Neighborhoods often develop on the merits of a single street. Brooklyn is no exception. Carroll Gardens has Smith Street, Park Slope has Fifth Avenue, and Gowanus, the transitioning neighborhood in between, has Third Avenue. Tom Hyland and Rick Lopez share a love of wine and a passion for Gowanus, a neighborhood they believe is quickly stepping out from the shadows. Their love has been built into a brick and mortar storefront on the corner of 11th Street at 493 Third Ave. They’ve decided to call it Gowanus Wine Merchants. Digest NY dropped by to chat with the guys about their new store, what they expect when Whole Foods opens seven blocks away, and why people are making so much noise about uncommon grape varieties showing up in the wine world.
How did you guys meet?
Rick: We actually both worked at Morrell and Company together years ago. I did until just recently. From there a few of us that were friends started a little tasting group and having wine dinners with each other. Tom moved on to a distributor job and we kept up with each other because of these dinners.
How did you come to work in the wine business?
Rick: I was a bartender. I was going into advertising after art school. I got a taste of it and retreated a little bit. I didn’t really like it as a career choice. I ended up bartending and eventually got tired of working nights and started bartending in restaurants and doing wine lists. I went into retail after that and worked almost every facet of wine since.
Tom: I was more recent to it. I was working another field. I started my own company with music promotion that wasn’t really paying the bills, so I looked for a job in a different field. I was interested in wine but didn’t know very much about it. I answered a Craigslist ad for Morrell and sort of landed into one of the better-known places and had a very steep, important learning curve.
Why did you choose Gowanus and did you look at any other locations?
Tom: We thought about a couple of neighborhoods. This was definitely top on the list and this is really the only one we scouted. The reason being is Gowanus is definitely transitioning and we know that. We feel that. The pocket on 3rd Ave between 6th and 15th Streets, where we landed, just felt good. The side streets have a lot of single-family homes, newer homeowners. Fourth Ave has a lot of taller apartment buildings going up that will bring in new tenants. It’s also between neighborhoods and it’s not saturated with cool wine shops.
When I was looking around and we were talking about other neighborhoods that seemed really interesting and transitioning, like Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. In the last year, there has been something like three new shops that opened up there. So we said, “OK, we don’t’ need to be a fourth shop, competing with all the other little guys because it wouldn’t make sense to anybody.” They’re probably going to do really well but we were looking for a place that’s far enough away from the next shop that’s like us, but also able to work with surrounding neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and South Slope. So far 3rd Avenue has just been really great. It seems like a perfect fit. The neighbors make it feel like our store is something they’ve been waiting for.
Rick: It feels like it’s about to really become popular. It’s about to really jump off. I lived in DUMBO back in ’97 and it was completely desolate. There was nothing there so it took a while for DUMBO to come along but this neighborhood is loaded with people. All around us there are thousands of people that are totally into wine and they travel for it now. We’ve had a steady supply of people popping in and thanking us for showing up and then coming back two or three times.
Tom: The neighborhood has a lot of people who live here but there are also a lot of people that work here. They work in the warehouse spaces either doing light industry, or woodworking, metal working, as artists etc. They’re popping by on the way to the subway because between 2nd Avenue and 4th Avenue, 3rd Avenue is on the way. We get those people that come after work as well as those people that live here.
Rick: The range of what people are doing here is amazing.
Does your location influence the wines you carry?
Tom: Yes and No. It’s influenced the inventory a little bit in the sense that there are certain wines we want to make sure we have for the very casual drinker. We want to make sure to carry a very affordable, recognizable wine. Both of our palates lean toward old world European wines. There are great values in Europe so we really focused on a lot of European wines, but we also sought out wine from California, other parts of the west coast, South American etc. We wanted to tailor the inventory to interesting wines from around the world; values from around the world. We’ve tasted all the wines here so they’re the wines we like. We can talk about what we carry and we’re happy to turn somebody onto something they might not have heard of.
