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