Evan Hansen sends his contribution to our indies competition - a 'crusty old wine shop... too crazy to be real'.
Being a Burgundy addict is possibly the most laughably bourgeois ailment from which one could suffer – but anyone who is likewise afflicted knows how it can unreasonably consume one's thoughts. It's also probably absurd for a middle-class wine junkie to write a homage to his local dealer. But then, there's nothing typical about wine, wine lovers, or great wine shops, is there?
For me, the relationship with Elie Wine Company began back in 2008 with a bottle of 1995 Catherine and Claude Maréchal Pommard. A friend had poured some, mentioning he found it at Elie Wine Company, an ostensibly crusty old wine shop that I had never bothered to enter. With old wooden crates jutting out into the aisles, a tasting table made of wine cases and Spanish tourism books, and cases of wine stacked to the ceiling, it looked too crazy to be anything real.
In retrospect, I should have recognized one of the chief signs of greatness: an unwavering approach that has stayed true to itself for 20 years regardless of fashion.
But I was stupid, so I had assumed this Elie fellow had no idea what was buried on those shelves. And likewise, I'd figured he would throw me a deal when I picked up a bottle caked in an immodest layer of dust. There's a bit of that gold rush prospecting mentality to even the most laid back wine drinker – we all want to find a great bottle at a great price – and I had my sights set on my beloved Maréchal Burgundy.
Elie Boudt has a different way of doing business, though. From the first time we met, when I strolled in looking for that bottle, he obviously sensed my curiosity. And he did give me a deal on that Maréchal, but not because the bottle was old. It was because he wanted to encourage me – and my damn Burgundy addiction.
I learned a lot through my first few encounters. I learned that Elie doesn't sweat losing a sale to someone who doesn't care to understand his store, but that he's willing to spend hours talking to any curious customer, regardless of what they might be able to afford. I learned about obscure appellations and long-retired producers. And I learned that in addition to his wealth of knowledge he has a refreshingly focused perspective. Rather than carry ubiquitous wines and over-represented regions, he specializes in French and Spanish wines (his new employee's recent forays into Italian wines notwithstanding).
While he may not have even a single bottle of Napa Cabernet or Riesling, he has a stunning collection of thousands of wines about which he knows virtually everything. That is to say, his repertoire is not comprised merely of some facts gleaned from a magazine but from face to face contact with many of winemakers, from regular chats with producers and importers, and from decades of exposure to wines that few, if any, stores in the entire Midwestern United States could claim.
In an age of self service, online shopping carts, and supermarkets with discount bins, Elie's insistence on researching every wine and touching every bottle harkens back to the approach of merchants and craftsmen who offered a unique service rather than blindly pushing cheap commodities.
He's recently moved from that dusty closet of a store into a beautiful new space up the road, but the extra room does more than give the store a new shine. With hundreds of wines released from their stacked cases, now displayed on shelves, the true depth of his collection is finally evident. That assemblage includes arguably the finest collection of smack – er, Burgundy – in the United States (sorry, New York, but it's true), Bordeaux from the 70s, and wines crafted by up-and-coming producers working in less prestigious parts of the wine world.
When those new wines arrive, it's not because my home state's antiquated liquor distribution system encourages him to do so. It's because he assumes the extra burden of researching wines unavailable in our market and finding a way to bring them to us. It's an inspiring, passion-driven model that's based on seeking great things rather than settling even for good things.
If not the best wine shop in the United States – after all, who the hell knows what 'best' means – Elie Wine Company is surely among the most focused and, in those things in which they specialize, the deepest. And perhaps even more impressively, the staff's knowledge and excitement for those wines run just as deep. It's an uncommon, world-class resource disguised as a local shop. And as a Burgundy junkie who always wants to talk wine, drink wine, and think wine, I'm as thankful as I am amazed that it's in my neighborhood.
(I took the photo on the right while travelling to Asturias, Spain, with Elie. This is in the vineyards owned by Nicholas Marcos Vicente of Domino del Urogallo in Cangas.)