Rick: With opening we were a little hopeful and selfish in that we at least wanted to try to only carry the wines that we loved and hope it took off. If it didn’t, then we would make corrections and concessions and what not, but so far it’s really been rewarded. We’ve chosen things from obscure parts of Europe that are still values and the response has been great. We feel like we can just go ahead and continue with our vision as opposed to just getting some major case drops of bad, recognized wine; which would be a safe way to go and you can have a bread and butter shop that way, but if we were going to do this we figured we’d give it a shot and make it a labor of love.
What are your thoughts about Whole Foods opening in the neighborhood, supposedly next year?
Rick: We were very aware of it, absolutely. But it was in development for eight years. When we signed we had a big conversation and said, “We’re going to do this no matter what. If Whole Foods gets shut down, we still want to be here.” So we signed our lease and started applying for our liquor license. Whole Foods actually got approved the same week. They’ve got some machinery in there and they might be breaking ground as we speak but we made the decision to jump into the deep end of the pool before that was a given.
Having not lived here my whole life I can’t really weigh in as far as, “Do I think it’s good or bad?” It’s not my neighborhood. We’re trying to make it our neighborhood, at least in the working sense, but I think the people who have lived here for a long time have more say as far as “Is it good or bad?” But it’s definitely going to bring people to the area and that can’t be a bad thing as far as we’re concerned.
Do you find there’s more leeway in a retail setting than there is in a restaurant setting when it comes to selling lesser-known varieties?
Rick: It’s up to the proprietor’s vision either way. If you open a restaurant and you’ve got your idea of what sort of food and atmosphere you want then I think whatever’s going to compliment that is part of the vision. If you can be creative and make it all work, more power to you. There are plenty of places to go that have the same choices, so if somebody wants to be bold I think that’s commendable.
What are your thoughts on the growing trend of unique varietals surfacing in the wine world, either on wine lists or in wine stores?
Rick: I think the general population’s palate has gotten a lot more adventurous. It continues to grow year after year with no end in sight. I was in restaurants when I first started in the late 90s but then quickly went into a retail shop where we were doing Bordeaux campaigns and Bordeaux Futures. It was a lot of the old stalwarts. Certain people wouldn’t try any adventurous wine from a region that wasn’t a classified Burgundy or Bordeaux. So I think in the last 13 years that I’ve been around wine there’s been a huge change, a huge acceptance.
A lot of the most adventurous wines these days are actually throwbacks from people reclaiming vineyards that were semi abandoned and grapes that were on the brink of extinction. When you look back, a lot of these obscure varietals used to be commonplace, back to Roman Times even. People are buying these vineyards and revamping them and using whatever vines are there and making what’s actually some of the most traditional wines. It’s just unlikely that people have heard of them here in the states.
Where do you eat and drink if you find yourselves with free time?
Tom: I love my friend Aaron’s restaurant Littleneck up the street. One of my favorites is Lot 2 on 6th Ave. I used to sell them wine and I tried out their menu and came back many times since with my wife. They have a solid food and wine list.
Rick: We’ve been in this neighborhood for months and months even though we’ve only been open for a week, but we’ve eaten and had drinks at every possible venue around here. We’re lucky to have two great bars nearby. Lucy’s Lounge makes great cocktails at the end of the block. On the other side of us, Lowlands on 3rd Avenue is totally inviting. They have a nice big wooden bar, well-selected beers, no televisions, nice back yard; they both have backyards actually, and are both a great place to relax.
Tom: In the months that we were building, a lot of times because of Rick’s schedule and my schedule, weekdays we couldn’t really work during the day because we had our jobs and we couldn’t run the power saw at night. So we’d work weekend days and we’d go on Saturday after working here to Lowlands and make sure to introduce ourselves to all the locals. That was really important to us, that we make a presence. We like the idea of local bars and businesses because we want to be a part of that.