonna be up the creek,” Jackson said recently. Eastern Standard is repeatedly recognized for their expertly crafted classic cocktails, so mixing was a big consideration for Jackson when he was making the selection. “I was looking for something lean and spicy and thought would make good juleps. I tasted objectively and fell in love with #26. In addition to being just what we were looking for, it had the added cache of having a narrative – of us going down and picking it. There’s that old adage that people don’t go out just to eat and drink, they go out to do it with people and with stories and meaning. The story really resonated with people – and it was delicious. We killed it, knocked it down in seven weeks. We got less than what we might have – 2O six-packs. We used it in over 5OO juleps, twice as many as we made the May before. We had been using Eagle Ten Year in our juleps already, so we had good hopes that we’d get at least the same quality we were getting before. It was true, every bit as good if not a little racier.
Jackson said he was also using it in a good deal of “old fashioned Old Fashioneds”, which is to say an Old Fashioned without the fruit that the drink is often served with today. He makes his with a spoonful of sugar, several dashes of bitters, woven together in a bitter syrup a la minute. He mounts the whiskey into that and stirs in some ice. “It’s a great way to evaluate whisky for cocktail potential. Also, Eagle Ten Year is a rye recipe bourbon. I like rye, I like bourbon, and it’s the best of both in some ways. People respond to that because they’re used to drinking more caramelized, so to be pushing a leaner bourbon, people found that alluring. Also, people respond to the story. Barrel #26 – people want to touch it, they want to know about the place where something comes from. Providence is very important. People who are embracing new mixology are also embracing distology.”
by Liza Weisstuch
Wine shop pros Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally uncork a second, state-of-the-art location.
Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally appear to have it all: youth, good looks, a booming business. Since opening their boutique BRIX Wine Shop four years ago in the South End, the pair have managed to earn a healthy clientele of local oenophiles—and the respect of even the most seasoned wine snobs—thanks to a knowing selection of liquors and rare vintages and a commitment to pretension-free guidance for their customers.
It turns out, the entrepreneurial duo were just getting warmed up: This month they'll open a second, bigger BRIX Wine Shop in the Financial District. Dramatic lighting and an airy space give the shop a restaurant feel, and rather than overwhelming customers with sheer volume, it displays individual spirits behind the counter, with easygoing staffers on hand to offer advice. But the highlight is a private tasting room outfitted with an LCD television and rigged for WiFi, where the girls are banking on hosting their corporate neighbors for off-site meetings followed by scotch tastings, or renting out the space for, say, a Kentucky Derby party with bourbon samples.
It's a high-end approach that dovetails nicely with the city's current trend toward superpremium spirits as well as cocktails made with vintage ingredients such as crème de violette. "People are going back to the basics," Mally says. "It's sophisticated to be classic." Here's how Wroblewski and Mally got into the business, and what they like to do when they're the ones buying the drinks.
Before they joined forces as the "BRIX Chix," Wroblewski was a manager for J. Lohr Vineyards and New York–based wine importer Frederick Wildman and Sons, and Mally had worked at Grill 23 for eight years before earning a business degree.
The duo sing the praises of affordable vintages—what Wroblewski refers to as "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday wines"—such as Henri Bourgeois Petit Bourgeois ($11.99) and Château de Ségriès's Lirac Rouge ($15.99) from Rhône.
When going out for mixed drinks, they tend to favor practitioners of cocktail "revivalism," including Eastern Standard and Cambridge's B-Side Lounge and Green Street Grill.
The Brix Chix suggest some top-shelf home bar essentials.
Bitters A few dashes are vital to many old-school concoctions. Finely crafted Regans' Orange ($5.95) is a favorite; Peychaud's ($5.95) should occupy a spot right next to it.
Gin Imbue martinis, fizzes, sours, and Negronis with the botanical notes of Martin Miller's Gin ($33).
Bourbon Buffalo Trace 12-Year-Old ($30) serves as a fine base for Manhattans, whiskey smashes, and mint juleps.
Rum For tiki drinks, daiquiris, and mojitos, Rhum Clément Première Canne ($27) white rum proves smooth and versatile.
Vermouth Available in both dry and sweet styles, Vya ($24.99) makes a complex, well-balanced Manhattan and gives other classic cocktails a rich aromatic edge. —L.W.
105 Broad St., Boston; 1284 Washington St., Boston; 617-542-2749, brixwineshop.com.
Originally published in Boston magazine, October 2007
WHISKEY: MADE IN THE USA
Liquor store shelves are crowded with spirits and wines from all corners of the globe-rums from all over the Caribbean and Latin America, and India, too, cachaca from Brazil, pisco from Peru, and sochu from Japan. But when it comes to whiskeys, there seems to be a huge resurgence of anything made in the USA. "Bourbon drinkers are redsicovering rye and single barrels [bourbon] are definitely selling," says Carri Wroblewski, co-owner of BRIX Wine Shop in the South End. She says that Pappy Van Winkle disappears from the shelves quickly, as does Sazerac - "whenever we get our hands on it" - that is.
Just as in fashion, bygone cocktails have a way of coming back into style. Right now we're in the throes of a full-on classic cocktail renaissance. "Everything on the cocktail side is big, which is amazing," says Carri at BRIX. "People come in and ask: 'Do you have the stuff to make a Sazerac? A Sloe Gin Fizz?' Places that used to make tutti-fruity drinks are going back to the basics. Bars are starting to stock more bitters than just Angustors." Consequently, BRIX has been special ordering Peychaud and Regan's Bitters. As of the end of May, she said they've reordered 12-packs of Regan's twice. "There's different uses for different bitters. It all ties into the rise of rye whiskey." Accordingly, BRIX initiated the BRIX Mix in March. Each month, the "to-go" cocktail package features all the ingredients required to make the month's selected cocktail. When it launched in March, the featured drink was the Brooklyn and the package included full size bottles of Rittenhouse Rye, Nolly Prat, Luxardo Cherry Liquer, and Amer Picon. They sold out by mid-month.
White may be the absence of color, but in the wine world, it's the presence of flavor. As consumers are becoming more attuned to wine, attention is shifting away from American chardonnays. "We're definitely selling twice as much Gruner Veltliner as we used to," says Carri at BRIX. "Chefs love it because it's very versatile. It pairs with things that most wines retard, like leeks or asparagus. It's a good price by the glass and just a great Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday wine." She says BRIX sees a good deal of movement of Gruners in the under-$2O category, but she loves to plug Stephen Hall ($23.99), not least because of its Vino-Lok closure, the latest landmark in bottling technology. "It looks far more elegant than a screwcap or Stelvin closure. When you present it, it's more elegant," she says, adding that she ends up reusing the glass stopper with a rubber gasket on other bottles. It's starting to make a deeper dent in the industry, too. "It started off with Austrian wines - mostly Gruners. Now I'm seeing it on bottles of Cusamano from Italy. Those are the two I've seen it most on."
