Sometime last year I noticed work had begun on an empty storefront on Washington Avenue in my neighborhood of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. My curiosity piqued—Man, please let it be something cool and not another boring real estate office—I was encouraged when I saw a blue and white polka dot awning go up, with a cheeky name: The Winey Neighbor. A wine shop with a sense of humor? Sign me up.
It would still be many months before I'd meet the owners, husband-and-wife duo Kenneth and Young, or attend one of their community wine tastings, or buy a killer bottle of wine (for around $12) based on the type of music it'd pair best with. (We'll get to that). In the meantime I watched the ins-and-outs of construction workers on that storefront, caught glimpses of movement behind the brown-papered windows, and waited for opening day.
The Winey Neighbor officially opened in January, a little over a year after Young, in the wake of losing her day job as an event photographer, decided to open a wine store. At the time she and her husband Kenneth, an artist and fit model for Gap Japan, were recent transplants to New York from San Francisco, and the prospect of opening a business in New York, while on unemployment, was daunting. (They'd already dabbled a bit in the food world: soon after arriving in New York, they started the online restaurant food guide cheapassfood.com. It's still running, although they don't update it anymore.)
Young grew up in the restaurant business (her parents, now retired, owned a Korean restaurant in San Francisco for many years) and is an avid cook, so she'd originally hoped to open a pizza restaurant in the neighborhood. But the quarter million dollar investment—the base amount needed to open any kind of restaurant in New York—was a huge deterrant. "I'd read up on recipes and try different things," Young says. "The fire alarm would go off everytime because I'd be blasting the oven to 550 degrees. That was my passion, but who has that kind of money?"
A wine store seemed more tangible... and more fun! "I've always just loved wine," Young says. "I do love drinking. I'll just admit it! I love beer, I love wine, I just love it all!" After Young was approved for New York's Self Employment Assistance Program (SEAP), which helps provide money and resources to people who want to start their own business, she started working with a retired business owner through the SCORE program, which she highly recommends. Months of research and planning followed, during which she and Kenneth tasted a lot of wine. "Before you go into business, you can't talk to reps," Kenneth says. "So we just bought a lot of wine! We were impatient and didn't want to wait."
They were looking for delicious and interesting yet affordable wines—a sometimes tough balancing act. "A lot of the times, even if we liked it, it was dependent on the budget whether we'd get it or not," says Young. "This is a budget-friendly neighborhood." By opening day they'd selected 40-50 wines with an average price around $12, their price point sweet spot. Since then they've expanded their selection to around 130 wines, all personally tasted and vetted, starting at $8 and topping out at $58.
It's clear that Young and Kenneth make a good pair: while she handles the business arrangements, Kenneth ("the guy who wastes money," as he self-deprecatingly describes himself) handles all the design and aesthetic details. The polka dot theme in their sign and logo was inspired by Ken's work in fashion and his love of Yayoi Kusama, and workshopped obsessively in Photoshop. ("He's really detailed," says Young.) Vintage wooden navy crates from WWII—stamped and marked—line the walls, the lower shelves covered with deadstock linen canvas. Kenneth's records sit in the corner, close to the ever-evolving window display, which he likes to change seasonally. (He's considering a suspended bike for Spring. Young, with a slight grimace, says she'd prefer plants.)
They aim to purchase American-made goods or locally manufactured pieces whenever possible. The gorgeous wine racks are assemble-it-yourself from a company in Ohio, while the refrigerator is manufactured a few miles away in Brooklyn. True to the times, they "just google everything" until they find what they're looking for.
My favorite element are the wine cards, which hang from the shelves by gold clips. "The cards are so important to me because it educates us and it educates our customers," says Young. "If you're gonna spend 20-30 dollars, you wanna know, or at least have an idea of what you're going to get into." In addition to giving a detailed description of the wine's properties, the cards also offer a musical pairing, an idea that came about while "drinking a lot of wine," as Kenneth says. I asked him to walk me through the moment:
It was a simple afternoon. We were drinking a nice Merlot. I love Nina Simone. It was the right moment. The temperature is right, the light is coming in. It's just beautiful. We were sitting next to eachother, and the dog is next to us, and we were just like - wow! This wine really goes with Nina Simone! And then we thought, oh, it kind of tastes like that, too. Then we start thinking about ... why? The thing about it, music and wine are very similar in a lot of things. Everybody has a preference. Some people want it more spicy, some people want it more light. In different situations you drink different stuff or you listen to different stuff. The texture is also very different. Some wines are bolder, more velvety, some wine is more light and fizzy. Same with music... The biggest thing we thought is that music really engages people's memories. The same with wine. I always remember the first time I went on a date with somebody, what kind of wine or alcohol we drank. Or at our wedding. For some reason it helps to bring the memories together. The same with music.
So what's next for The Winey Neighbor? They just started carrying boxed wines ("It makes sense. It's green, and you can take it to picnics") and sake, and have plans to move into spirits at some point, but that requires a separate $5,000/year license for liquor. In the meantime they'll continue focusing on the community with their wine tasting events. "We live here and we want to see this community thrive. We love the people. We love our neighbors."
→ Like The Winey Neighbor on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and check out their website for more details!
Wine Shelves: Wine Cellar innovation. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio and all made in U.S.A.
Overhead lights: warehouse/ barn pendant lights that can hold up to a 200 watt lightbulb. It's from Millennium Lighting from Atlanta. (Although they're actually made in China.)
Beverage Cooler: Universal Cooler, all made in Gowanus. "Their website just got updated. It's so funny - the owner must like going clubbing with his fridge!"
Wooden Crates: From a Navy ship dated back from WWII. "They were used to carry aircraft batteries and were individually stamped/ hand written with serial numbers, etc. I de-nailed some of them and used the stamped planks to decorate the cashier counter."
Record player: A Panasonic SE-1217 from mid-late 60's. Minimalistic all-in-one phono/am/fm design.
Thanks, Young and Kenneth!
(Images: Cambria Bold)