How do you buy wine? My guess is that, unless it’s spaghetti night and you are happy with hearty Burgundy, you no longer go into the corner liquor store, with its case stackings of whisky, vodka, gin and Gallo. That store still exists, but it’s not a place to buy fine wine.
The Internet has expanded our choices exponentially and to compete in today’s wine market, a dedicated wine merchant has to cater to customers who want something special.
I recently explored these changes in the wine trade with Michael Cinque, who, as owner of Amagansett Wine and Spirits, has been a dynamic part of the wine scene for over 30 years.
In 1979, Cinque took on the old Amagansett liquor store when his family bought it as a real estate investment. He recalls, “I needed something to do, but I had never run a retail store. I wasn’t a wine geek, so I approached the business like a consumer, thinking of what the person entering the store wants to find there. In the off-season, I traveled around to all the wine regions. You gotta meet the people!”
Meeting the people on both sides of the wine business is Cinque’s mantra. He knows thousands of the world’s winemakers, both renowned and obscure. He knows their wines. And he knows his customers. Ninety percent of his wines are hand-selected by him and his staff, who taste about one bottle out of every case, in staff seminars, just to know what they are selling. They can find a wine to please you if you tell them the last six wines you liked.
Although Cinque uses scores from Robert Parker’s reviews to give his own sales a boost, he knows not everyone agrees with Parker’s taste and he is distressed by the power of Parker’s scores. Cinque says, “Parker has changed the wine world. It’s good for me because it sells tons of wine. It’s bad for me because it has changed wine styles. Everyone [who makes wine] wants to get ‘the score.’ To own ‘the score.’ Now wine has to jump out of the bottle. No time to watch it change. These wines aren’t road tested. Thirty years ago, you had to rub the genie out of it.”
Having sold wine for decades and seen how people react to the critics’ scores after trying the wines, Cinque says, “Many of us don’t have the same palate as Parker. His 99-point score may be my 68. This is why you still have to have a trusted wine merchant. We all need a good doctor, a good lawyer and a good wine merchant!”
Cinque himself has many clients who ask him to buy wine for them because he knows what they like, regardless of scores.
“These aren’t speculators,” he says. “They buy great wine, drink it and share it. Gentlemen don’t resell wine.”
In order to distinguish his shop from others, Cinque says, “I have to bring in the excitement, the esoteric stuff.” Unlike many of today’s wine shops, he doesn’t have a website and his presence on Facebook is minimal, but he does rely on the Internet in a big way. Besides selling from his store in Amagansett, for the past 10 years he has offered new releases and special deals to his email list. This is where, as he puts it, “Old school meets new school.” The Internet puts a new twist into his sales by extending his reach far beyond Amagansett. 70 percent of his sales are west of Shinnecock; his own trucks deliver to Manhattan and beyond.
Cinque knows that his customers are checking his deals against the online databases like WineSearcher.com. He checks them, too. “We don’t push ‘go’ unless we’re in the running [on price], he says. “We’re working on nickels and dimes.”
Uneasy with the consolidation of brands and distributors in the trade, Cinque gets behind small producers when he can. He invested in Red Hook, the Brooklyn winery that was decimated by Superstorm Sandy, and he tends his own little vineyard at home in Amagansett. He has his morning coffee sitting under his sauvignon blanc vines, communing with the spirit of his beloved grandfather, who used to make wine with grapes from the Brooklyn market and instilled in him a love of wine.
He says, “I have more respect for wine guys than ever. God bless them. I’m proud of Long Island. In our own lifetimes we’ll be there with Napa and Sonoma.”
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.