Just about every wine collector feels a magnetic pull when passing a wine shop: let’s admit it, wine collecting is addictive on some level. Once you know a wise buyer is running a good shop, it’s hard to resist popping in to peruse a few sections.
Sometimes, though, it’s an entirely different game. Every New York City wine collector I’ve known has gone slumming at least a few times.
Slumming is braving busted-ass wine shops, most often with highly suspect cold storage, searching for mispriced wines. Your higher-tier cuvées selling at entry-level prices; say, Goldkapsel Riesling selling as standard Riesling; or Sesti Brunello selling at Sesti Monteleccio prices. It can happen in any number of shops, but it happens most often in dirty, disorganized ones, with rudderless and woefully underpaid staff.
I’m talking about shops with weird, stained, dusty, damaged wines all over the place; Lord knows when or where they got the wines. Shops where a high turnover means there’s no knowledgeable, passionate staff, where there really isn’t any consistent logic driving the selections; it’s strictly profit margins and opportunity.
Slumming doesn’t necessarily mean you are in a slum. Far from it! It’s actually the middle of Manhattan that is chock full of weird, filthy shops with a random selection of bottles in poor condition from strange suppliers you’ve never heard of.
Most of the time, you walk straight back out of the shop empty-handed: wincing, and thankful to be back in a clean, well-lit, dust-free universe.
But sometimes — and I mean very, very rarely — you find something like this:
That’s a 1998 Roagna Crichet Pajé Barbaresco, selling for $81.12. Pure insanity. And I love the $0.12; just tickles me.
Some context: Luca Roagna is probably the greatest winemaker in all of Italy. He is one of the most dedicated, hard-working people on this earth. His farming is an impeccable, natural, happy rainbow dream of gleeful species coexistence. These are his finest, oldest Barbaresco vines in the Crichet Pajé. He is the only person I have EVER seen give every single random person at a wine tasting a primer rinse of their glasses (to remove his last wine) with every single pour of his $300 bottles of wine. He was like a busy octopus. That’s just how exacting and ambitious he is; in every last thing he does.
Luca Roagna’s wines are robust but pure, mineral, luscious but never heavy-handed … and his 1998 Crichet Pajé is worth at least $275.
Your heart skips a beat when you see this sort of thing. You’re terrified that if you disturb the system by even discretely enquiring about buying, someone might notice a discrepancy; and before you know it, the dreaded “Wait a minute…” sounds, and your jewels are back in the vault, out of your discount grasp.
I fired up a discussion with the young cashier behind the lotto counter register (news flash: good wine shops don’t sell lottery tickets). I decided I was looking for a gift for a friend who liked Italian wine, and, seeing as this had a bit of bottle age, this might do nicely? Trying to gently test the waters.
In a cracking adolescent voice, he honestly offered the following disclaimer:
“The buyer who bought these like, 7 years ago, left a while ago …. I just feel like I should warn you, we opened a lot of the bottles that were stored up there (near the ceiling), and a lot of them were bad.”
That’s not surprising at all, seeing as the heaters probably breathe directly on to any number of bottles up there during winter, and heat naturally accumulates the rest of the time. Still: Nebbiolo is pretty robust stuff, and I figured it was worth trying. The people running the shop nowadays may only understand fruit bombs; or they may have simply had an off bottle — who knows. The sediment deposit proved these bottles had lain on their side for some time; that’s a plus. Once the confessional cashier assured me that I could return them for store credit if they were damaged, and actually rang me up for $95.94, I couldn’t wait to open the bottle. But I still let it sit in my wine fridge for a few days to rest, perhaps knit together a touch at cellar temperature.
Ensuring store credit for failed purchases while slumming is critical. The gamble is rarely worth it if your purchase is a total loss. Worst case, you bring your spoiled bottle back, find something they haven’t had in stock long enough to fuck up, and you’re on your merry way.
Well, after tasting this bottle, I went back and purchased the last two bottles. No use trying to figure out where the New York City shop is; they’re gone.
It kind of bolsters my belief in Easter miracles. For Easter dinner, I cooked up some lamb rib chops and tagliatelle with browned butter and sage. I gave the wine a 5% chance of showing well, and was ready to open a backup 2010 Ar.Pe.Pe Rosso di Valtellina.
But the Crichet Pajé rose on the third day (after buying what should have been its dead corpse)!
The 1998 Roagna Crichet Pajé Barbaresco was lovely: not life-changing; but really, really good. The color was an admirable dark red. Leathery, a bit of rustic, olive-laden barnyard brett, but not nearly enough to drag Easter dinner out into a barn. It alludes to roses and is fresh and alive in its tart cherry vibrancy; it is not greying in the least. Seems a tiny bit volatile at its deepest core; but still manages to be bright and aromatic with acid-laden, cranberry and bruised apple aromas on the finish alongside the roses, leather and tiny allusions to milk chocolate — and even tinier allusions to eucalyptus. In spite of its bruises, it feels young, with at least half of its life before it, or at the very least many years before edging into senility and decomposition. The drying tannins and lively acid are proof to me of its rustic vitality.
Even if I did not buy this wine from the Wine Warehouse, I feel compelled to mention that shop in an article on slumming. The Wine Warehouse, not far from the respectable behemoth Astor Wines, is a crazy, weird, anti-Astor Wines experience; full of damaged bottles that all came from God knows where, torn and stained dusty labels everywhere, a sad Salvation Army clearance zone for wines. It used to be the venue par excellence for slumming. But their wines are so very reliably damaged that it defeats the purpose: you will only emerge from the minefield with all your limbs after 1 in 5 passes. Back in 2012, a 2007 Antonin Guyon Chambolle Musigny tasted at a restaurant in San Diego was singing; an identical bottle purchased only a week later at the Wine Warehouse was damaged, stinky, and thin: no high-toned fruity bouquet at all, no midpalate whatsoever, just disarmingly stinky garbage aromas. The bottle and cork were impeccable, so it was either cooked or microbiologically unsound. After enough lessons in disappointment, I learned to resist the wild discount allure and changed my slumming hunting grounds. Who knows: maybe the Wine Warehouse’s fortunes will change, as the rumor mill holds that recently the business was sold to the owner of Union Square Wines. I doubt there will be a major change in their existing, banged-up, sprawling stock anytime soon however.
If you’ve got the time, pop in to those skeezy shops you pass by from time to time to see what’s lurking in there. Think of it as an attraction at Coney Island: creepy, somewhat dangerous, yet invigorating and potentially rewarding.