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  • Guest contributor
Written by
  • Guest contributor
1 Sep 2014

Several wine merchants appear to have an immoderate number of loyal customers with a strong literary leaning and a keen nose for a prize, and we've decided to dedicate this week to reviews that, although about the same merchant, are well written enough to earn a place on the published list. First off the blocks is Chambers Street Wines, an indie so loved that no less than 13 people wrote in about it. We've already published one review, but felt that these were too good to miss. In no particular order...


Keith Bailey gives us his magnum opus.

Like with opera, it helps to know the story

There is a wine store on Chambers Street in downtown Manhattan rather unpretentiously called Chambers Street Wines. They sell wine, of course. But what they really sell is an idea - that artisanal farmers, growing grapes on hillsides with great care and making traditional styled wines with natural yeasts, minimal intervention in the cellar and only modest use of new wood - can produce fairly priced wines that are not only of the highest quality but also the highest interest. When you buy a bottle from Chambers Street you are also sharing in a relationship with its grower - a relationship with a farmer whose work expresses an attachment to tradition and a passion that is wholly reflected by what is put into the bottle.

The list of wines that Chambers Street does not carry is actually remarkable. The store's attachment to its 'message' has always been strong. When I first walked into the store thirteen years ago there were few wines on the shelves whose producers I recognized. There was almost no Bordeaux. No brands. There was basically nothing produced in large quantity. This is not so unusual now but it was back then. Now, whenever I take the trouble to explore a new wine region and in so doing identify growers whose wines I most would like to try - there they are on Chambers Street's hugely informative website. This might be the Jura, Irouleguy, or Molise. This has happened often enough that I now don't bother to do the research - I just call the store and get advice.

The people aspect of Chambers Street is terribly important. There is a hugely strong connection to the grower and this is delivered to the customer in every purchase. Someone on the staff has met the grower of every bottle they sell. Likely several members of staff many times. Jamie Wolff and David Lillie - who as partners run the store - have between them met almost every producer. They have probably stayed at the grower's house in the vineyard. On the cold floor in dead of winter. In fact I know they have. And when these growers come to New York - many for the first time - they are graciously looked after. Small evening tastings are arranged. I can remember going to one set up on short notice at a modest restaurant in very downtown Manhattan, asking to join a table at which three people were already sitting only to find out later that the tasting was only occupying two small tables at the other side of the restaurant. Small is basically the message at Chambers Street. At these events the lucky faithful share in the modesty and passion of people trying hard to produce wine that reflects the most authentic expression of place as can be achieved. One's understanding deepens. Every bottle from that producer thereafter tastes more interesting. It really helps to know the story.

The Chambers Street magic is that this trick works almost as well even if you missed the event because the descriptions on the website alongside the wines so clearly deliver this same passion and there is always someone deeply knowledgeable at the store to help who knows not only the type of wood in which the wine was aged but also the name of the grower's dog. On one occasion Vincent Laval - a grower in Champagne - had to back out of a tasting at the last minute. The tasting went ahead anyway hosted by the importer and Sophie Barrett, a member of Chambers Street staff. It was almost as if Vincent had been there.

Chambers Street led the way in its exclusive focus on artisanal wines and only selling wines they actually like to drink. Others have followed. But no one has a stronger conviction or faithfulness to this idea nor translates it to you so easily. You feel it as you walk out of the store clutching the last few bottles of a Saint Chinian you have never heard of but know is going to be wonderful.

Tobias Andrews loses hours but finds Gringet.

I believe my first encounter with Chambers Street Wines, NYC, was during the Christmas season. I was scouring the internet looking for some older bottles of wine to give as presents, wanting to give several people on my list a bottle of wine corresponding to their birth year. I found what I was looking for in spades on their website and decided to pick up my wines in the store. I never dreamed that I would find much more than a store waiting for me.

Stated simply, Chambers Street Wines has pretty much everything you could ask from a wine store, whether you shop in person or online. I do not live in New York City, so my business with Chambers Street Wines has been primarily through internet, save for a few in-store pick-ups when I am visiting. Tucked neatly away in lower Manhattan, the storefront is definitely just a small piece of what they have to offer. Their online store is second to none, being VERY well organized and, most important, always up-to-date; an entire afternoon could be lost perusing the website alone. Their articles and emails about wine, winemakers, new wine and old pull you right in and, I must confess, several purchases were made based solely on their revealing accounts of a particular wine or region or vigneron. They are some of the most insightful, interesting, in-depth and extremely well-written articles on the subject of wine.