After years of being pegged with a limp reputation, roses are red hot. "Definitely pretty much since we opened we've been a big rose store," says Carri at BRIX. "We used to carry 15 to 25. This year it's closer to 25. We sell 1OOs of cases of rose. Retailers and restaurants are driving it, exposing it. Just because it's pink doesn't mean it's sweet. I was doing a private tasting this spring and I included a rose. It's so important when you have people's undivided attention [to] explain: this is why it's not sweet, because a lot of times people will say it isn't something they'd pick off the shelf if someone hadn't pointed it out to them."
Sometimes a bartender's best ally is a chef. Electrifying results can come of the synergy between chefs and mixologists. Bartenders are increasingly using the kitchen for more than just the fresh fruit to make juices. They're teaming up with chefs to create ingredients for innovative drinks. In the off-premise realm, the homemade craze has been integrated in to the BRIX Mix. "Everyone now has house-made infusions," says Carri. "We're using house-made simple syrup in the BRIX Mix. In the Whiskey Smash Mix, you get a muddler, fresh mint, lemon, bottle of rye."
BOSTON'S IN the midst of a heat wave the likes of which it's never seen. But this kind of warmth doesn't respond to even the most heavy-duty air conditioners. And why would we want it to? It's our fine city's most innovative restaurateurs, fashionistas, and trendsetters who've been boosting temperatures this year — and we've compiled our annual list of the 100 conversation topics, trends, obsessions, and ideas that we think are most likely to spontaneously combust. For the first time, our list even includes 10 local notables weighing in on what's hot in their worlds these days. So read on — but with such extreme temperatures, we suggest you have a cold drink nearby.
Hot Home Entertainer: The BRIX Mix
It's happened to the best of us: friends are on their way over in a few hours and the liquor cabinet looks like it hasn't been replenished since, um, never. You thumb through a cocktail book before you scoot to the liquor store, but choosing the evening's drink seems about as easy as buying a car. But a quick visit to BRIX Wine Shop (1284 Washington Street, Boston, 617.542.2749) and your problems vanish like ice on a hot summer day. Owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally introduced the monthly BRIX Mix in February. The packaged mix includes full-sized bottles of ingredients to make the month's featured cocktail, and a scroll that includes the recipe and a brief history of the libation's origin. The inaugural drink was the rye-based Brooklyn cocktail ($65), but a different classic cocktail moves into the spotlight each month (after it's unveiled at the store's "Thirsty Thursday" event on the first Thursday of every month).
BRIX Wine Shop
Modus Operandi: This urban-chic wine and spirits bar doubles as an informal, tuition-free mixology school of sorts, with cocktail recipes and ingredient packages to go. Look for a second, Financial District location this summer.
Coordinates: 1284 Washington Street, Boston; 617-542-2749; brixwineshop.com
From amontillado to uisge beatha, we've got the definitions to help you dazzle your fellow boozers.
By Ruth Tobias
A unit of measurement, it indicates the sugar content of grapes (and hence of the wines made therefrom); one degree brix amounts to one gram of sugar per 100 grams of pure grape juice. Of course, South Enders know BRIX Wine Shop (1284 Washington Street, Boston, 617.542.2749) is also a SoWa wine shop run by Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally. "It's short, it's catchy, but we also like the level of mystery the name has. A lot of people think it's pronounced 'bree.' So they'll come in and ask about the pronunciation; they'll ask, 'What does it mean?' That's really what we were going for, to be able to teach something about winemaking in the process." Wroblewski and Mally also teach customers plenty about wines via the complimentary weekly tastings they host every Friday and Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m., as well as during less frequent, private sit-down events - think (or more likely dream about) Champagne-and-caviar pairings and vertical tastings of barolo - held under the heading BRIX By Night. For more information, join the store's mailing list at brixwineshop.com.
Chain stores threaten to destroy independent wineshops— and your chances of finding interesting wine
by Corby Kummer
A recent battle in my home state of Massachusetts made me think about where and how I like to buy wine. The issue is one many states face: whether to allow some or all grocery and big-box stores to sell wine and beer. In Massachusetts, owners of wine and liquor stores—quaintly called "package stores" (you carry the alcohol out in packages, rather than consume it on the premises)—may hold no more than three licenses. Whole Foods, for example, can sell wine at only three of its seventeen Massachusetts stores. Naturally, it doesn't like this. Neither do other grocery-chain owners like Stop & Shop and Star Market, which put $2 million into promoting a Massachusetts ballot initiative this fall to loosen restrictions on wine sales. Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and other big-box stores are in favor of similar initiatives in other states.
Opponents of the Massachusetts initiative (whose outcome, as of this writing, was to be settled on the November ballot) sounded like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man with his warning to parents: "Medicinal wine from a teaspoon—then beer from a bottle!" Easier access to wine, they warned, would lead to underage and binge drinking and more car crashes, cirrhosis, and even gonorrhea. Stores selling alcohol would unravel the social fabric of entire neighborhoods. Supermarkets and convenience stores would have little incentive to enforce age limits at the cash register (and just think of self-checkout lines!).
Of course, supermarkets and big-box stores have two powerful arguments in support of easing licensing restrictions: price and, especially for supermarkets, convenience. Supermarkets say that loosening the old, post-Prohibition laws—which usually allowed distributors to keep a hold on liquor profits—would mean both price breaks and huge savings of time for consumers. Why should a busy mother have to make an extra stop at the package store on her way home from buying groceries just to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner?
Similar initiatives in other states have repeatedly been defeated. In 2004, the Minnesota legislature voted down wider supermarket sales of wine for the fourth year in a row. New York State, with more-restrictive rules than Massachusetts to begin with—just one license per owner—has also repeatedly voted against wider access. Who could oppose convenience? Voters who fear wider availability of alcohol; "dry" towns (Massachusetts has fourteen) that would have to choose whether or not to prohibit wine sales if the initiative passed; and candidates, who usually want to keep away from the argument. State governments also worry that enforcing age limits on buying alcohol may cost money, and that state alcohol-related accidents and crimes may increase.
Mom-and-pop wineshops stand to lose the most from an easing of licensing. Even if post-Prohibition laws kept profits in the hands of distributors and states, they also allowed independent wine merchants to flourish. Odd as it might seem to wine connoisseurs, the era of the package store might soon seem a lost golden age.
