In April 1992, while eating dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant on New York’s Columbus Avenue, we noticed that a wine store had just opened across the street. We pushed our girls over there in their double stroller to have a look-see. They were then 1 and 3 years old, and we were still years away from writing a word about wine. If we weren’t the very first customers of Nancy’s Wines for Food, we were certainly among the first. Although the store was quite small — just about nine feet wide — it was sweet and welcoming in a way that wine shops, back then, usually were not. The colors were soothing, the lighting was flattering, interesting plants grew just inside the door and a large, kid-friendly Scottish terrier named Max slept on the floor.

Fourteen years later, we recently observed the eighth anniversary of Tastings, and Nancy Maniscalco’s little store — all 750 square feet of sales space — is still there.

Focusing on Service

While there have always been intimate, customer-friendly wine stores out there, the number of them is growing dramatically these days. This is one of the biggest and most important trends in wine at the moment. From Sioux Falls, S.D., to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to Savannah, Ga., wine shops focusing on service and careful selection are thriving.

It does seem counterintuitive. After all, the biggest retailer of wine in the country right now is Costco. In fact, almost 15% of all U.S. table-wine sales (in dollars) now take place in “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart and club stores like Costco, according to ACNielsen. And, as we wrote a few weeks ago, wine on the Web is growing fast, giving large, long-established stores a nationwide consumer base. But America’s growing appetite for wine — and wine knowledge — means that the pie is getting bigger, so there’s plenty of room for good merchants everywhere.

At the Wine Shop at Hansen’s in Suttons Bay, Mich., manager Becky Hemmingsen and owner Dave Hansen taste 5,000 wines to choose about 1,200 for the 1,800-square-foot store. “We’ve personally tasted every one of these wines,” Mr. Hansen says. Adds Ms. Hemmingsen: “People come to a wine shop for personality and service. They would much rather look someone in the eye and trust somebody — and laugh with somebody.”

Consumers are getting increasingly adventurous in their wine choices — more willing to try different varietals and some of the great bargains from all over the world. Because of this, they need a guide more than ever, says Heather Taylor Boysen, who owns GoodSpirits Fine Wine & Liquor in Sioux Falls, S.D., with her mother. The hottest new wines on her shelf right now: Malbec and Torrontes from Argentina. “I wouldn’t have thought about bringing in an Argentinean wine until a couple of years ago,” she says. The key to thriving in an era of increased competition is simple, she says: “Customer service.”

Kevin W. Smith retired from the pulp-and-paper industry, moved to Savannah, Ga., and was annoyed that the wine shops weren’t better. “My wife told me to quit griping and do something about it,” he says. So three years ago, he opened Savannah Sommelier — 1,500 square feet and about 700 labels. “We decided early on that we would not put a bottle in the store we didn’t taste and approve,” he says.

Beyond Big Sales

Harlem Vintage opened two years ago to fill “an obvious need” in the neighborhood, says Lee Campbell, the manager. The store is 900 square feet, featuring about 350 labels. “We try to provide a really profound level of service that goes beyond big sales,” she says. “We don’t really have sales. We try to price things reasonably, but we try to give a really high level of service.” That means knowing the answer, for example, when a customer came in recently and asked which wines were made by female winemakers.

Widely known sommeliers and wine experts are rushing into retail, too. Chris Cree, one of just 27 Masters of Wine in the U.S., opened 56 Degree Wine in Bernardsville, N.J., two years ago. In 1,300 square feet, he offers about 800 wines, mostly small producers. “We focus on terroir-driven wines instead of market-driven wines,” he says. The store itself is kept at 56 degrees — cellar temperature. “We feel that even $10 wines deserve to be kept in that condition,” he says. Mr. Cree says a store like his is possible now because “the market has changed a little bit. The consumer has become more savvy and more confident. They’re willing to experiment.” How can he compete against the big retailers? “Our gamble is that there are enough people who like to shop in the kind of environment where they know the people in the store and the people in the store know the wines.”

Some new stores organize wines by “weight” or even by types of food they complement. Others, like Harlem Vintage, are organized by grape types instead of geographical area. But what so many of them have in common is that they are bringing basic retailing intelligence — helpful service, organization, an ever-changing inventory, cleanliness, good lighting — to the wine business. If those things seem obvious, think about how a disorganized, dirty, dark and unfriendly wine store, filled with dusty old bottles, makes you feel. In fact, that’s why Ms. Maniscalco opened Nancy’s after retiring from the accounting industry. “I always enjoyed wine, but just as a consumer — I wasn’t even a wine geek,” she says. “I was in a wine shop one night and talking to some person, and everything was filthy and disorganized, and the person I was talking to was chewing gum and I thought, there has got to be a better way.” Why does she offer so many Rieslings, when everybody knows Americans are skeptical of Riesling? “They’re wonderful wines and wonderful value,” she says, adding that at some other stores, “no one bothers with them because you actually have to sell them instead of just putting them out.”

Responding to the Marketplace

To be sure, not all the stores sprouting up around the country are small. In New York City, Astor Wines & Spirits has recently moved into an 11,000-square-foot store featuring around 4,500 wines. More space, more selections and better storage conditions were essential, says Greg Dal Piaz, the director of customer development. “We’re responding to the marketplace,” he says. “The bottom line is that people know more about wine than ever before.” Just up the street, another store, Union Square Wines & Spirits, is moving into a 6,400-square-foot space featuring 2,500 to 3,500 wines. Jesse Salazar, the wine director, says Union Square offers “a down-to-earth, rock-and-roll approach to wine” and something even more attractive: The new store plans to offer 50 wines to taste, free, at any given time, he says.

One of the most important aspects of the new breed of small stores is that the owners and their employees have actually tasted every one of the wines. How can you tell? Easy: Look for their own tasting notes. To us, this is an indication that the shop really stands behind these wines. Mr. Smith writes all of his own signs, such as this simple one on a bottle of Cougar Crest Cabernet Franc from Washington state: “Dense and sinful.” Ms. Maniscalco tastes 30 wines for every wine she decides to place in Nancy’s, which features around 750 at any one time, and she pens a handwritten note for almost every bottle, such as this one for a Simon Hackett Shiraz from Australia: “The perfect Shiraz at the perfect price. Slurpy, berryish, yum!”

We were wine consumers for a quarter-century before we wrote anything about wine, and now we shop in stores all over the country. We know there are still bad wine stores out there, with snobbish or unknowledgeable merchants and yucky wines that should have been poured down the drain long ago. We were at a store just last month that was still selling Beaujolais Nouveau from 2004 (Nouveau should be drunk within weeks of its release). Costco and other large retailers are terrific if you know what you want or are a wine geek who recognizes a great deal on Château Giscours when you see it. But here’s the message: If you don’t find the experience of wine shopping fun and interesting, if you feel that you have to experience pain at the store before you can experience pleasure drinking the wine, keep looking around for a good merchant. There are more and more of them out there. They are eager to meet you.

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