New Vinous Horizons
Crush raises the in-store wine-tasting experience to another level.
By Peter Hellman
We typically make buying decisions by test-driving a car, trying on a pair of tennis shoes, or smelling a melon before deciding to purchase or pass. The problem with shopping for wine is that, unless we stick to old reliables ("gimme that chardonnay you sold me last week"), there's no way to judge the wines on retail shelves until, on a whim or recommendation, a particular bottle ends up being sipped at home. And then it may be too late.
In recent years, the growth of in-store wine tastings has finally given customers a small leg up. If a wine that's being sampled catches our fancy and the price is right, it can be taken home without risk. In-store tastings can also be an effortless way to broaden our vinous horizons, as mine were one evening last week at Crush Wine Company, the sleekly handsome, impeccably credentialed new wine shop a few doors east of Hammacher Schlemmer on East 57th Street. Had I not been won over by Crush's free pours of an array of offbeat wines (see tasting notes), I'd have probably ignored most, if not all, of them, even as I urge others to be open to the wide world of wines.
At their most basic, in-store tastings are conducted at a folding table wedged between "floor stacks" of wine cases, usually on a Saturday afternoon. At that level, you get your gulp in a paper cup. One step up is clear plastic cups, maybe even plastic wine glasses with rickety stems that often detach at the wrong moment. A few shops, notably Discovery Wines on Avenue A, boast dedicated tasting alcoves, including dishwashers, so that they can pour samples into real wine glasses.
Two-month-old Crush, a $1.2 million-dollar project of ace restaurateur Drew Nieporent and his boyhood pal Robert Schagrin (they grew up in Peter Cooper Village), raises the in-store tasting experience to a new level. However, before you make your way back to Crush's tasting room, along the right-hand wall of the shop you'll pass by a strikingly handsome, 73-foot-long, serpentine wire rack holding about 2,500 horizontal bottles. They're backlit by a translucent wall panel, giving them a floating feel, although I found it difficult to wiggle the tightly packed bottles out from the rack, if only to examine their labels.
Crush's wine selection is weighted toward small production wines in many styles - a "beautiful mosaic," to borrow a theme from David Dinkins. In the months before the shop opened, wine director and general manager John Osborne led a team that tasted through the offerings of dozens of distributors to make their selections. Certain of the wines are also on the wine lists at Mr. Nieporent's Montrachet, Nobu, and Tribeca Grill. "We weren't looking to specialize in any particular region," Mr. Osborne said. "We just wanted wines with distinctive personalities that speak of where they come from. Sort of like the difference between tomatoes from the supermarket and tomatoes from the farmers' market."
At the rear of Crush, which was designed by Pulice Williams Architects, is a glass-walled enclosure simply called "the Cube." It's a chilly (54 degrees) treasury of collector-grade wines, mainly culled from Mr. Schagrin's private cellar. This is a candy store for anyone looking for special bottles at realistic prices. My candy of choice might be the Artadi Grandes Anadas 1994 or 1998, a Super-Rioja, both at $145, or the Henscke Hill of Grace Shiraz 1994 from one of Australia's oldest and greatest vineyards, at $275.
Crush's tasting room is set within a curving wall of 250-year-old, steel-banded, heart-of-pine planks that evoke the staves of a giant wine barrel. Inside, a large overhead disc of light glows down on substantial tables, high-backed chairs, and a marble tasting bar, behind which are a pair of wall-mounted convection ovens for on-site food preparation. The tasting schedule is ambitious, with 10 wines always available: the selection changes each Monday. Special wine and food events are also frequently scheduled, including a free tasting of organic wines from Domaine de Vieux Chene in Roussillon this Saturday from 1-4pm.
After sidling up to the wine bar, I was startled to be handed an ungainly, stemless glass with a deep punt and a sharply flared-in lip, one of a type called Les Impitoyables ("the pitiless"), which exposes a wine's every flaw and asset. Reflecting this shop's eclectic leaning, the array of 10 wines offered last week consisted of examples from seven countries, ranging from a Hirsch Zobing Riesling 2003 from Austria to Luis Pato's Vinhas Velhas 2001 from Portugal, a wine made from the Baga grape, previously unknown to me.
"Bob and I talked for years about doing a wine store," Mr. Nieporent told me last week. "We'd actually contemplated putting a store where Nobu is now [on Hudson Street]. I'm being offered space all the time, but currently real-estate prices in New York are just silly, so I held back on doing a store." When the space next to Gotta Have it!, Mr Schagrin's East 57th Street memorabilia shop, became available last year on terms that "allowed us to make a go of it," Mr. Nieporent said, " we decided it was time to put our money where our mouth was. Our hope is to have a lot of synergies between our restaurants and the store. We always wanted people who come to Montrachet to ask where can they buy one of these small-grower wines. And now we can tell them where."