While a few hours can go by searching the racks for the Beringers, the Phelps and all of those goodies, it is the obscure and unknown wines of Chambers Street Wines that I feel set the store apart, wines of which I probably would not have been exposed. And if I can credit one member of the staff for going above and beyond in this area, it is definitely Sophie. Her contributions/articles to the online site are indispensable, How else would I have found the wines of Jura and eastern France, Belluard or Landry or secht, rose, nacre, gringet? Even my resistance to French reds was broken down one afternoon, thanks to Sophie. Asking her 'What's good?' and knowing my newfound propensity for the wines of the Savoie, Sophie immediately took me to grab a bottle of Magnin, to which I winced not ever so slightly. 'Not a big fan of French reds,' I said. 'Well, I think you should try it', she replied with a smile. I bought the bottle and opened it up at home; I bought two more bottles online as soon as I took one sip. And this happens all the time with almost every bottle. They are all winners.

I love wine and I love this store! It's always a real pleasure dealing with anyone from Chambers Street Wines. From an online order to suggestions about which vineyards to visit in Portland, OR, from questions about holding orders to combine shipping to the discount they offer restaurant and wine industry professionals such as myself, I have never ever felt anything but love emanating from this wonderful store. Not to be one of those who quotes himself, but in a recent email to Sophie, I indicated that, 'I am very happy that I did not know of your store during the 15 years I lived in Manhattan. I am fairly confident you would have been able to build a small annex based solely on my purchases.' When you treat your customers as they do at Chambers Street Wines, as a customer and wine lover, I have no choice but to return again and again. Bravo to David Lillie and his entire staff! You have gained a customer for life.

Rebecca Fineman keeps going back.

I first heard about Chambers Street Wines from a friend. The next day I heard about it from another friend. This went on for weeks. People said I needed to see it. They warned it was a tiny shop, but the knowledgeable staff and wonderful selection of wines stood out. They said I would love it. As proof they'd pull a bottle of wine out of their bag - a producer I had never before heard of - beaming with their new discovery. At the time I was just starting to gain my own wine voice, and I was on the brink of entering into the world of the wine professional. I was curious to see this shop, but also worried it'd be another one of the shops that specialized only in quirky wines, natural wines, wines that are often more interesting than they are delicious.

At this time I was already working part time (1-2 days a week) at another wine shop, Astor Wines and Spirits. There I briefly worked with a girl named Sophie. She was smart, and I liked her because she spoke about wine in a very special way. She could place a wine in its context, so that you couldn't possibly only see it as a bottle of wine, but as something that came from a real place, with a real history. I liked Sophie and was sad to see her leave. I asked a coworker where she was going. 'She got hired to be a Jura Specialist at Chambers Street Wines,' was the response. 'A Jura Specialist!' I thought, 'What kind of magical place has its own Jura specialist?' I was sold.

I first visited Sophie's new wine shop one month later, with a shopping list in hand. For Thanksgiving I was going to need some Cru Beaujolais and Champagne. When I arrived at the shop I was surprised that it looked the way it did. My friends had told me it was small, but I didn't know it could be both tiny and dense at the same time. The shelves were stocked, cubbies were full; it felt warm and inviting and deep, despite its actual square footage. I quickly found the Beaujolais, and scanned a number of familiar names on the shelves. I was about to grab one of these when a man interrupted. 'Are you looking for something in particular?' he asked. 'No, I'm just grabbing a Cru Beaujolais for Thanksgiving Dinner,' I replied somewhat proudly. And then I paused. I don't remember what he said next, but he somehow managed to offer some suggestions, and I don't remember why but I somehow managed to take them. I ended up walking out with two bottles of a Cru Beaujolais made by Christian Ducroux, a producer I had never before heard about. I was skeptical about the suggestion and had very low expectations. This is exactly the disclaimer I used when I opened a bottle to taste with friends that evening. I was surprised by what happened next: The world went quiet for a moment, and it dawned on me that I was tasting something really special. I have since learned that this is a cult producer, with very limited production. I buy as much as I can get my hands on each year, and share it with only the truly special people in my lives. I savor each sip and can't help but be disappointed each time a bottle is finished.

