Aaron Thorp, left, and Michael Sullivan in WINESHOP, their new wine store on Avenue A.
BY HEATHER DUBIN | There is a story behind almost every bottle of wine on the elegantly constructed shelves at the East Village’s new WINESHOP. Co-owners Michael Sullivan and Aaron Thorp have chosen wines for their store that reflect integrity in the creative process, and an end result they can stand behind.
The couple, who have lived in the neighborhood for nine years, opened WINESHOP on Ninth St. near Avenue A in mid-April. Their focus is on organic, natural, biodynamic (using specific agricultural practices) and sustainably made wines — both domestic and international.
In an interview, Thorp, the wine director at the Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District, and Sullivan, who runs WINESHOP full time, spoke about their role as a community-based business, and their wine selection rationale.
Wines mass-produced with pesticides are not available at WINESHOP. Instead, Thorp fills the shop with wines that adhere more to green-farming techniques and usually come from family-owned vineyards.
“You can make great wine from organic grapes or industrial grapes,” he said. “But for me, it’s always been important to support the people who make that commitment and say, ‘We’re stewards of the line, we don’t want to farm synthetic pesticides in our stuff. This is the right thing to do, we’re not going to deplete the soil, and all the nutrients — even if that means our vines won’t be as productive as our neighbors’.’ ”
Originally from Napa Valley, Thorp, 37, grew up in wine country and experienced community resistance to pesticides used in wine production firsthand.
Sullivan, 33, is from Chicago. The couple met in Northampton, Massachusetts, a decade ago, and have been together ever since.
WINESHOP has been years in the making, and Thorp’s background in wine has given them a decisive edge. Sullivan, who was a retail manager at Tekserve, brings his own skill set to the mix, and is learning lots about wine these days.
Thorp will join him at the shop on weekends when he can — wine tastings are Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. — but for the most part, Sullivan flies solo.
The couple wanted to set up shop in the neighborhood and had tried for three other spaces before this one. While searching for a spot, the couple had to consider State Liquor Authority restrictions, which prohibit a wine or liquor business from proximity to a school, church or another alcohol beverage store.
“You can’t apply for a license until you sign a lease,” Sullivan said. “There are so many catch-22s.”
They also needed a financial loan to secure the space, and there was no guarantee they were going to get a license once they found a location. The couple funded the business with help from family, and a loan from the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union on Avenue B.
They signed a 10-year lease without a license, but they had a clause to break the lease if the S.L.A. failed to come through.
“We were very fortunate and had a great lawyer for our license application and hearing,” Sullivan said. “We were able to get a license within three months of signing the lease.”
The couple also took on a major three-month renovation to redo the space. They had to tear down the ceiling, remove tile, sand and restain the floor, and expose the partial brick wall.
“If we were going to work this hard, we wanted to do it ourselves,” Sullivan said.
Their hard work has paid off, and the result is an intimate small neighborhood shop, which is exactly what they had in mind.
“We wanted it to be a throwback to what people would have almost 100 years ago,” Sullivan said.
They also wanted to be a part of the community and share their knowledge of wine. “We want to enhance the experience of living in the East Village,” Thorp said. “There’s no place in the East Village where you can get these wines.”
Thorp enthusiastically gave some examples, like Matthiasson, produced by Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson in Napa Valley, who pick grapes at 3 a.m. to ensure a specific level of acidity for their Linda Vista Chardonnay. Thorp was in Napa last week to sample their new blend on the front steps of the Matthaissons’ weathered old yellow barn, and offer his opinion on their expression of cabernet, which is not on the market yet.
“They took me through the vineyards, and because they pick grapes in the middle of the night, there was a lot of fruit left on the vines that they didn’t see,” Thorp said.
He explained how the Matthaissons pulled fruit off a vine that afternoon, and decided to make a late harvest that would yield less than a barrel.
“They make use of what they can, nothing goes to waste,” he said. “It would be irresponsible on their part to let the fruit die. I love that.”
And then there is Carema, created by Produttori di Nebbiolo di Carema, an Italian cooperative formed by 45 farmers in 1960. Thorp noted that their vineyards were decimated after World War II, and that it can sometimes take five years for a vine to produce grapes, and even longer to develop flavor and complexity.
“Each of those farmers had less than a hectare, [2.5 acres] on a mountain, and they said, ‘Why are we trying to fight against each other and sell disparate products? Let’s unify the label,’ ” he explained. It worked, and this cooperative is still producing that same wine today.
Another wine, Domaine Weinbach, is made by mothers and their daughters in Alsace, France.
“It had always been a historically male line,” Thorp said. “Then the dad died, and the women took it over. Women are carrying on the legacy of it. We wanted to buy it because there was something that resonated with us about these particular products.”
He feels there is a difference of expression between men and women when it comes to making wine. One is not better than the other for him, but he finds a varied approach.
Thorp’s work at The Standard has informed WINESHOP’s philosophy.
“These are family-owned wineries for the most part, and at The Standard we can give them much bigger exposure,” he said. “Between here and The Standard, it’s kind of cool.”
Some customers have popped into WINESHOP and told Sullivan they are wary of organic wines based on previous bad experiences. He noted that organic wines are frequently sold as a sales tool, and not necessarily for the product.
“What is important is that the wine is good, and that we love the wine. It so happens, we’re choosing the ones that fall into that category,” he said of organic wines.
“We’ve tasted every single one of these wines with the winemaker or the distributor,” Thorp said. “I don’t know if you could stay that about Astor Wines or Union Square Wines.” Prices at WINESHOP range from $12 to $150 a bottle, with table wines $15 and under.
Thorp wants neighbors to use WINESHOP as a retail sommelier for whatever they are cooking that night. The couple tried a Mosse Cabernet Franc with Thai food recently, and were pleasantly surprised.
“It has an unfiltered, textural quality which envelops the spice a little bit. It has an amazing ability,” Thorp said. He recommended it to a customer who came back to tell them how great it was.
“I always say to people, if you find yourself back here, I want to know what you think of the wines,” Thorp said. “Even if it’s a month later.”
A French man in the neighborhood came in to try his first domestic Pinot Noir. Thorp directed him to the Hirsch Vineyards Bohan-Dillion from the Sonoma coast.
The man returned an hour and a half later and poked his head in the shop.
“I just have to say, the wine was fantastic,” he pronounced. “If that’s the introduction to California wine, I’m sold.”