Independent wineshops now feel menaced by two Goliaths—not only the supermarkets, with their relentless ballot campaigns, but also the Internet. A Supreme Court decision in May of 2005 allowed wineries and Internet businesses to ship wine direct to buyers in many states—something that was previously prohibited almost everywhere (and still is in more than a dozen states). The heavy tread of these twin Goliaths brings up the question: If the patchwork of protectionist wine-sale laws is torn away, will independent wineshops be able to escape the fate of independent bookshops?
Convenience isn't always best or cheapest," Tom Schmeisser, the buyer at Marty's, a large and well-established wine and gourmet store with two locations in the Boston area, told me recently. "Corporate [buyers for chains] won't say, 'I think we should get a nice little Aglianico this week.'" He predicts that chains will stock mostly their own private-label brands, as is the trend at Trader Joe's; Costco already sells private-label Kirkland Signature wines. "It's the dumbing down of wine," Schmeisser says.
Wineshop owners can not only tell you what Aglianico tastes like (it's an astringent but pleasant red wine from southern Italy), they can also pour you a sample. They can tell you what to serve it with—and give you a recipe. Patrick Watson, a former sommelier and waiter at the New York City restaurant Lupa (my favorite of the mostly Italian empire run by Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich), employs recent French Culinary Institute graduates at Smith & Vine, the small Brooklyn wineshop he runs with his wife, Michele Pravda. (When they met, at Lupa, he was training as an opera singer, and she was playing in a rock band.) "If you come in and say you need something to go with chicken, we'll ask you what you're putting with it," he told me. Like other owners, Watson requires his staff members to taste practically every wine they sell, and to teach customers how to taste them. Small wine stores offer frequent tastings (especially on weekends), which are the equivalent of mini wine courses.
Luckily for independent merchants, wine is still confusing and intimidating. One solution the chains have applied to this problem is to put customers at ease by stocking brands of generic wine (like Yellow Tail, with its cheery yellow logo) that people have come to trust thanks to the advertising that big wineries can afford. Another is to rely on scores and ratings from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and their imitators. But promoting some stranger's taste can be fatal. "Many years ago a lot of retailers gave away their right to a loyal clientele when they started to sell based on scores," Neal Rosenthal, a wine importer and former merchant, told me. A wine seller who takes this route gives over his most valuable assets: his palate, his experience, and his skills at persuasion. He also buys into the idea of wine as a commodity to be price-shopped on the Internet or at a big-box store.
Independent wine sellers traditionally train themselves by traveling, so that they can tell customers romantic stories about the land, the local cuisine, and the proudly traditional or brilliantly innovative winemakers. They go to huge tastings sponsored by big importers, and to trade shows in winemaking countries. They meet winemakers who are passing through town. If they can afford it, they go to California, Europe, and (now) South America and South Africa, to establish exclusive relationships with small-scale winemakers.
Any edge will become more important if all the buying power goes to chains. Small shops fear that they will lose the chance to order highly rated small-production wines once distributors promise their entire allotment to chains, their best customers. And distributors stand to suffer too. Many will eventually be forced out of business, as chains form their own distribution arms and buy from themselves. As for wineries, they will have to produce what most chains want—crowd-pleasing wines, the ones with all the knobs and knots sanded off.
Small stores come up with gimmicks to keep people coming in to try unusual wines. Smith & Vine has a $10-and-under table, just behind the store's door, a gathering place that has proved extremely popular, with a constantly changing selection of twenty reds and twenty whites—the fruit, Patrick Watson says, of the staff's tasting thousands of wines a year. BRIX, a stylish wineshop in the newly fashionable South End neighborhood of Boston, has created a devoted local following with frequent tastings, attentive service, and the "BRIX Six," a six-pack of assorted wines with a changing theme ("French Favorites," "Picnic Picks") priced at $75. It's a good way to keep stock moving, and it makes an entertaining package. Carri Wroblewski, the shop's co-owner, had been in the wine business as both a supplier and a retailer, but decided to open a "smart" neighborhood shop in partnership with Klaudia Mally, a former customer, because they "were tired of going into dumpy, dirty liquor stores with nobody there to offer you guidance and help—the downside of protectionist laws.
Wally's, in Los Angeles, is an example of extreme service. It thrives despite small premises, and in a state that is every Massachusetts merchant's nightmare: for decades wine has been sold in every California supermarket and convenience store, and even in gas- station snack shops featuring "fine wine." For years, the state regulated prices. Steve Wallace told me that when the "fair trade" system—which predictably protected distributors more than merchants—ended, in the mid-1970s, he thought the business he had started with his family would be finished. Instead, he faced down the country's most freewheeling wine market. He now travels up and down California and across Europe, creating exclusive bottling and selling arrangements with winemakers; goes into customers' wine cellars to diagnose their collections; and supplies and serves wines at several parties a night. He'll even deliver a single bottle to a customer's house on an hour's notice. He knows the tastes of major figures in the wine and entertainment industries, so he can offer them instant advice and tell nervous hosts what, say, Steven Spielberg likes to drink. "I make everyone a genius," he says.
Unfettered alcohol sales in supermarkets and big-box stores would almost certainly lead to a great narrowing of the kinds of wines on offer—as happened long ago in southern states that deregulated wine sales. The buying patterns of the big chains and price clubs that sell wine have already begun to affect how wineries market their wares. This isn't good for people who long to buy that simple but great Sangiovese they found in Umbria—or for people who are curious about wine but uncertain of their tastes.
If interstate shipment of wine becomes virtually unregulated, the Internet could do to wineshops what it has already done to bookstores and record shops. The small-business owners I spoke with are hedging their bets. Watson and Pravda have opened a cheese shop, Stinky Bklyn, across the street from Smith & Vine. Marty's, in Boston, has improved its line of cheeses and sandwiches, and hopes that a change in Massachusetts law will let it ship to other states. Wally's fastest- growing department is Internet sales.
You can't taste wine over the Internet, of course, and it's often a lot harder to know what you might like to drink than what you might like to read. But my friend Pam Hunter, who has long done public relations for Napa Valley wineries, told me she thinks that wineshops might lose even this advantage, as young buyers form their tastes by reading blogs and chat boards operated by Internet wine clubs, which will apply ever-more-sophisticated tracking patterns to "suggest" different wines to their buyers. After years of buying and learning from wineshop friends, Hunter says, she fears that she herself will drift to the keyboard.
I won't. My wine taste is still in formation, and I'd rather taste a wine before I commit to buying a bottle, not to mention support ambitious independent businesses whenever I can. But I also know that I'm lazy. If I see a wine whose label I recognize as something decent in the same place I'm buying my groceries, I'm likely to postpone that trip to the interesting independent wineshop whose owners I like and trust so much. Maybe for a couple of months, maybe forever. For now, at least in many states, antiquated laws have protected independent wine sellers from a fate worse than Amazon. I hope they do for a long time.
