Shopping for Wine in Rhode Island
Large-Scale Choices for a Small-Scale State
Just 10 years ago, there weren’t that many places for Rhode Islanders looking for stores to shop for wine. Now we not only have a lot of options, we have a lot of different kinds of options, and the variety of offerings and stores is making us savvier wine shoppers. The wine merchants and store owners I talked to for this article are all dedicated to informing and educating their customers, and we are the beneficiaries.
Campus Fine Wines already had a long history as a wine oasis in Providence, right on the corner of Brook and Sheldon Streets on the East Side. Andrea and Howard Sloan purchased the store in 2012 and immediately tightened their focus on small-production, organic producers. They also opened the store up internally to bring in more light and create a more relaxed atmosphere, inviting shoppers to browse.
“Now we can lead you to something you weren’t aware of before—without hovering,” says Andrea. “The layout encourages you to explore.”
The store is especially strong in Loire Valley wines: Sancerre white and Chinon red being perhaps the best-known examples. “There’s tremendous value in the Loire,” Howard says. “Small producers are turning it into one of the most interesting wine regions in France.”
Another spot that predates the current bumper crop of local wine stores is East Side Prescription Center. Yes, it’s a pharmacy. But right down the aisle from the Band-Aids and headache remedies are hearty red wines. According to owner Rich Backar, “120 years ago alcohol was part of a pharmacy’s medicinal inventory. Most stores we grew up with as ‘package stores’ were originally drugstores.”
Rich displays his wines by style—like-bodied wines are grouped together. He emphasizes value, “You don’t have to spend $40 to get good wine,” he says. “Increased knowledge and technology mean that even in the off-years, winemakers can produce quality vintages.”
The Savory Grape first opened on Main Street in East Greenwich back in 2006. Owner Jessica Granatiero displayed her wines by style. “We grouped like-bodied wines together,” she says. In 2009 the store moved to larger quarters in the East Greenwich Plaza “to provide more breadth and depth, as well as spirits and beer.”
It’s interesting to see wine presented the way Jessica does it, and how that approach works with customers. “When a new customer comes in, we ask what he or she likes. If she says, ‘Chardonnay,’ then we need to probe so we can take her to the white wines made with the profile she likes in Chardonnay. We’re like personal shoppers for our customers, and we taste every wine in the store.”
More single-varietals are selling now, and shoppers are more open to trying new wines.
“There’s less score-keeping as people are learning what their own palate preferences are,” says Jessica. Rosés have become yearround choices recently, but Italian reds and emerging whites (from the Alto Adige, for example) get stronger every year.
In Rumford, Elliott Fishbein’s Town Wine & Spirits not only features an extensive wine selection, but also one of the largest singlemalt Scotch selections in all of New England. Wine is still 60% of Elliott’s business, however, and he works hard to keep his offerings interesting.
“We buy on taste,” he says, “not to fit in a category. We’re always looking for wine-producing areas that are just now being developed: Croatia, Greece and South Africa, for example. We’re moving toward small producers that reflect high character, charm and, above all, quality.”
In Jamestown, stop in at Grapes & Gourmet on the old Ferry Wharf, which can supply all the ingredients for a perfect picnic, onboard lunch or dinner, from hors d’oeuvres through dessert—including wine. It’s unusual for food and wine to be sold on the same premises in Rhode Island but there is a quirky work-around the old liquor laws, thanks to the small population of Jamestown. Will Wilson runs the store alongside his brother Ian, who’s in charge of the beer department, and sister Amelia, who does the baking. The wine selection is not large but it’s great for browsing. The specialty: niche, under-the-radar wines that make for good conversations as well as good meal companions. At the rear of the store: charcuterie, artisan cheeses, gourmet crackers and cigars—not to mention Amelia’s tempting baked goods.
Wakefield Liquors has one of the largest wine selections in the state. Owner Jane Costanza and wine director Jeff Baran have created a tail that looks very much as if it’s wagging the dog: the wine room. This expansive space is always staffed with people who know their “wines chosen with passion,” as the store’s slogan has it.
Says Jane, “My purpose [when I opened the store] was to help our customers learn about wine.” The result is a place you could happily get lost in, finding treasures along the way. Jane and Jeff carry a growing list of natural/organic wines. Jeff points out a Meinklang “Burgenlandred,” a fresh-tasting biodynamic red wine from Austria. “Here’s exactly what so many of our customers are looking for now: natural, unprocessed, delicious—and under $20. We love helping them discover wines like this.”
