It's a Wine, Wine, Wine World

Something special, by definition: Sam's Washington Avenue Wine Shop's Sam Haislet
Michael Dvorak

What makes a wine shop a specialty shop? Nobody knows. Some stores focus on wine from just one country, or even one state; others have wine from all over, but mainly from small producers; still others have no particular focus, but they consider themselves specialists because they seek not only to sell wine but to educate their customers. Indeed, many owners list this as one of their goals and one of their pleasures--to introduce people to the world of wine.

Below, a few places where you can get to know your world a little better.

Solo Vino
You might think of this St. Paul shop near Selby and Dale as a highbrow kind of place, but co-owner Chuck Kanski swears that the top three sellers at Solo Vino are all $5.99: Protocolo Tinto, Casa Solar Tinto, and Casa Solar Blanco, in that order.

"These are our anchors," says Kanski. "But if you want we can take you downstairs and sell you something for $350."

In the basement are also hard-to-find wines: not necessarily expensive but not necessarily available. One of these is Albariño Do Ferreiro, Cepas Vellas, wine made from 200-year-old Spanish vines; the 2004 vintage sells for $33.99. "Four cases come to the state and us and Sutler's are the ones who get them," says Kanski.

Spanish wines account for 30 to 40 percent of Solo Vino's sales, says Kanski. "We definitely place our hat strongly on Spanish selections."

Another big part of their business is special orders--especially for hard-to-find domestic wines. "Our ability to request and special order has become a big deal over the last couple years," he says. "Just because it's not on the shelf floor, doesn't mean we can't get it."Solo Vino, 517 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 651.602.9515;


Osteria i Nonni
Loyal fans of St. Paul's former Italian deli market, Buon Giorno, might remember the wine bottles stashed neck to heel in one small section of the store. "It was basically Aisle 2," recalls Tom Selbitschka, bar manager and wine buyer for Osteria I Nonni, Buon Giorno's three-year-old offspring.

At the Osteria complex, which includes a deli and a restaurant, the wine shop has grown up. About 500 different wines load the shelves: They're all Italian, says Selbitschka, and these days many more are from small family producers. Prices range from $5.99 to $500.

About half of the wines in the shop are on the restaurant's wine list. But if you're dining in the restaurant and you want a bottle from the shop that's not listed, go ahead and wave for the server. Osteria's rule-of-thumb markup for wine brought from the wine shop to your table is $15--probably not worth it for a $15 bottle of wine, but a great deal for $50, $90, or $120 bottles of wine. "The more expensive the wine, the better the deal," confides Selbitschka. Osteria i Nonni, 981 Sibley Memorial Highway, Lilydale; 651.905.1080


Sam's Washington Avenue Wine Shop
Every boom-time downtown needs a good wine store. (What, you thought urban revivals were fueled by money or politics?)

Minneapolitans almost didn't get theirs. When Sam Haislet, founder and co-owner of Solo Vino, left his St. Paul store, he was going to leave wine behind. "I thought, what the hell, I'll just go do something else," he says. But wine was not through with him yet. "It just wouldn't leave me alone. I still had all these ideas for things I wanted to do in the wine world."

He read a study done by Lund's and saw that something like 30,000 people had moved into downtown Minneapolis in the last decade. That was the spark he needed. He opened Sam's in May in the Warehouse District, and he couldn't be happier.

"Part of the dynamic is that everybody who's here is a new resident," he says. "These are people who are building the neighborhood, so they have this adventurous spirit."

Haislet's new stock is mainly from small, boutique wineries: wines you've never heard of and couldn't find if you had, because the larger distributors don't carry them. He's trying to answer the question, "Is it possible to bring in a product nobody's ever heard of and sell it?"

To this end, he's trying hard to keep the price down. "It's a lot easier to take a chance on a wine that's $10 to $12 rather than $25 or $30," he acknowledges.

About 60 percent of the 800 or so labels at Sam's are imported; Haislet says his attention is turning more and more to Chile and
Argentina, where the wines are more complex than those from Australia but comparable in price. He carries wines that cost $300, but he said most of what he sells is $25 or less.  