There's no place like SoWa on a weeknight. Between jockeying with suburban couples at Stella and fighting the bar crowd at Toro, a whole night could go by before you've ever had a drink.
Skip the sobering scene and find your way to a more potent affair: Brix by Night. The hipper-than-most wine shop is known for its stellar selection and outrageous tastings. And now they've introduced an educational after-hours shindig.
Owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally are inviting their favorite winemakers and cocktail buffs to walk guests through a tasting of six to eight wine and spirits selections in a classroom-like setting. But this is no ordinary academic gathering. Topics range from 15-year-old Barolos to how to sip scotch. And as the night goes on, the party gets livelier.
So instead of chasing the scene, you can make it come to you.
Off-premise retailers have taken wine education efforts on the road- and customers' homes and offices
Late last year a loyal customer phoned Sam's Wine & Spirits in Chicago to request a personalized wine tasting in the privacy of his own home. A Sam's staff member arrived with glassware and a selection of 10 wines. After a two-hour solo tasting in his living room, the customer purchased $6,000 worth of wine. "Some people are just too busy to come into the store- so we go to them," says Sam's owner Fred Rosen, a 1998 MARKET WATCH LEADER and 1996 "Retailer of the Year."
Many wine retailers are leading customized wine tastings in homes and offices. Rosen's knowledgeable staff has held private tastings ranging from corporate events to elegant in-home evenings. Some retailers offer food, while others only provide wines. Some take orders at the tastings, though others prefer to conduct business later at the store. But the universal appeal is personalized service.
Michael DiCarlo, owner of DiCarlo Fine Wine and Spirits of Mundelein, Illinois, has been doing private tastings (he calls them Vineyard Tours at Home) for about a year. I can show customers not just mainstream wines, but wonderful, obscure labels in an intimate setting," he says. He provides Riedel stemware, wine fact sheets and order sheets. (Tastings cost $14 a person, including wines. Larger groups receive wine club membership prices, plus a $100 fee for an on-hand consultant.) "I hand out my business card and hope that some that some participants utilize my store," he says.
Carri Wroblewski, co-owner of BRIX Wine Shop in Boston, first meets with clients to determine tasting themes. Since BRIX opened in 2003, she's conducted about 60 customized tastings. "One client bought a private tasting as a present for her husband- it was just for the two of them," she says. In addition to wine costs, fees range from $150 to $200 an hour, with a two-hour minimum.
"We talk about a wine's history, make pairing suggestions and provide some anecdotes about the vintner," says Dan Garland, owner of Madinger Wines in Kirkwood, Missouri. Madinger's staff studies customers' purchase histories to tailor a tasting that fits their preferences. "It creates great word of mouth," he says. "If you do it for six couples, it snowballs."
Tastings led by the Grapeables Fine Wines staff in Fountain Hills, Arizona, have included "Around the World in 80 Minutes" and "A Night in Paris." Co-owner Jim Myczek says, "These tastings offer a more relaxed setting-at home or at the office, with friends or workmates."
"If the customer has no strong preferences, we'll suggest a 'Global Wine Tour,' where we showcase our best wines," explains Mary DiCarlo, events coordinator for Wine Expressions in Lisle, Illinois. Last year the store held 35 custom tastings, which resemble either an educational seminar or an informal cocktail party for larger, more social gatherings. The base price of $20 per person includes seven wines and is adjusted according to the chosen labels.
Lisa Grossman, owner of Bacchus Wine Made Simple in Manhattan, has led customized tastings ranging from bridal showers to Fortune 500 events. Bacchus charges $47 a head for groups under 10, with the price dropping as attendance rises. She offers participants a 15-percent discount on featured wines. Last year she handled about 135 customized wine tastings. "They're not only profitable in and of themselves, but they also broaden our store's visibility," Grossman says. "Our reach has grown beyond our neighborhood. We've also formed strong relationships with corporations. That's very beneficial, particularly during the holiday gift-giving season."
Mahesh Lekkala, owner of Wine Legend Livingston, New Jersey, has held tastings for Morgan Stanley executives so they can learn ordering and tasting wine for client entertainment purposes. So far in only two years he's done about 100 tastings. "We don't make money on the nights of these tastings, but you have to look at the big picture," Lekkala says. "If they like it, they'll come back and buy from us, and so will their friends."
"Gratification is not instant," agrees Michael DiCarlo, "Short term, the tastings themselves have little Impact on the bottom line. But at year-end, when unfamiliar faces become weekly visitors, the effect on my bottom line is priceless."
When you think of Massachusetts, alcohol production doesn't necessarily come to mind. However, the state is actually home to some fairly renowned brands such as Sam Adams, Harpoon and Ipswich for beer, Westport Rivers Winery and the Triple Eight Distillery in Nantucket with its craft vodka, gin and rum, not to mention wine and beer. The newest addition to the Massachusetts liquor scene is a line of uniquely inspired spirits called INFUSIONIQUE.
By Aimsel Ponti
Executive Chef Robert Fathman, of Azure in Boston's Lenox Hotel, started experimenting with infusions years ago when he happened to have an overstock of fresh figs at the restaurant where he worked. Rather than toss them out, he poured bourbon on them, added some cinnamon and vanilla, and an infusion was born. Fathman continued creating infusions of all sorts and, before long, customers at both the Azure restaurant and the hotel's City Bar were being treated to original infusion cocktails. Fast forward to 2OO2 when Brandon Bach and his sharp mind for business entered the picture. The two hatched a plan to market Fathman's infused spirits in 2OO3 and the dream was realized this past November when Infusion Diabolique Bourbon and Infusion Angelique Tequila were launched followed by the recent release of their third spirit, Infusion Diabolique Rum. At the moment, BRIX Wine Shop in the South End is the sole, not to mention proud, retailer carrying the line. You can, however, order it at several Boston area restaurants and bars. Plans are also in the works for the line to be made available this year via online mail order through Town Wine & Spirits in Rumford, Rhode Island. The response thus far to Infusionique has been extremely positive, and while the company is mainly focused on the current three spirits, who knows what the future may hold.
SO WHAT, EXACTLY, GOES INTO THESE INFUSIONS?
Fathman doesn't give away all his trade secrets, but he does offer a short description of the spirits. The Diabolique Bourbon features Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey infused with fresh and dried figs, cinnamon and vanilla bean. The Diabolique Rum uses premium Virgin Island rum infused with lemon, orange and ginger. Lastly, the Angelique Tequila is made with 1OO% blue agave tequila that is infused with fresh mango, lime and Hawaiian pineapple. As for the names Diabolique and Angelique, Fathman's contention is that all of us have both diabolical and angelic parts to us.
