Nestled inside a century-old former train station in the quaint hamlet of Croton Falls in New York State’s lush Hudson Valley, the newly opened Folkways envisions itself as a new sort of wine and spirits shop. Here, alcoholic offerings tend toward the lesser known and the up and coming: a hard-to-find white Bordeaux, bottlings of the fruity red grape Grolleau from the Loire Valley, artisanal liqueurs from Lombardy, and so forth. There’s also handcrafted ceramic vessels and delicate modern stemware that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Vogue. But in at least one respect, the shop feels downright retro. This is a good old-fashioned mom-and-pop operation.
Helmed by a husband-and-wife team — Jonas Andersen, who spent five years as the beverage director at Michelin-starred Agern and Great Northern Food Hall in New York City, and Natalie Marie Gehrels, owner of a creative agency and a sculptural ceramicist — Folkways is indicative of a growing trend in the bottle shop space, which has attracted sommeliers and drinks professionals who’ve grown tired of restaurant life. With them, they’re bringing their expertise and points of view — and often to locales outside major cities.
“We are certainly passionate about the idea of creating a local economy that centers around community and the exchange of ideas,” says Andersen, who was ready to move away from the demands of restaurant work when the idea for Folkways began percolating. He and Gehrels also tapped seasoned sommelier Amanda Smeltz (formerly of popular NYC restaurants Estela, Cafe Altro Paradiso, and Roberta’s) to curate the shop’s beverage selections. Previously in Croton Falls it was much more difficult to source high-end bottles from conscientious winemakers and small-production vineyards, Andersen says. Not so since Folkways opened up. “It’s a movement we’re honored to be a part of,” he beamed.
It’s a similar story for Joe and Celia Catalino, who opened What To Drink, a sustainable wine club and online shop in Oakland, Calif., roughly one year ago. He is the former sommelier at lauded modern Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door in San Francisco, which closed at the start of the pandemic and has yet to reopen; she is a food and drink photographer.
“Covid changed everything,” says Joe Catalino, noting that many restaurants are still grappling with staffing issues that have resulted in fewer on-the-floor sommeliers. Simultaneously, he believes extended lockdowns in 2020 emboldened the wine bar and cocktail lounge crowd to get more serious about their at-home drinking setup, an effect that’s lingered. “It encouraged them to become more adventurous and curious with their wine buying,” Catalino says. At-home drinkers are increasingly savvy, and “mom-and-pop bottle shops have cornered that market, in the sense that they’ve made shopping for wine casual, fun, and easy,” he says.
At What to Drink, the Catalinos push that “mom-and-pop feel” with a vibrant social media presence that emphasizes the joy of wine. “We want our customers to feel informed on what they’re getting without all those stuffy old school wine vibes,” Celia says. Unlike some other big-box wine shops, “we like having personality.”
That’s certainly the aim of Neighbors Wine Shop, which opened in September of 2020 in South Orange, N.J., and specializes in sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and low-intervention wines. “Something I think we pride ourselves on is not making wine buying a ‘snooty’ experience and hopefully removing the intimidation people have when it comes to buying wine,” says Katrina Handy, who with her husband, Chris, co-owns the shop with another couple, E.J. McLeavey-Fisher and Veronica Balta. None of the four co-owners have a professional background in wine, but Handy says that Neighbors has attracted staff who formerly worked in restaurants and were trying to transition to wine when the pandemic hit. “We did not seek them out per se, but they fit very well,” she says.
The new pandemic landscape also counterintuitively opened doors for the Neighbors team. “We were able to gain access to wine and distributors that might have been too busy to think about selling to a small new retail shop in New Jersey,” Handy explains. But more than good bottles, what Neighbors offers is a more personalized, homey customer experience — something that’s directly linked to its identity as a small business with deep ties to the community. “The quality [of our offerings] is definitely on par with the city stores, but [we’re] also providing our customers a more curated experience that stores not from the area can’t do as well,” Handy says.
Perhaps no wine shop better exemplifies this new bottle shop movement than Denver Wine Merchant, which sommeliers Sally Stewart and Steven Washuta brought to life last August. Both arrived in Denver by way of NYC, where Stewart was formerly the head sommelier at Cut by Wolfgang Puck and Washuta served as wine director at lauded contemporary Italian spot Portale. Denver Wine Merchant draws heavily on both of their expertise, spotlighting complex and flavor-packed wines from top-quality makers around the globe. It’s a robust selection that caters to adventurous consumers drawn in by Stewart and Washuta’s restaurant backgrounds.
“We have designed the shop since the beginning to have a restaurant-style vibe with great music, warm lighting, and a clean product display with no shelf talkers, posters, or other distractions,” Washuta says. There’s much banter between him and customers, the kind of back-and-forth a restaurant patron might have with the resident sommelier. “Because we don’t carry big brands that many consumers are familiar with, it helps encourage interaction for recommendations,” he adds.
When Stewart and Washuta first opened the shop, neither saw themselves as part of any sort of movement. But they’re beginning to see things differently now.
“We do have a few friends following us from restaurant to retail,” Washuta says. “Hopefully stores like ours will help shift the mindset of both consumers and the industry as to what retail stores can offer.”