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In our May/June 2013 issue, Sarah Karnasiewicz explores the changing terrain of California winemaking, where oddball wine styles are taking root in unexpected places. Winemakers like Ian Brand, Alex Krause and John Locke (and check out their Q&A here) are bucking tradition by introducing a myriad of these varietals to domestic soils. And with the interest in unique and lesser-known wines growing by the day, it’s never been easier to walk into a neighborhood wine shop and score bottles that highlight an array of unconventional grape styles. Here are a 15 of our favorite boutique shops for finding cutting-edge wines from around the world.
Opened in 2005 by former accountant (and wine enthusiast) Scott Pactor, Appellation is stocked nearly exclusively with biodynamic, organic and sustainably grown wines. With excellent classes every few days and a very hands-on staff, the shop is a terrific place to start a wine education.
In the best possible way, Astor is a behemoth. Located just below the Astor Center for beer, wine and spirits education, it houses an extensive but carefully curated selection. Wines are organized by country, then region, and the helpful signage makes browsing easy. There’s no better place to while away a lazy NYC afternoon.
Brooklyn Wine Exchange
Tucked away in family-friendly Cobble Hill, the Brooklyn Wine Exchange shares its neighborhood’s ethos with a focus on family-owned wineries. One entire wall of the shop is dedicated to biodynamic wines, and the rest of the shop boasts an excellent collection of local bottles. But one of our favorite things about the BWE is their Learning Center, a 50-seat space where they host free demos, winemaker Q&As, and tastings multiple times a month.
Chambers Street Wines
Since opening in 2001, this tiny shrine of biodynamic and natural wine has been a beacon in a city with a sea of wine shops. From rigorously researched, approachable (if wine-geeky) weekly newsletters to frequent tastings of hard-to-find wines to having a coveted ‘Snail of Approval’ from Slow Food, the shop’s devotion to small producers and natural wine is impressive, and clearly heartfelt.
If there’s a bum bottle on these shelves, we’ve never encountered it. Everyone behind the counter at this hidden gem can tell you whether it’s a fruit or flower day and can point you to anything from a funky Gamay from the Loire to one of the rare wines they keep in the back. Find yourself across the river in Brooklyn? Check out Flatiron Wines’ sister shop, Uva, in Willamsburg.
Arlequin Wine Merchants
An extension of San Francisco’s much-beloved Absinthe restaurant, Arlequin Wine Merchants carries everything served in the restaurant, and more. Not surprisingly, Arlequin’s excellent selection is dominated by food-friendly wines, many of which are organic, biodynamic or natural. Next door, Arlequin Café serves many of the shop’s bottles by the glass, giving customers an opportunity to taste before buying.
Like Los Angeles itself, BUZZ is an exercise in contradiction. The shop is at once laid back and full of energy, but it’s also a serious wine drinkers’ paradise. Selections are made with extreme care. You’ll find Ian Brand’s very hard-to-hunt-down bottles and delicious box wine from natural wine importer extraordinaires Jenny & Francois. True devotees can lease a wine locker or wine storage space in the dark, vibration-free cellar.
The Wine House
A veritable candyland of wine, LA’s Wine House (not to be confused with The Wine House in San Francisco, which is an entirely different company) has been selling the best of the best for more than 30 years. Always a reliable retailer, they’ve recently branched out into hospitality with the opening of Upstairs 2, a restaurant and wine bar directly upstairs from their warehouse-like shop.
McCarthy & Schiering
A bit of an institution, McCarthy & Schiering has been selling wines–especially small-production, Washington and Oregon labels–to thirsty Seattleites for more than 25 years. Like many of the other shops on this list, they put out a weekly newsletter that’s a must-read for anyone interested in wine in general, and particularly in Pacific Northwest wines.
Liner & Elsen
Staff members at this friendly wine shop are just as happy to procure a case of $9 a bottle everyday white as they are to share a taste of a decade-old Oregon red. There’s no snobbery here; just some good old-fashioned wine geekery.
Red and White (pictured)
This is a beautiful shop, with wines to match. Owner Nathan Adams has one of the most interesting wine selections in the country, always focused on cutting-edge, natural wines from the U.S. and Europe, with nearly equal attention given to both sides of the pond.
The Wine Bottega
Located in the middle of downtown Boston, the Wine Bottega proclaims allegiance only to what owner Kerri Platt “real wine.” Platt is talking about natural, biodynamic wines, but more than that, she means wines that are “borne of the land.” Her shop is unassuming but well-stocked—a perfect place to start a love affair with wine.
Austin Wine Merchants
SXSW, BBQ and a killer place to taste your way through DOCs and AOCs? Apparently Austin has it all. This locally owned shop has been supplying thirsty Austinites with world-class` wines since 1991. Though focused largely on European bottles, AWM also carries a smaller, but thoughtful selection of American wines.
CoolVines founder and Mark Censits is pushing wine retail into the 21st century with his innovative combination of a brick-and-mortar store front (two, actually) and voluminous online presence. On the CoolVines site, not only is the entire inventory visible, it’s easily searchable. Most wine entries are accompanied by at least three paragraphs of description, and a handy “Explore” button next to each bottle will direct you to other, similar bottles to try.
Wine + Market
Aptly named, Wine + Market has a little bit of everything. Gleaming white subway tiles line the walls, and rustic baguettes and pastries from local bakeries fill the counters. And then there’s the wine. Master sommelier and owner Renee Brewer has built a perfectly curated selection, and lucky Lexingtonians can easily keep up with her finds weekly through newsletters and free tastings.