CREATIVE MEETS BUSINESS
Brandon Bach attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and during his senior year decided to go into business for himself. He established himself as a reputable labor broker and was cruising right along when he decided he needed a change. Bach had always been interested in food and the restaurant business. For a birthday present one year, his aunt arranged for Bach to go into the kitchen of Azure and observe Chef Fathman in his element. This segued into a job for Bach at Azure and was also the start of an important business relationship and friendship between him and Fathman. It wasn't long before Fathman told Bach he wanted to take his infused spirits to market and needed a business partner. Given Bach's business background, he was a natural choice. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Much time was spent sourcing alcohol, sourcing the other ingredients, getting proper licensing, doing research and perfecting the formulas. "It took 4 to 5 months of sourcing - tasting different products before we found the products that worked for us," explains Bach. A key relationship was established with distributor M.S. Walker in Somerville where the three Infusionique brands are produced. There, each spirit is hand-bottled, mouth-tested and hand-signed by either Bach or Fathman. This attention to detail has really added to the success of the line. "The demand right now is outstripping our supply, so we're always playing catch up," says Bach.
THE INNER WORKINGS
"We purchase all our alcohol at cask strength. It comes in after being distilled," says Bach of the Kentucky bourbon, Mexican tequila and rum from the Virgin Islands used in the infusions. Bach explains that the reason for producing at M.S. Walker is because they have a D.S.P. (Distilled Spirits Plant) license that allows them to handle product before it is taxed. M.S. Walker also handles things on the purchasing end. "We purchase through them because Robert and I personally can't afford these licenses on our own," says Bach. Though things with M.S. Walker have gone well, there were some frustrating hoops to jump through along the way. Bach explained that is was particularly tricky getting the necessary recipe approval from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax & Trade Bureau.
ON THE RETAIL FRONT
It's unlikely that this will ever be a mass-marketed, turn-and-burn line of spirits. Both Fathman and Bach are extremely concerned with how they market Infusionique and where it is carried. Before the line was launched, Bach was adamant about it not being available at a retail level. "I didn't want to sell retail at all because we knew that Boston already liked the product," he says. Bach also had concerns about the product's limited production capacity. Despite this, Fathman convinced Bach to stick his head in at the BRIX Wine Shop. It turns out that Fathman knew what he was doing when he sent his partner in there. "So I went in and immediately I knew this was the place I would sell my product," says Bach. His reasons were that the staff is so knowledgeable about everything they sell. Another factor was that BRIX is very exclusive in what they carry. Bach was also won over by the location and design of the interior space of the shop. "Everything worked," he says adding that "We don't have a marketing budget; it's up to us to place the product in spots that give the product an air of respectability." As for BRIX, they couldn't be more pleased with the relationship. Co-owner Carri Wroblewski comments, "We were very excited about the products after tasting them. We could tell they were using top quality spirits and that they were infusing them with good quality ingredients. I think they were really looking for a store that took their spirits seriously. They didn't want to be lost in a lot of wine shops and liquor shops where they've got 25 different bourbons or 25 tequilas," says Wroblewski. As for the best selling of the three, which all come in 75Oml bottles and retail for $35, the Diabolique Bourbon is the front-runner. BRIX is certainly open to other offerings from Infusionique. "As long as they keep it real, as long as they use the best spirits that they can using the freshest ingredients and they don't sacrifice the quality which I can't imagine them doing, I would definitely be up for it," says Wroblewski.
NOTES FROM A RESTAURANT
There are about two dozen or so restaurants that carry the Infusionique spirits in and around Boston, all of them with reputations for high quality cocktails and creative drink menus. Executive Chef Jerome Watkins (and this month's cover boy) of South Kitchen & Wine Bar says the two that he carries, the bourbon and rum, do well. "You introduce it to different people and they like it," he explains. Watkins says that for the most part, customers prefer it served as is, though it's also been served chilled in a martini. "Generally, people like to sip on it while they relax at the bar and listen to the jazz," he says. Watkins also says that his bartender, Brooks Doten, has concocted some drinks using the Infusionique rum and bourbon when customers have expressed an interest in experimenting. Then of course, there's the question of using it in food recipes. "We talked about doing some dessert sauces with Robert Fathman," says Watkins. Although it never happened, it could very well be something Watkins decides to pursue. Brandon Bach comments that the word from many of the restaurants they are now in was that they couldn't wait for it to be released. "Before we even came out with it people were saying we want it behind our bar," says Bach. What does a restaurant need to do in order to carry the Infusionique spirits? Bach explains it this way: "Basically they have to take their food and beverage program seriously. They also have to have servers who consider their job a profession; we want servers and bartenders who can explain the product. We don't want out product being sold in plastic cups to a bunch of 22-year-old valley girls."
THE DISTRIBUTOR ANGLE
Tracy Burgis, Sales Representative from M.S. Walker, handles the Infusionique spirits line and is quite happy so far with its progress. "It's doing very well in restaurants that have knowledgeable bar staff," she says. "As soon as bartenders and buyers taste it, they want to instantly mix a cocktail and experiment with flavors," she adds. Burgis also explains that sometimes the initial sell can be a challenge with something as unique as Infusionique. "Some customers buy a bottle to see how it sells and usually within two weeks they are ordering a six pack." As for BRIX Wine Shop, Burgis is pleased on that front as well. "They have sold over 4O cases of the bourbon infusion so far," she says.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
"We really want to get up to Portland, Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Providence, Rhode Island," says Bach. He hopes that once they are established in those three cities then they can set their sights set on an even bigger prize. "Once our production capacity is really up there, we hope to not only be in the small cities surrounding Boston, but also major markets such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, and what have you." Bach also says that new flavors may be developed. "There's always things we're thinking of. As of now, we have to dedicate ourselves to the three products we've launched and take them forward."
The popularity of the movie Sideways notwithstanding, there's more to wine than merlot and pino noir. Just head over to Boston's premier retail wine merchant to find out. Popular labels are priced as low as $8.99, and BRIX offers complimentary Friday and Saturday tastings from 6 to 8pm. A bonus: The tasting glasses are crystal stemware, served with expert but condescension-free advice. A great time to visit is BRIX by Night, a regular program that features an intimate, sit-down tasting in the store with a winemaker or local chef. More fun than a barrel of monkeys.
This South End shop has brought Boston's retail wine connoisseurship to a whole new level. Not only is crystal stemware used at the free Friday and Saturday tastings (from 6 to 8 pm), but the proprietors will, on occasion, bring the tasting to your home.
