Volume 19 • Issue 14 | August 18-24, 2006

Downtown living

New and vintage wine sellers find market on Wall St.

<<Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
Wine basement or store? The Greene Grape on Liberty St., with its homey feel and lesser known wines, has found a home in the Financial District around the corner from Maiden Lane Wine & Liquor. Peter Muscat, Maiden Lane’s owner, said if “you’re not going to find it there, you’re going to find it here.”

By Jean Marie Hackett

Chances are that when you descend the short flight of stairs leading into The Greene Grape, the rookie wine shop in the Financial District that opened just last February, you’ll walk right into an impromptu wine tasting.

That’s owner Jason Richelson’s “whole thing.” Richelson, an ex-trader turned wineshop owner who began The Greene Grape enterprise with his girlfriend, Amy Bennett, first in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and now just steps away from the World Trade Center site, arranged the store with this style in mind. He said that it’s “much, much, more welcoming if you say, ‘Come in and taste a glass of wine.’” In contrast to wineshops where the staff hangs back behind the counter, here, “everyone who comes in, you have to offer them wine and let them taste wine.”

Richelson moved into his Nassau St. wine sanctuary after finding out that within 1,000 feet of his store, 3,000 new apartments had been built in the past six years, but during that same period, no new wine stores had opened.

“I got the feeling that the neighborhood needed a good wine store for the people who live there,” he said.

For Richelson, a good wine store employs people who are “passionate about wine.” One of his employees, Peter Becraft, loves wine so much that he works weekends at Greene Grape, in addition to his full-time work as a casting director. Of the other wineshops in the area, Becraft said, “we seem to be offering something that those places aren’t,” — specifically, delivery, late hours (the Greene Grape is open seven days a week, until 9:00 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday), and an educational approach to wine. The shop also offers a personalized description of each wine, records customer purchases (so that you can remember what you bought the last time) and sends informative emails to its clientele. The other places are “so used to catering towards a business environment,” Becraft said.

Joe Raetzer, a resident who strolled into the store on a Saturday afternoon with his visiting mother-in-law, agreed. “These guys are really good at educating you,” he said. “The cool thing is they deliver.”

The twist is that the average wine consumer is unlikely to recognize the wine bottles highlighted in any Greene Grape tasting, nor any of the 130 wine bottles in the store. You won’t find Jacob’s Creek, Kendall-Jackson or a single major wine producer. The absence is deliberate — these bottles are not invited to The Greene Grape party, and they are not missed by the store’s owner. “We have no problem not carrying Kendall Jackson,” said Richelson, who will “only work with small wine makers.”

Richelson’s concern is that “wine is becoming very homogenized, especially in America.” Since so much of the wine the store carries is “organic, biodynamic, or sustainable,” he said the wine “is going to taste different every year. We’ve always been about the small winemakers — they aren’t going to spray where their kids play in the fields.”

Though you may not recognize the wine, Richelson is sure that customers will recognize the quality of his selection. “People who work for us like working in a store where they don’t have to push anything they think is crap,” he said. “Everything is good. We taste it.” The wine is also affordable. “Everything in the store is between $10 and $20, with a few exceptions.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the new wine shop’s snub of the big brands. “We’ve had people [who live] within this building that won’t come in because we don’t carry Frog’s Leap or their favorite Napa,” said Becraft.

You will find Frog’s Leap and Kendall-Jackson — along with vodka and other hard liquors — at Maiden Lane Wine & Liquor, a business about 60 years old, just around the corner from The Greene Grape. In an area where the old meets the new, as office buildings give way to apartments housing recent college grads, where on a Saturday night you are just as likely to see a gaggle of 20-something girls headed out in cabs as you are business-casual investment bankers stepping into cars after a weekend at work, it is only fitting that that the shops in the neighborhood begin taking cues from the neighborhood’s new growth — and the historical pieces that built it.

While the new guys on the block “had to cut a little bit” into his business, Maiden Lane owner Peter Muscat said, “I don’t think they carry my products” — referring not just to the wine, but to his selection of hard liquor. (The Greene Grape does carry a selection of spirits, but as with the wine, you will not find common names like Dewars and Grey Goose there.) Muscat, who also offers free local delivery, said, “You’re not going to find it there, you’re going to find it here.”

Muscat has changed a few things since The Greene Grape and new apartment buildings opened, such as pushing closing time back from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (but he opens, as always, at 8:00 a.m.). Muscat’s store remains closed on Sunday, but he knows this may have to change as well. “I don’t like to but I guess in the future I probably have to” open on Sunday, he said. The non-identifying black and gold plastic bags have already been replaced with red bags displaying the business name and, Muscat points out, words that read “Est. 50 years.”

Muscat’s place — a narrow tunnel that hugs the customer — feels dark and rich in contrast to the hip and airy atmosphere of The Greene Grape. It seems to hold the history that characterizes its location, a street where Thomas Jefferson dined with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, a street that watched the rise of the Twin Towers in 1973. Muscat, who started working for Maiden Lane Wine & Liquor as a kid more than 35 years ago, appears to hold a bit of that history himself.

To hear him tell it, Muscat developed his taste for wine before he even mastered solid foods. On the island nation of Malta, Muscat’s birthplace, he said, “We were born with wine in our mouth.” He is also adamant about quality. “Whatever I bring in the store, I taste it. It’s a good bottle of wine. Otherwise, I wouldn’t sell it.”

On Saturday evening, Muscat is busy counseling a consumer through his purchase of rum, talking about the different tastes and textures of a few different bottles, while his wife, Angela, assists. “Whenever I recommend, I never go wrong,” he said. He may not offer the hands-on approach of The Greene Grape, but he talks to customers all day long. “You know what my wife, sitting over there, she tells me?” he said with a smile. “My wife tells me, ‘you do all the talking here, and when you get home, you say nothing else.’”

Don DeSilva, a John St. resident, said of Maiden Lane, “I like this place — the price is right.” There are “a lot of wines from South America” at the store that keep him coming.

“We’re still doing all right,” Muscat said. “My biggest hit was 9/11, but we survived; we’re still here... It’s like a home here to me.”

To his left, the sign on the wall reads, “Keep this place in mind, for a better one is hard to find.”

Not better, maybe, but different.

The two shops are The Greene Grape,, 55 Liberty St., 212-406-9463, and Maiden Lane Wine & Liquor,, 6 Maiden Lane 212-267-8430.


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