This was my first encounter with Chambers Street Wines, and from there a relationship blossomed. For months I would show up and speak with anyone on the staff, looking for recommendations or just chatting about wine. Everyone at the shop is knowledgeable, and so there's no reason to play favorites. They always seem to have shelves stocked with a large number of wines I already know and love and a large number of wines I'm curious to try. It's an expensive friendship, but my career has improved greatly because of it.

Eventually I moved away from New York City, but I refused to leave Chambers Street Wines behind. I continue to buy wine from them through their online shop. They hold my orders until the weather allows it, which means I get a number of delicious wines all at once. Occasionally one or two of them will chime in on my order - offering praise, or suggesting something else, based on my order. I no longer worry about the suggestions; I revel in them.

New York is ahead of the game compared to San Francisco, and it's these suggestions that help me keep abreast of the new and exciting developments in the wine world. I have a familiarity with producers that people haven't even heard about yet in California. I don't know how they do it, but each time I go to their website or speak with one of them about wine, they manage to make me feel important and special. It's exactly how I felt when I first stepped foot in their shop five years ago and decided to accept someone's help.

Mark Dennis would sacrifice sanity and cross the ocean (or maybe just the Hudson River) to get there.

Why would a reasonably sane man, with dozens of local wine shops to choose from, traipse 50 miles each way to buy wine at Chambers Street Wines? The distance alone is daunting; but the traffic, Hudson River crossings, and parking really take a toll (or several!). The reason is that Chambers Street has created a target-rich environment for my wine preferences. I can select a random case of bottles to try, at any price point, and reliably be delighted with every one. There are always 'old friends' – new vintages of wines that have pleased in the past; and there are also new wines to explore, often from unfamiliar regions. I have tried, and continue to try, other wine shops, but there is no comparison. Let me say why.

My history with the store and its staff would be enough to keep me coming back. I started buying wines from David Lillie in the early 1990s when he was a manager at Garnet Wines. I was already enjoying the wines of Vouvray, Muscadet, Champagne, Alsace, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Bordeaux , Rioja, and the Rhone Valley; but David introduced me to the wines of artisanal producers from these and other regions, and these wines put to shame the wines I had been drinking. When David and Jamie Wolff opened Chambers Street Wines in 2001, the exposure to great wines only accelerated and improved. A dear friend of mine, an older man who grew up in Rome, had already introduced me to many delicious wines from Piedmont and Tuscany; but Jamie showed me great wines from the full length and breadth of Italy, much to the delight of my dear friend. Thanks to David, Jamie, and the staff at Chambers Street, I am drinking much better wines from regions I knew before, and I am enjoying my discovery of the wines of Austria, Lombardy, Jura, Ribeira Sacra, Savoie, southwest France, Sherry, the full expanse of the Loire Valley, and other regions too numerous to name.

All this would be enough to have me stop in a couple of times a year to catch up with friends and taste a few of the latest wines. Yet, all sentiment aside, what compels so many other customers to frequent the store and me to spend 90-100% of my wine dollars at Chambers Street is the seemingly endless stream of wines that taste the way I want wines to taste! This is true even among less expensive wines – most of the wines I buy are less than $30/bottle.Chambers Street is not a warehouse store that attempts to offer something for every taste. The wines here are a carefully selected collection of naturally made, food-friendly, terroir-forward wines – no super-ripe fruit, no heavy oak, no wines that taste of no particular place. Even so, wines do not describe, recommend, or pour themselves - the staff here are extremely well informed, and have tasted the wines offered. There are in-store tastings and wine dinners at local restaurants, often with the wine grower or importer attending; direct import wines that are not available elsewhere; older/mature wines purchased from reliable cellars; no scores cluttering the shelves/displays; and a cool store temperature that ensures the wines will not wither on the shelves.

Chambers Street has been the essential guide on my adventure in the world of wine – hard to imagine a better experience. The wines have delighted friends and family alike, and I look forward to sharing them again and again. I am currently falling head-over-heels for the wines of the Canary Islands, thanks to Chamber Street Wines!

Brant Davis salutes the team who make the magic happen.

