The Greatest Wine Retailer in America

How Chambers Street Wines eschewed critic ratings and built a loyal following.

Depending on your circumstances, visiting a great wine shop can be an exhilarating experience or it can leave you feeling like a eunuch at an orgy. I’m on an austerity plan these days, and while I can walk into most wine stores content merely to browse, there is one shop that I actively avoid in the interest of financial rectitude and domestic tranquility. That would be New York’s Chambers Street Wines. If there’s a better wine purveyor anywhere, I haven’t encountered it; at Chambers Street, temptation lurks in literally every rack and bin, and even just writing about the place makes me want to whip out a credit card. Chambers Street is marking its 10th anniversary this summer, which is reason enough to pay it tribute. But it is also that rarest of things in American wine retailing: a store with a distinctive voice.

A decennial birthday is a big deal for any business, but for Chambers Street, which is owned by David Lillie and Jamie Wolff, it is an especially poignant milestone. Lillie and Wolff opened the store in June 2001, five blocks north of what would soon be known as Ground Zero. 9/11 had devastating consequences for merchants throughout lower Manhattan, and the pair briefly considered relocating to another part of the city before deciding to stay put. Things were iffy for several years after the terrorist attack, but Chambers Street not only survived; it went on to flourish and has become one symbol of New York’s resilience. And Lillie is now hoping to give the neighborhood an additional vote of confidence: together with some French partners, he’s looking to open a wine bar near the store.

Lillie and Wolff, who had previously worked together at another Manhattan wine shop, started Chambers Street with a simple idea: They wanted to sell wines they liked to drink. That might sound like an unremarkable aspiration, but their taste wasn’t exactly mainstream. Most high-end U.S. wine shops adhere to a standard formula: lots of California and Bordeaux, and varying quantities of everything else. However, Lillie and Wolff were not fans of recent trends in Bordeaux and were even less enthusiastic about what was coming out of California at the time. (They were keener on older clarets and Napa cabernets and have become a good source of both.).The emphasis at Chambers Street was on earthy, artisanally produced obscurities from places like the Loire Valley and Beaujolais. Lillie and Wolff essentially created their own fantasy wine shop and gambled that they could cultivate a big enough clientele to keep the lights on. Against fairly steep odds, they succeeded.

Indeed, the name “Chambers Street” has become shorthand for a particular aesthetic—Eurocentric, with a strong preference for wines that put an accent on minerality and acidity. The Loire is the cornerstone of the operation (Chambers Street apparently sells more Muscadet than any retailer in the world except for one merchant in Nantes, France), but over the years the selection has evolved to include a fabulous array of other wines fitting that same basic profile—traditional Barolos and Riojas, German Rieslings, grower Champagnes. The inventory is a who’s who of anti-flavor wine-elite favorites: Pépière, Huet, Pinon, Breton, Lapierre, Brun, Lopez de Heredia, Mascarello, Bea, Prum, Dönnhoff. If your palate runs in this direction, you could easily lose an entire afternoon in the place. I’ve often fantasized about pitching a tent there, just me and a corkscrew (no glass necessary).

There is another thing that sets Chambers Street apart from most of its competitors: Lillie and Wolff have never used ratings from critics to help sell their wines. When Chambers Street opened, it was difficult to find an upscale wine store that wasn’t covered in shelf talkers touting scores from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. Many merchants had simply stopped selling wine and were instead flogging points. But Lillie and Wolff were intent on establishing a rapport with customers that wasn’t mediated by third-party opinions. “We wanted the shop to be completely personal—to get know people’s taste, and to recommend wines we liked and that we thought they would enjoy,” Lillie told me. He’s quick to note that, back in 2001, the kind of wines that he and Wolff were interested in didn’t get much attention from critics, which made it easier to eschew scores. Fair enough, but I still think it took some guts make Chambers Street a points-free zone.

A decade on, their decision looks prescient. That’s because ratings seem to be diminishing in importance. A very self-confident wine culture has taken root in the United States: People are using discussion boards and social media to find their way to good bottles, and the influence of critics is waning, especially among younger drinkers. (Parker recently released effusive reviews of the 2010 Bordeaux vintage, and they were greeted with a collective shrug.) Rampant grade inflation could be hastening that decline. High ratings help merchants sell wines, and being cited on shelf talkers and in email offers is free publicity for critics, who thus have an incentive to bump up their scores. But big numbers have now become so prevalent that they’ve turned the 100-point scale into a farce. I think retailers are going to have to learn to sell wine again, and in that sense, Chambers Street has a big jump on a lot of other stores.

With or without scores, the retail end of the wine market is a tough place to earn a shekel. The restrictions on out-of-state shipping by merchants are even more onerous than those placed on wineries; just 13 states and the District of Columbia currently permit direct-to-consumer shipping from out-of-state stores, and the ongoing wrangling over interstate shipping threatens to further tighten the handcuffs. There’s more competition now, too: Big-box stores, supermarkets, and even drug stores are peddling wine these days. To survive in this environment, small, wine-focused retailers increasingly need to differentiate themselves, and creating a store with a well-defined point of view, like Chambers Street, strikes me as a smart strategy. Kevin McKenna, a partner at Louis/Dressner Selections, a New York-based importer that does a lot of business with Chambers Street, says there are a clutch of newer retail shops around the country that in fact seem to take their inspiration from Lillie and Wolff. “You have had a blossoming of iconoclastic wine merchants,” he says, “and I think Chambers Street pointed the way for a lot of these people.” That’s great news for those of you who aren’t on austerity plans. As for me, I’ll have to savor the trend from afar.