In addition to monthly winemaker events where customers can spend one-on-one time with vintners, they also host themed tastings. The most popular so far was last fall's First Annual Harvest Tasting and Grape Stomp. Original wine barrels from France and California were flown in and filled with 100 pounds of grapes, and customers got to crush them Lucille Ball-style, after which they sampled more wines. Around Kentucky Derby time, customers sample home made mint juleps.
In-store book signings with chef/writers are planned for the summer. Who says shopping for wine need be a sober, snooty affair?
We asked some of the city's leading wine purveyors to share their picks for the season. Bottoms Up!
Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski, BRIX Wine Shop
2002 Domaine Fourrier Chambolle-Musigny ler Cru Les Gruenchers ($80) "This wine has a gorgeous and elegant nose filled with cherries, yet almost floral. The palate has good acidity and is full-bodied to match holiday fare. This one makes a great gift for cellaring."
2002 Henri Bourgeois Jadis Sancerre ($45) "This is one of our favorite producers. The fruit comes from 50-year-old-plus vines and sees some barrel aging. Like liquid velvet for your tongue, it is rich yet has uncanny acidity."
1995 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill ($200) "This was created as a tribute to the great man, who was a close friend of the Pol Roger family and longtime consumer of the Champagne. We love the elegance and raciness of this wine, which highlights citrus, hazelnut, and a toasty finish."
A BIT OF EVERYTHING
The Holiday BRIX Six ($100) "The most sophisticated six-pack you'll ever drink. You can start with bubbly, move into red and white wines to match your holiday fare, and finish with a dessert wine for your sweet tooth. It makes a great gift for your neighbor, boss, or yourself."
Inspired by 'Sideways,' wine drinkers are finding a soft spot for pinot noir
By Alison Arnett
Customers who come into Best Buy wine store in Brookline's Coolidge Corner lately have been asking, "Have you seen 'Sideways'?" Invariably, says manager Kate Stamps, the next question is: "Do you carry pinot noir?"
"Sideways," the independent film about two friends' escapades while wine tasting along California's Central Coast, jumped from a niche film to a hit over the last few months. As the film's popularity rose by word of mouth, interest in wine, and especially in pinot noir, is also gaining momentum.
The quirky movie directed by Alexander Payne is up for seven Golden Globe awards; winners will be announced Sunday. Beyond its unexpected success, "Sideways" may make history as the first film to use a grape to explore character development. The hero Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, tells the woman he's trying to seduce that he likes pinot because it's sensitive, a little temperamental, subtle, sometimes great, and sometimes a flop. "Only the most patient and faithful and caring growers can do it, can access pinot's fragile, delicate qualities," he says. As the story progresses and the two men sniff and swirl their way from winery to winery, it becomes apparent that Miles is really describing himself.
Miles isn't alone in his enthusiasm. "I love pinot noir," says Len Rothenberg, who owns Federal Wine & Spirits near Downtown Crossing. Rothenberg saw the movie recently and says he thought "the parts that came out of Miles's mouth were right on. When pinot is good, it's sublime. When it's bad, it's mediocre in the worst sense." Pinot noir has a built-in sense of mystery. Americans, or at least those not well versed in wine, tend to associate pinot noir with California or maybe Oregon, says Rothenberg; they don't realize that French Burgundies are 100 percent pinot noir.
When you drink a great pinot from Burgundy, says the wine merchant, "you appreciate it the same way you do a work of art." He chuckles at how much he sounds like the movie character. The wine's greatness is in its balance, integrating the qualities that show the soil of the growing region and the plot with the pleasurable elements of the flavors. "With Burgundy, you can actually taste different flavors from soils, different vineyards," Rothenberg says.
American pinots aren't the same as French, mostly because our West Coast climate tends to be warmer than Burgundy. As Giamatti muses in the film, American wines can be great or disappointing, and price isn't always the clearest indication. Finding good pinot often requires conversations with others who are interested in the wines.
Has the film made a difference at Federal's cash register? Pinots have been disappearing from the shelves at a more rapid rate than before the movie, says Rothenberg. "At one point after Christmas, we looked up and said, 'We haven't got any pinot noir left.' "
Carri Wroblewski, an owner of the year-old Brix wine shop in the South End, also recently saw the film and liked Miles's character. "We're a pretty big pinot noir store," she says. Oregon pinots are especially treasured by Wroblewski and co-owner Klaudia Mally, who search out smaller producers, such as Patricia Green, Sineann, and Owen Roe, for distinctive wines that Wroblewski says are "fruit-forward." They enjoy discussing pinots with customers, she says, and keep small amounts in the back of the shop for those who are ready to "step up a price point." The store also carries French Burgundies, usually higher in price. American pinots don't have to be expensive, she says, mentioning a range between $32 and $42 a bottle.
Even merchants who have not seen "Sideways," like Chris Minervino, an owner of Lower Falls Wine Company in Newton, are hearing about it from customers. It's "creating a wine buzz," Minervino says — and that has to be good. To Stamps of Best Buy, which is near the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where "Sideways" had been playing for weeks, the movie has "been fun for us because people are asking questions they would never have asked before." She thinks the film gently pokes fun at the pretentiousness of some wine lovers but also glorifies wine without taking it too seriously.
Customers at one establishment in town all mention the film. At Troquet, a serious wine restaurant near the Theater District, "everybody brings it up," says co-owner Chris Campbell. Although the restaurant's biggest sellers have always been red Burgundies, Campbell is noticing more interest in California and Oregon pinot noirs. Campbell agrees with Rothenberg, the Boston wine merchant, that American wines are very different from French, but several recent vintages — 2001, 2002, and 2003 — have been good in California as well, says Campbell. He thinks that pinots from Oregon, where the latitude is almost the same as Burgundy, can be more distinctive, but those from California are usually more consistent.
Campbell also agrees that price isn't a clear indicator of quality. Wine buyers should be "very selective," says Rothenberg, since distinctive pinot noir "can often be priced at the same level as mediocre."
Some shops are capitalizing on the film, especially with the Golden Globes coming up this weekend. That's when BRIX's regular wine tastings will include pinot noir, says Wroblewski. And the window will feature a display of wines that the film's sensitive guy might like.
Wines mentioned in "Sideways" are from real vineyards, says Rothenberg. And though he's amused by the interest in pinot and particularly likes the wines, he doesn't see the commotion as long-term.
"This will be a flash in the pan," he predicts.