ChambersStWines_staff_resized-4.jpg

The people in this photo are smiling for a reason: they work at Chambers Street Wines in New York City. Every business today calls its employees a 'family' or a 'team.' In most instances, this is nothing more than wishful thinking or a nod to approved human-resources jargon. In the case of Chambers Street, it strikes me as an accurate description. I have dealt with, and gotten to know, quite a few of these people over the years, and without exception they are not just extremely knowledgable and passionate about wine (a baseline requirement for any great wine shop); they are also happy, excited and proud to be working at CSW. Such esprit de corps is a tribute to the owners, Jamie Wolff and David Lillie, and perhaps even more so to Sophie Barrett, who took over as store manager a few years ago and has been a catalyst in making a very good store into a great one. Not incidentally, Jamie, David and Sophie all possess exquisite palates and are primarily responsible for the wine purchased by the store.

Now, about that wine. One of the great strengths of CSW's inventory is the breadth and depth of its selection of lesser known or under-appreciated wine regions from which, even today, real bargains can be found. Over the years, thanks to CSW, I have been introduced to star producers from the Loire Valley (Domaine de la Pepiere, Clos Roche Blanche, Mosse, Breton, among many); Jura (Tissot, Overnoy-Crinquand); Savoie (Belluard); Champagne (Bereche; Laval; Ledru; Marguet); Languedoc (Clos du Rouge Gorge, Dom. du Traginer); and even Burgundy (Digioia-Royer, Tremblay, Felletig).

CSW's offerings are not, however, all about the new or trendy. Thanks to careful and knowledgeable purchases from private cellars, the store offers an unequalled selection of outstanding older wines, all of which the store guarantees. As I write this, for example, if I were in the mood for an older Barolo, I could purchase a 1974 Giacomo Conterno Riserva Monfortino, a 1985 Bruno Giacosa Villero or a magnum of 1990 Ceretto Brunate. Bottles like these can be especially attractive since, in many cases, they are offered for less than the current vintages of the same wines, and can be enjoyed immediately, rather than 20 or 30 years from now (an important consideration at my age!)

As I live in Atlanta, Georgia, I am quite familiar with CSW's shipping department, and here again, the store sets the standard by which I judge other wine merchants. The department manager keeps as careful an eye on the weather as I do and stays in close contact with me when a shipping window seems about to open. On the very few occasions when there have been problems - perhaps three or four over the course of 10+ years and hundreds of shipments - the mistake has been rectified immediately and to my complete satisfaction.

So that's about it: committed, knowledgeable, proud owners and staff; appealing, imaginative, unusual offerings across all price ranges and many regions; excellent customer service when the job is to get the wine to my door. Please award the prize to Chambers Street Wines. They earn it every day.

Dmitri Sevastopoulo tells of a wine shop that overcame the odds.

I became acquainted with David Lillie, Proprietor of Chambers Street Wines (CSW), many years ago when he was the manager of my local wine and spirits shop.

In July, 2011, David opened the doors of his own shop in a decommissioned fire station, and on September 1, 2011, the Twin Towers, a few blocks from CSW, were destroyed. No vehicular traffic was permitted south of Canal Street, which meant that CSW had to deliver their orders to Canal Street by hand truck, where a van would load the goods for deliveries to points north. CSW survived and has become one of Manhattan's finest wine stores.

What distinguishes CSW from other retail wine stores in Manhattan are the 1) knowledgeable staff, 2) accessibility of the staff both on the telephone and in person, 3) wide varieties of wines - many organic - from small producers - whom David and his associates visit in order to assess the quality and characteristics of their wines.

Approximately twice a month, CSW sends customers an email listing wines recently delivered or soon to be on the shelf. Each selection is accompanied by articulate and interesting notes written by an in-house connoisseur. Each time I receive such a bulletin, I pick up the phone and ask to speak to the person who is knowledgeable about this list.

CSW understands that wine lovers know what they like, are curious about new wines and are more likely to try something new if they can have a conversation about wine rather than a sales pitch. CSW excels in this art. If I lived within walking distance of CSW, I might become an alcoholic. As it is, my wife cannot understand why, in our two bedroom apartment, we must coexist with fifteen cases of wine, opened, scattered about and always ready to disgorge an evening of pleasure.

Chambers Street Wines
148 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
tel +1 212 227 1434
office@chambersstwines.com
www.chambersstwines.com