Let the drinking renaissance begin. Sam's Washington Avenue Wine Shop, 218 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.445.1045;


The Wine Thief
There's a little olive tree in the window at The Wine Thief, a bright mural on the brick wall and a folding chalkboard out front announcing that the store's open. It's a homey little shop tucked in a homey row of shops on St. Clair, and when you walk in the door, you'll be shocked to find not homey clutter, not wine bins shoehorned next to each other and stacked into teetering columns, but space. Empty, gleaming space. You might think you're in the wrong place, but you're not. A rack with a dozen kinds of sake sways in the corner; Belgian ales stand on a small table; and to the left, shelves stretching the length of the store are loaded with wines. A-ha.

Katrina Wentzel, who owns the store with her husband Paul, says that they stock about 150 wines, and that's about all they want, though distributors have been trying to convince them to expand. "We're committed to staying small," she says. "We don't want to carry more; we want to be very selective. Everything has been hand-picked, which is uncommon."

The store, which opened in mid-August, is the fruition of a years-long pipe dream, Wentzel says. "We were a little frustrated with the wine-buying process in town," she confesses. "Sometimes it seemed like you went to places that were very intimidating and other times people didn't have any knowledge to share. We found great pleasure in finding those great bargains. It was fun to find them and we thought, wouldn't it be great to open a place where that would be our selection."

Almost all the wine in the store is under $20. The bottles are arranged by color-coded styles: fruity, spicy, bold, crisp, harmonious, sweet, and fizzy. Wentzel says that's so their customers can feel more confident while venturing into unknown territory. "If somebody comes in and says, 'I like chardonnay,'" that's not very helpful, she says. "There are oaky chardonnays, fruity chardonnays, crisp chardonnays, unoaked chardonnays.... We set up this store so people can experiment safely and grow their palette and still be affordable."

The place is homey in its conception as well. The Wentzels moved into a house in the neighborhood 11 years ago; they are deeply committed to the community. They've promised the neighborhood they won't carry hard liquor, though it's allowed under their license. They've got displays featuring the menu wines of the Groveland Tap and Heartland, which is across the street.

"We're all neighborhood-owned," says Wentzel. "We wanted to help each other. Our dream was not to create some empire but to create a neighborhood store."The Wine Thief, 1787 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul; 651.698.9463


Red on the left, white on the right. At the newborn chain store WineStyles, it's that simple to know wines. Advice from the handsome WineStyles brochure: "Don't get lost in a sea of labels, or labor over the correct pronunciation of Sangiovese or Montepulciano..." Just pick a color. Or rather, an adjective within a color. Reds come in fruity, mellow, bold, and nectar. Whites come in crisp, smooth, rich, and bubbly.

The concept of sorting wines by style isn't unique to this fast-growing string of franchises, but whereas some stores use the layout to invite customers to begin educating themselves about wine, WineStyles is aggressively selling the idea that you don't need to educate yourself about wine. Ever. As long as you've got plastic in your pocket and a WineStyles on your way home--and with stores in Stillwater, Shakopee, Mankato, and St. Louis Park, and another on the way in Chanhassen, that may soon be the case--all you need to know is fruity or mellow.

The trappings at WineStyles are a curious mix of the dunderheaded and the upper-crusted: In the corners of the store are Riedel glasses, expensive wine-drinking accessories in Eddie Bauer colors, and amusing cocktail games like Wineopoly. Yet the wines are stacked in tacky molded plastic cubbies that are supposed to look like somebody's Italian basement. ("Find yourself transported to an Old World wine cellar..." explains the brochure.)

Nevertheless, for some shoppers--especially those who've had a bad experience with big, confusing stores or snobby wine merchants--WineStyles is a welcome port. "It's more customer-friendly," says WineStyles salesperson Erin Johnson. "Most people, when they walk into the larger wine shops, kind of get lost. They don't really know where to look." WineStyles, 3840 Grand Way, St. Louis Park; 612.929.9463; and several other locations  


Wine Time
Minnesota wine: It's not just for gift baskets any more.

