So, you wanna know what's really up in Jersey? Come with us as we check in with a few of the state's more idiosyncratic and successful purveyors of our favorite pours.
Somewhere between the turnpike and parkway lies the truth about New Jersey—a state so diverse that it both confirms and confounds all of the stereotypes.
And if it's truth you're after, what better way to find it than through the state's wine and spirits retailers? Amidst all of the suburbs, the farmlands and the factories, they as much as anyone would have an insider's perspective on the true tastes of the people.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a longer and more complete version of the story that appeared in print in our May issue.
Carlo Russo's Wine and Spirit World
In the beginning, before the Pinot-obsessed masses, before California vintners routinely earned international awards, before wine and spirits superstores, and before nearly everyone had a favorite Bordeaux vintage, there was pharmacist Carlo Russo, the patriarch of New Jersey wine retailers.
That developed into a thriving business, which led to once or twice a year taking groups to Europe to visit the vineyards and the homes of the vineyard owners -- extraordinary experiences you can't duplicate today."
Back in 1947 Russo bought a neighborhood pharmacy in the leafy suburb of Ho-Ho-Kus, about 12 miles west of New York City. Essentially a small department store, Carlo's place boasted a classic soda fountain that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. All of 800 square feet, it also happened to have a liquor license. So, as the pharmacy business moved from making medicine to merely counting pills, Carlos turned his attention toward the cultivation and enjoyment of more fulfilling pursuits.
"In the late 50s and early 60s he started encouraging his customers to switch from brown liquors, which was the thing at the time, to tasting wine," says Carlo's son, Chuck Russo, who joined the team in 1973 and now owns and operates the store with his wife, Maria, and a small staff.
"Since my dad was a pharmacist, he already had his customers' trust," Russo explains. "So, he started bringing in good wines and held a few tastings in the back room.
Carlo always was interested in mentoring the young people who were getting involved in the business, including younger colleagues who have since become innovators in their own right throughout New Jersey's wine industry, Gary Fisch of Gary's Wine & Marketplace and Sparrow Wine and Liquors' Armando Luis among them.
Despite the recent economic downturn, Russo says that business has been good. "Relative to the economy we're fortunate to be well-supported by our community - a 10-sq-mile base, which is strong in this area - and we've also developed a web site that has grown consistently."
He notes that California labels are trending strong, as always, and this past year some premium wines have become better priced than ever, with Caymus Cabernet, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet, Silver Oak, and Cakebread the standouts. "These used to be extremely limited, but are now being offered with special incentive pricing to retail," he says.
The 2004 Brunellos have been extremely consistent in both taste and purchases, Russo says, with 2007 Rhones his most dramatic sellers in the past six months. On the spirits side, specialty vodkas are moving well, as are single-malt Scotches, single barrel bourbons, and better quality tequilas.
In addition to hosting a long-time tradition of tastings in the store's rustic back room every Saturday, Russo partners with popular local restaurants on 12 to 15 special dinner pairing events each year, coordinates private tastings, and puts a huge amount of time into assisting with fundraising events for local charities.
Like his father, he immensely enjoys dealing with his customers as well as those on he supply end. "People in the wine industry are unique individuals, and the wines themselves are always interesting because each year they're different," he notes.
"But ultimately, tasting the wine, listening to the customer's needs, and directing them to what you think will work best -- then having them come back and say 'that was great - give me more of that' -- that's really the most fun part".
56 Degree Wine
It's an early spring morning in Bernardsville, horse farm country several miles south of Morristown. In a pristine brick building downtown, behind rows of racks, stands 56 Degree Wine proprietor Chris Cree, sporting a fleece jacket emblazoned with his store's logo. The jacket is necessary, you see, because it is actually 56 degrees inside of his store, just as it is on every day of the year.
"I like wines that are expressive of the place they come from," Cree says. "To me that is their magic, and hands-on, small scale viticulture farming is the way to get that. We're not absolutists about organic or biodynamic, it's just that that type of growing tends to produce the wines we like."
The store's constant temperature is not just a good marketing hook; it reflects Cree's core ideals, developed through years of tasting, travel, and experiences in the wine industry, and his commitment to working with small, artisan producers who hand-craft their product using sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic agricultural practices.
At age 18 Cree started working in a wine shop in Flemington, NJ. His natural affinity for the business soon propelled his career. "When started in '79, Wine Spectator was just starting, and the business wasn't driven by scores as it tends to be now. This is how we bought wine back then - pretty much by taste," he says.