We asked wine experts what pinot noir they like to share with friends. Here are their choices:
BRIX Wine Shop owners, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, like the 2002 Patricia Green Cellars "Shea Vineyard" pinot noir from Yamhill County, Oregon ($36.99). "Patty Green has a knack for making pinots that are approachable when you pop the cork," says Wroblewski, "as well as having the ability to age well. We love the Shea Vineyard pinot for its lush, delicious, black cherry fruit balanced with layers of earthiness."
Passion and customer service are the by-words of the proprietors of three different Massachusetts boutique wine stores when asked what the single most important part of their businesses is.
by Kim Foly MacKinnon
These words are what the owners claim is the reason customers turn to them, in their smaller spaces, with less big name brands and less stock, instead of visiting large chain stores with endless selections and perhaps less than perfect service.
BRIX 1284 Washington Street, Boston, MA O2118, 617.542.2749, www.brixwineshop.com.
The owners of BRIX, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, have created a wine shop in the Boston's South End which evokes more of a bar atmosphere than a store. And a very hip bar at that. Dark colors, Italian lighting, a granite tasting table, and an open floor plan make it seem as though the room was made for a trendy cocktail party, except for the floor-to-ceiling racks of wine on three sides. The back wall, where the register is found, holds a selection of liquors on shelves that glow from lights below. And just like at your favorite bar, if you've been in the store before, it's very likely Wroblewski or Mally will know your name.
A BUSINESS BORN WITH CUSTOMER SERVICE IN MIND
Before opening BRIX, Wroblewski and Mally had become fast friends years ago after meeting at a South End wine shop that Wroblewski worked at. One day, while waiting for a buyer in a different wine shop, Wroblewski saw a customer wandering around, obviously in need of some advice. There was nary a clerk in sight. Taking pity on this person, Wroblewski offered to help. She happened to be on the phone with Mally at the time, who, while listening to Wroblewski assist the hapless customer, had a Eureka! moment. She shouted to Wroblewski, "I've got it! I've got it! How would you like to own a wine shop?"
They went into the project with that focus on customer service held as paramount. Wroblewski says, "We treat clients as if they were in a five-star restaurant."
In addition, they knew what they didn't want. Wroblewski says, "All stores look alike. Case stackings everywhere. They're difficult to navigate." Mally adds to that, saying, "What is lacking is a design element, ambiance that is exceptional." Mally designed certain items in the store, such as the wrought-iron door made to look like stacked wine bottles in a rack. Brix, with its open space, is easy to navigate, another important element of customer service often neglected or overlooked, says Wroblewski.
THE NUMBERS GAME
At any given time, Brix offers about 85O to 1OOO different types of wine (as well as some liquors). Bottle prices average about $15, even though the store is located in a higher end location of the city, which is currently heading toward being even higher end. Despite the fact that most of their clients are well off, Wroblewski and Mally wanted to keep prices reasonable because they researched what the neighborhood wanted. "They drink wine every day," says Wroblewski, who could draw on her years of experience in other retail wine stores in the area. "It's a part of their lives. Though they have money, they don't always want to spend a lot on everyday wines." Mally says, "Carri calls them 'Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday' wines," which is apt description and perfect for a client who may come in three or four times a week on their way home from work.
Another part of the business Wroblewski stresses is organization. "If you are organized, it's easy to accommodate customers," she says. "Each customer (if they choose) is included in a database Brix keeps. It tracks their buying history." This highly unusual practice, in the wine retail business anyway, is a useful tool for both the store and the customer. Say you had a fabulous wine six months ago but can't remember the name of the bottle. Simply ask Wroblewski or Mally and they can look it up instantly.
Other ways that the pair breaks away from standard wine shop protocol include their policy of using crystal wine glasses instead of plastic cups for their Friday night weekly wine tastings. Besides being better for the wine, allowing a true taste possible, it is simply more elegant and inviting. The store will also allow customers to special order three bottles of wine, rather than the usual six bottles or a case. While this increases cost a bit, it is an added service that clients seem to like. E-mail updates to customers let them in on special deals and events. A new program the pair has started is called "Industry Night", when a local chef prepares a signature item and they match wines to it. Recently a pastry chef brought in desserts and customers could try dessert wines with them.
Both Wroblewski and Mally are thrilled with the store so far, which will be open a year this December. Mally says, "If you love what you do, it all comes together. You have to be passionate."
When was the last time someone rushed to open the door for you as you entered a wine shop and then invited you to partake of some Pinot Noir from crystal stemware, as opposed to a plastic cup? If your answer is "never," then you haven't been to this service-oriented South End wine emporium. Staffers offer expert but unpretentious wine advice and tailor an eclectic inventory to patrons'—as opposed to their own—tastes, with the understanding that for every person who loves Champagne there's someone who prefers prosecco.
Owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally are best friends whose relationship was born from the fruit of the vine: They met when Wroblewski was working at a local wine store and Mally was her customer. Since opening in December, their stylish shop, which hosts weekly wine tastings at its 10-foot granite tasting table and has a natural cork floor, has impressed demanding oenophiles with its varied array of unusual and hard-to-find wines. On select Mondays, the owners host bartenders and chefs, who pair their mixological and culinary creations with selections from the store's impressive cellars. Finally, a shop that elevates the act of selecting a wine into as much of an art form as making it.
BRIX Wine Shop is so different in look and concept from its competitors, people often mistake it for an expensive boutique. Don't be fooled: Co-owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally have created a wonderful source for delicious everyday wines, with so many au courant varieties priced around $10.99; it's like a Target for oenophiles. Best of all, BRIX procures special orders without demanding the purchase of a whole case, rather just three bottles. That alone puts most of the other wine shops in this town to shame.
1284 Washington Street, Boston, 617.542.2749
By Beth Greenberg
Brix Wine Shop owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally didn't waste much time once they decided they wanted to open a classy, hip, design-influenced wine and spirits shop in the South End.
They signed a lease on the raw commercial space at the Savoy Building at 1284 Washington St. in August 2003, and opened their doors in December. Their glass-fronted shop, at the corner of Washington and Savoy streets along the Silver Line Route and overlooking the remarkable rehabilitation of the far South End, is streamlined and striking.
Many buildings in the stretch of Washington Street between Herald Street and Melnea Cass Boulevard have received makeovers, and this address was no exception. Gut renovations of the traditional red-brick building, built in 1890, began in 2000 and were completed in 2002. Sea-Dar Construction of the South End renovated the building into 13 residential condominium units and the street-level commercial space occupied by Brix.
As part of the renovation, bay windows were restored, brownstone lintels were repaired, and two contemporary penthouses were added to the top of the building. ''They basically took down everything, and really rebuilt the building," said Sheila Grove, director of the neighborhood's Main Streets program.