Well, actually...a lot of it is. Wine Time, which specializes in wine from Minnesota vineyards, is a store within a store. It's a division of the aptly named Love From Minnesota gift shop, on Fairview near the Rosedale mall, which is packed to the rafters with everything Minnesotan you could image, from black bear slippers to rowboat bookshelves, from toy loons in several sizes to soup and salsa mixes.

Most of the Wine Time's customers aren't looking for a wine to have with dinner, according to manager Ginny Price. "People come in here, they're either going out of state or sending something to someone, so this is just one more thing we can put in a basket," she says. "We also have gift items, accessories, wine racks, and we custom-make baskets. And we ship."

Wine Time stocks wine from nine wineries, says Price, including Alexis Bailly, Wine Haven, and Carlos Creek; from each producer there are 10 or 12 selections. Bottles cost between $9.99 and $34, but most hover near $12.

Price has a few personal favorites. "There's a couple from Alexis Bailly which are real easy drinking table wines: a country white and country red," she says. "They're just real drinkable, they appeal to a lot of palates."

A bottle of maple syrup, a bag of wild rice, a loon key ring, some local chocolates, a State Fair jam: Now, to the quintessential Minnesota gift basket, we can add a bottle of wine.

And maybe this year we'll buy two bottles, so we can have one with dinner. Wine Time, 2471 Fairview Ave., Roseville; 651.697.0159


Cesare's Wine Shop and Marketplace
Somewhere in Minnesota there are people who spend on a bottle of wine what others spend on a month's rent. It's a safe bet that those people know about Cesare's, the Stillwater wine shop that opened about three months ago on the site where the old territorial prison burned down. Robert Alexander, one of the four owners of what he calls "the empire" (the Cesare's Wine Bar, a restaurant, opened about three years ago, four blocks from where the wine shop is now), says that the shop regularly sells $900 bottles of wine. Wine at the next level, from $200 to $600, pretty much flies out the door at the rate of about one bottle a day.

"We don't sell too much under $20," says Alexander. "When people come here, they tend to come here looking for that special bottle--something unique--and they're ready to pay some money for it."

At the same time, one of the reasons they come to him, says Alexander, is because they know he'll treat them right. "Our markup here is one and half times over list," he explains. "I get really upset when the Wine Spectator puts us in the expensive category. I really do want to beat somebody up."

His reasoning? It's all in the math. "I could buy swill at $1 a bottle and put it on the shelf for $4, and I'd be called cheap," he says. "But I buy $100 wine and sell it at $150 and I'm expensive."

Cesare (pronounced chez-ar-AY) is a common Italian man's name; Alexander and his wife Leslie, a co-owner, and the other owners, Kirsten Lysne and Rich Lay of south Minneapolis, are seasoned Italian travelers, so it's no surprise that most of the wine at Cesare's is Italian. Not all of it, though. "We've got wine from every country in the world that produces wine that we think is worthwhile, including from Lebanon," says Alexander. "We had 55 different styles of Pinot Noir way before the movie Sideways even came out."

All the wines that appear on the restaurant's 500-bottle list are sold in the shop. Most of them are from small producers, most of whom the Alexanders have met.

"There are very few of the foreign wines where we've not been to the region and in most cases met the producer," says Alexander. "We're definitely boutique--very few things here are mass produced."

They take good care of their wine, too--anything over $80 is stored in a mahogany-paneled, humidity-controlled room. "If we have to sit on a wine for five, seven, ten years, they know [the wine's] been taken care of," says Alexander. "People who are into that kind of thing, they know the questions to ask."

There's a big picture window in the side of the room, so you can ogle these top-shelf wines even if you're not going whip out the Visa: Fondling the bottles is, of course, discouraged, unless you're ready to cough up that rent money. Cesare's Wine Shop and Marketplace, 610 N. Main St., Suite 100, Stillwater; 651.439.7111

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Solo Vino

517 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102


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