By 1996 he had earned a diploma from the Institute of Masters of Wine, which at the time offered classes in New York. He was the only student there from New Jersey, and only the 13th American to have earned the certification at that time.
56 Degree Wine typically carries 700-1,000 labels, and Cree tastes every one. He explains that customers won't see any of the big commercial brands in his store. "Not that there's anything wrong with them; it's just that we tend to be more specialized."
Domaine Maillard, in Burgandy's Côte de Beaune is typical of the small producers with whom Cree likes to work. "This vintner makes great wines and is the kind of guy we love. We go over and taste; he comes here once in a while." Other French favorites include Domaine Bzikot (Puligny Montrachet) and Eric Rodez (Champagne). Domestically, Cree works very closely with Robert Sinskey Vineyards (Carneros), Caldwell Vineyards (Napa Valley), Mauritson Vineyards (Sonoma) and others.
The store also offers a discriminating selection of single barrel Scotch, fine cognacs and a selection of unique ports, including some great old tawnys and maderias, such as those from Casa de Santa Eufemia, a classic family owned producer. "Whether wine or spirits, we have the same philosophy -we're looking for small and artisanal," Cree says.
Cree notes that his offerings vary seasonally, since much of what he brings in is in small lots-all of which is driven by communicating with customers who regularly visit, as well as through social media tools, including a blog run by Cree's long-time associate, Wine Director Joe Bemery.
"We're always looking for that new great up-and-coming guy making great wine who hasn't been discovered," he says. "And since we're not waiting around for the scores and we've built the trust of our customers, we can bring those in quickly."
Cree obviously has a passion for his work, even if he has to wear that jacket in the store when he's not traveling the world's best vineyards. And despite the glamour and the perks, he keeps his eye on the ball. "There's a lot of romanticism around it and there's great product," he says, "but the wine trade is very competitive. At the end of the day, it's retail."
Life in New Jersey is all about family and tradition, and Angelbeck's is a family affair that has sold wines and spirits at least since 1933, and reportedly even during the days of Prohibition. Back then, the story goes, it officially was a grocery store that buried various banned beverages under the produce and meats delivered daily to its many customers.
Pete, Anne and Peter von Hoffmann of Angelbeck’s.
| The original Angelbeck family ran this Upper Montclair institution for over 60 years, and since 2006 the place has been owned and operated by Wall Street refugee and middle school teacher Peter von Hoffmann, his wife Anne, and their adult children.
Anne manages the operation full time, assisted by Angelbeck's long-time wine buyer Dan Brunelle. Son Pete runs the beer, while his brother, Chris, manages the Internet. Bobby is a senior at Marist College and helps out when he's home. Even Anne's sister and niece are involved.
Peter von Hoffmann believes that the events of 9/11 motivated a lot of people to step back and consider where they really wanted to be in life, and that played heavily into his career change. "We never had any idea that we were going to own a wine store at some point, but I knew how to value companies. My son Pete had been working here and said 'you really ought to look at this business.'"
Using his expertise as a financial pro, Peter spent several months conducting in-depth investment analysis and valuation on the store, and it became clear to him that this indeed was a good opportunity.
"On Wall Street we always see things as supply and demand, but either of those factors could change at any moment," he explains. "In the wine business, the demand also can change at any moment, but with a good wine, the supply is constantly going down. Within three to five years of a good vintage coming out, there's nothing left. If you have a good portfolio, you're probably going to do well in good times and bad."
Angelbeck's currently carries about 5,000 wines, 300 beers and a broad assortment of spirits. Peter says that they do very well with the French labels, both Burgundies and Bordeauxs, and even some Rhones. "Three or four years ago, everyone had just abandoned that whole category," he notes.
"I think that the population is getting a lot more educated with wines, so they're branching out," Anne adds. "We see more people stepping into the Spanish, Chilean and Argentine labels, but California wines are still a comfort zone for most."
Inventory decisions for both wine and spirits tend to be customer-driven, according to Peter. "For example, we heard a lot of requests for single malts, and now we have a whole wall of them…they've sold unbelievably well."
Like most wine and spirits retailers, the von Hoffmanns are working all sides of the business. They have developed their Internet presence, but they're building it slowly. "We put up only 200 items last year; and we want to get to 500 this year. If that works, then maybe go to 1,000." They also host special tastings about once every three weeks, create custom monthly wine samplers for about 50 customers, and deliver on order to diners at a number of upscale BYO restaurants in the area.