Early photos show that the structure was once a public storage facility. From 1946 to 1999, the St. Vincent de Paul charity maintained a resale shop in the commercial space. Offices upstairs had been vacant for at least a decade prior to the renovations. ''We were really certain about what we wanted in a wine store," said Wroblewski, who spent seven years in wine sales and importing before she and Mally signed the lease for their shop last spring. ''We didn't want to be tripping over bottles of pina colada mix to get to a good bottle of wine."
And with only 1,265 square feet of space, and a historical commission to answer to, Wroblewski and Mally had limited options. They elected to keep the rectangular space open, except for placement of a rough-edged granite tasting table near the front windows. The granite, lighted by conical hanging fixtures from the Italian manufacturer Flos, was hand-selected by the owners from a New Hampshire quarry.
Running the length of both walls, and from the dark cork floor to the ceiling, are sleek black laminate box shelves holding custom-milled racks. About 800 ''frontings," or displayed wines, are available at any time, with an average inventory of 6,000 racked bottles. A custom rolling ladder allows access to the highest shelves.
During the spring and summer, customers enter the shop by crossing a doormat of grass sod. The door has hand-forged, custom wrought iron that mimics leaded glass and provides security. The wall at the far end of the shop is painted chutney orange, the one spot of color in an otherwise minimalist dark palette.
The register counter is designed to look like a bar, with a cork top, dark wood stain, and the deep orange wall behind. Nine stylized floating shelves—lighted from below—are hung at varying heights on the wall and hold bottles of liquor, providing the look and appeal of a chic bar.
Choosing the right wine shop is just as important as choosing the right bottle.
By Anthony Giglio
Near the very last sip of 2003, at the height of the holiday madness, two things happened in the wine world that signaled a new era for buying booze in this great city of ours. First, the state's ban on Sunday alcohol purchases was lifted—and only 70 years after the end of Prohibition! Then, three weeks later, a wine shop called BRIX opened in the South End, designed to change forever the way we will buy wine in this town.
Partners Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski have created a shop that's both smart and sexy, and makes you want to hang out in it. On top of it all, the staff is accommodating, knowledgeable, honest, and eager. "The concept was to have a wine store/wine bar, which is legal in Europe but not in Massachusetts," says Mally, who was born in Poland. "So the look is like a bar, but it's a store." This explains why the spirits are lined up on the wall behind the checkout counter looking ready to pour. But don't let the chic décor fool you: Most of the 800 wines are priced between $9 and $25.
Wroblewski, who does the buying, says her initial inventory of wine from just about every region on the globe was chosen to feel out the locals. "We like to say we're in partnership with the neighborhood, and waiting to see what people want more of and how it corresponds with what we like," she says. BRIX's affordable prices reflect what Wroblewski calls the "Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday wines—at $10, $11, $12—plus, of course, wines like Burgundies in the $40 to $50 range." She says most customers so far have been opting for bottles that go for around $15 (would that make them Friday wines?), which is probably what a cocktail would cost at BRIX if only the women could serve them.
While BRIX has raised the bar for wine shopping, it's not the first wine shop in town to challenge the status quo. Best Cellars did that in Brookline six years ago when partners Josh Wessen and Richard Marmet devised a plan to offer 100 wines at $10 or less (they've since started offering a few at up to $15), displaying bottles lying down in cool backlit columns, and grouped in categories that entice our senses: "Fizzy," "Juicy," "Luscious," etc. The concept was and remains simply brilliant.
All of these observations help answer what many readers of this column want to know most: Where do I shop for wine? There's no single answer. I have many, many favorites, but what's more important is why I go where I go. I have a checklist I keep in this very dark and crowded head of mine, and I check off each item whenever I walk into a wine shop for the first time. Here it is. If you like it, by all means, make it yours, too.
I'm the kind of reactionary who will turn around and walk out of a store if I'm not greeted properly—or at all. Why? My logic is simple: If you want my money, which will keep you in business and/or employed, be nice to me. Wine shops I frequent have employees, who are knowledgeable and helpful, and above all enthusiastic. Over the years I've become friends with some retailers simply because we love to talk about wine so much. But basically every customer, regardless of wine knowledge, should be made to feel welcome and assisted in a way that makes him or her feel utterly at ease and not the least bit intimidated.
Readers of this column know I'm passionate about treating wine properly, specifically with regard to the temperature at which it's stored (and served). If a wine shop is as toasty as Granny's kitchen, I'm wary, because the wines are slowly cooking. After all, wine is perishable: Its quality degenerates when a wine is exposed to erratic temperature fluctuations. Wine bottles should also be stored lying down (with only a display bottle standing up), because if wine doesn't touch the cork, the cork dries out and the wine dies. Therefore, I prefer my wine shops to be chilly and the bottles in recline.
Obviously, selection depends on space, but no matter the size of a shop, its inventory should reflect an interesting representation of wines from around the world. Even if bottles are categorized simply by country, there should be more than just one Chianti in the Italian section, for example, or one Champagne with the French wines. What really gets me excited is finding shops that seek out hard-to-find regional wines and rare bottles. And if a shop doesn't have a wine I'm looking for, I absolutely expect the salesperson to offer to…
One of the biggest complaints I hear from friends is that their local shop doesn't stock a wine we tasted at my house. My reply is always, "Did you ask them to special order it for you?" The best retailers should be willing to track down any bottle of alcohol that's available for sale in this state. If they won't, tell them farewell.
Wine prices vary from store to store, as with real estate, by location. A friend who sells wine taught me to look at benchmark bargain wines—the Gallo jug wines, for example, or the budget-priced double-bottles (magnums)—for consistency. If, say, a bottle of Portuguese vinho verde is priced above $8 when it should be $5, I'm skeptical. The only real way for you to know if your shop is pricing its wine fairly is to shop around and compare.
Whenever I buy by the case, I expect a discount. Any respectable retailer should offer you one, ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent. I think 20 percent should be standard, considering you're buying 12 bottles of a single brand. (Mixed cases carry different rules.) Ten percent is stingy. What's great about cultivating a relationship with a retailer is that if you spend enough in his or her store, he or she might eventually offer you discounts on all your purchases. I've got a handwritten card from the owner of one such shop offering me 20 percent off all purchases of wines that aren't already discounted. Which store is it? The one I go to most often.
By Cheryl and Jeffery Katz
This fast-growing neighborhood has embraced stores where independent style is the most valued commodity.
BRIX Wine Shop, 1284 Washington Street, looks more like a hip bar than a liquor store. Best friends Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally have created a wine store that encourages customers to linger, exchanging information on their favorite vintages. There's a 10-foot-long granite table in the store devoted to frequent tastings (usually on Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 to 8pm).