Recently relocated to Memorial Boulevard in Newport, Newport Wine Cellar and its sister store, Le Petit Gourmet, form an almost-one-stop-shopping destination. Owner Maria Chiancola says, “When customers come into my shop, they are immediately given the opportunity to have a conversation with knowledgeable staff … we want to take the pretension and intimidation out of wine shopping.”
The store is inviting, open and airy, which facilitates these conversations. “Shoppers want to feel they are supporting responsible and sustainable agricultural and vinicultural practices … the relationship between food and wine is more important than ever.” In fact, she says, “The concept of food and wine pairing is the foundation of my business model.”
Grapes & Grains opened in 2011 after years of negotiations at the town and state level, finally becoming the first legal liquor store in Barrington in 300 years. The store groups its wines by country; U.S. wines are subdivided by body type. Owner Matt Amaral and wine director Mark Berry have embellished this approach with a number of islands stocking Staff Favorites, Rare and Vintage, New World Wines and other rotating categories. The store’s selection is well curated and eclectic, “But,” says Mark, “we’re a Pinot Noir store by proxy.” Maybe that’s because a previous wine director was from the Pacific Northwest and had a passionate dedication to the wines from that region. Customers who tried Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs were interested in comparing them with other Pinot Noirs from other regions, and in learning about the many different styles of wine that can be made from the same grape, even the same altitude and latitude.
And now we’re back in Providence, but at a different kind of wine store: Bottles. This large, inviting store on the East Side is deep in both wines and craft beers. Eric Taylor, the general manager, oversees the wine selection, and Liam Maloney is in charge of beer and the store’s rapidly growing cider selections. Eric took me on a tour of the store, pointing out that Bottles arranges its wines by grape varietals, not by region.
“So if a customer comes in the store and wants Cab, they’re all in one place. It broadens their experience, lets them explore the different flavor profiles that Cabernet Sauvignon can offer.” Most customers know their favorite varieties, so we like to ask, ‘What don’t you like?’” says Eric. “Then we can steer them away from that and encourage them to try something new and different. We’re always looking for wines that over-deliver for the price,” he adds.
Eric emphasized the shift in consumer preferences away from big, “over-manipulated” wines toward a more responsible style of winemaking.
“The fruit should speak for itself. We like to help our customers see that, and in the process we get to know them. Those relationships help us know—and remember—what they like.”
Eno, on Westminster Street in downtown Providence, opened on Friday, April 13, 2007. “Not the most favorable date for a launch,” owner Jerry Ehrlich says with a laugh. But the store has prospered, and offers customers a carefully chosen selection of wines and craft beers in a high-ceilinged space with a library-like atmosphere. The tall shelves, it turns out, were originally installed in a Federal courthouse in upstate New York. Jerry bought them at auction just before construction was starting in Providence, not really knowing if they’d fit in his new space or not—and they did, almost perfectly.
Eno organizes its wines by country of origin—except for the U.S., where they’re sorted by grape. Here too, natural and biodynamic wines are thriving. The store fills a niche in its neighborhood by providing wines to diners at nearby restaurants without liquor licenses, and those wines often are a good match for the restaurants’ farm-to-table offerings.
On Atwells Avenue, Gasbarro’s Wines is both broad and deep in Italian wines. The selection is remarkable—and fortuitous, too, considering the consistent and long-lived popularity of Italian wines in America. Italy seems to be able to come up with wines that target the American palate at price points that don’t challenge the American wallet. Owner Mark Gasbarro cites the recent attention and acclaim that Sicilian and other wines from the south of Italy have drawn. Grapes such as Nero d’Avola and Primitivo (the ancestor of Zinfandel) and wines like Etna Rosso combine definitive flavor profiles with irresistible pricing. “A $40 Etna Rosso is the equivalent of an $80 Burgundy,” says Mark.
In addition to its standard selections, Gasbarro’s Wine Cellar is the home of more than 4,000 bottles—a stunning selection of wines from the world’s great wine regions, not just Italy. So while you can browse there among extremely valuable Brunellos and Barolos, you can also find first-growth Bordeaux and Burgundies, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Champagne.
For such a small state, wedged as it is between two of the most powerful urban centers in the nation, Rhode Island is blessed with an uncommonly wide variety of stores focused on wines, and approaches to selling it to consumers. Since no place in the state is very far away from where you are now, why not try more than one? You’re sure to find a new store you like—and discover a new favorite wine in the process.