Overall, running Angelbeck's lets the von Hoffmanns extend the family affair theme. "It's like Cheers in here," Peter says. "People often come in because they want to not only get a bottle, but say hello. It's all about the relationships you build."
Gary's Wine & Marketplace
Madison, Bernardsville, Wayne
Gary Fisch is always dealing with what he politely calls the New Jersey Mystique. "I was at a dinner in California; each table was hosted by a vintner, and everyone was sharing wine," he recalls. "So I called over to my table's host 'Oh, I would love to try your Cabernet.' and the winemaker responds 'Yo, Jersey! So if I don't give it to you are you going to break my legs?'"
Alas, the Jersey Shore and Sopranos stereotypes prevail, but as owner of Gary's Wine & Marketplace, Fisch has been making a huge contribution to changing those old perceptions simply by being himself. He appears regularly on television and radio, and is known as Bobby Flay's "wine guy" from more than 50 episodes of The Food Network's Hot Off the Grill and is a favorite speaker of dozens of business, community groups and charities from around the state.
Yet Fisch isn't just another smooth-talking media maven. He's earned his reputation through his absolute passion for wine, his love of the business, some exceptional communications skills, and serious retail savvy—a "big picture guy" who's also revels in the details.
His three gleaming stores in Madison, Bernardsville and Wayne each carry well over 3,000 wine labels, 300 distinctive microbrews, and a huge selection of spirits, as well as a full gourmet market section with 150 fresh cut cheeses and Charcuterie, yielding a European market feel while providing the perfect complement to enjoying wine.
Fisch has been the highest bidder for several years in a row at Premiere Napa Valley, reaping an enormous amount of top-quality wine in very small lots for his highest-end customers. While there, he tastes well over 200 barrel samples from current and recent vintages. "I've done that now for 13 years, so you really form a palate memory to understand the vintages, the wineries, and the sense of place, and a wine's signature over time, so from a purely academic point of view it's unparalleled."
The event also gives Fisch a valuable one-on-one with the owners of wineries, an opportunity he uses in his constant quest to illuminate the real New Jersey. "Our state has always had a second-fiddle relationship with the wine producers, the stepchild for a long time," he says. "I'm out there saying 'our guests work in Manhattan, so if you feel that their restaurants and wine shops are crucial, then you really need to feel the same about ours.' Getting them to understand who we are has opened up doors."
Utilizing the relationships he has developed at Premiere and elsewhere, Fisch offers three choice private labels, "Go Figure" (made up of different lots, so you never know what you're going to get, but it's going to be good), "Going Forward (consistency with the same fruit and profile every year), and "Grand Finale" (a super-high quality individual barrel for his "good friends").
"We have a relationship with our customers, and the wineries, and we have a visual of what's going on in the business," Fisch says. "That separates us from the pack."
For Fisch, his business is very rewarding. "It's selling something people like from people I like; and most of our dear friends come through the doors," he says. "If you come upon a beautiful bottle of wine, you want to share it. You don't get that in most industries."
Still, there's that blasted mystique - the Soprano thing. As a Jersey guy, Fisch takes exception, politely of course, employing his unique brand of sophistication and charm. "I'm out there saying 'we're the economic driver, the intellectual stimulus,' and we have to remind people of that every day."
More of New Jersey's Finest Wine & Spirits Purveyors
Englewood Wine Merchants
Just minutes from Manhattan, former Wall Street investment banker David Gettenberg, trades in a premier international selection of wines and spirits in a store resembling the ultimate wine cellar.
A South Jersey institution for many years, Moore Brothers offers what it calls "traditional, idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and authentic" artisan wine in a temperature-controlled environment.
Albert Einstein would probably approve of this temperature-controlled Princeton fixture, offering one of the best selections of hand-crafted, family-owned artisanal wines in the state.
Sparrow Wine and Liquor Company
Founded during prohibition in 1922 as Sparrow Cigar Company and later expanding into liquor, Armando Luis took this Jersey landmark into fine wine territory in the 1980s, and has never looked back.
The Wine Library
This expansive and renowned store is the brainchild of Gary Vaynerchuk, a frequent network television guest whose video blog, Wine Library TV, attracts more than 80,000 viewers a day.