Since I can barely order a glass of wine for myself, knowing I had to bring a drinkable bottle to my Uncle's on Christmas day was making me sick.
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I needed help. Big time.
So I decided to go to Gary's Wine & Marketplace in Wayne, NJ, because I had heard, through neighbors and friends, that the staff was really approachable and eager to help.
At about 24,000 square feet, Gary's is like the Costco of wine, with aisles and aisles of it. And, thankfully, I found Gary himself floating among them.
Gary Fisch has been in the wine business since 1987, after years as a liquor distributor. His first store in Madison, NJ started out with a mere 1,200 square-foot space. Today it’s 15,000, and still his biggest revenue-generator.
He then opened similar spaces in Bernardsville, NJ and most recently this behemoth in Wayne.
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I told Gary my novice plight, and he put on his educator's cap. His first suggestion was this: When you bring a bottle to someone's house, you'd like it to tell a story.
"Why did you pick it?" he asked. You can argue, the better the story, the more thoughtfulness behind the gift.
Then he started firing questions.
How much do you want to spend?
What are you eating?
Will you be drinking it?
Uh...ok...under $50 and because I'm Italian, you can bank on some sort of red sauce and red meat. And since my family drinks anything you put on the table, odds are good the bottle I bring will be in my glass at some point.
He actually said it is good practice to pick a wine you'd enjoy drinking, because it is very often that the hostess will open your gift right up.
With that, he walked me over to a $40 bottle of 2006 Argiano Solengo.
And he told its story. The winery is called Argiano, in Tuscany. It’s called a "Super Tuscan" because it’s a blend of three grapes -- includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Now Italians have very stringent rules when it comes to wine-producing. In the early 60's the Italian government created a system for controlling and naming wines called DOC, which stands for "denominazione di origine controllata" (controlled denomination of origin). So the DOC refers to the area where the wine must be produced and it places some controls on the grape varieties, color, aroma, flavor, alcohol content, acidity and period of aging.
But Super Tuscans don’t meet those DOC rules, mainly because they used a large percentage of many different grapes. So originally, they were labeled vino da tavola, or just table wines. But that sort of implies that they’re not very good. And these wines actually were better than just ordinary table wines.
So the term “Super Tuscan” was coined to give them more credit, and let’s face it, make them more salable.
I loved the story so far. Time to taste.
Gary insisted that the "nose" on this wine was the most important part. So I yet again stuck my nose in my glass.
I get a berry smell.
By this point, Chad Watkins, a certified specialist of wine and Gary’s right-hand man, had joined us and suggested a pairing of Dark Cherries.
We tasted, and as I swished it around my mouth I actually felt a peppery taste on my tongue. Chad agreed and said he got herbs and spices.
I liked the taste and the story. And for some reason, just saying Tuscany makes most people happy.
Not every sale has been that easy for Gary, though.
He said he faced a ton of opposition when he decided to open his Wayne store. It’s on a highway, as opposed to the center of a cozy town, and there are plenty of other options in the area.
But Gary knew in his heart it would work -- and work well.
And 1,000 people every Saturday (2,000 during the holidays) seem to agree.
Maybe they’re coming for the option to buy just about every wine, liquor or beer available. And maybe they know that if Gary doesn’t have it, he can get it. And store it for you in his temperature-controlled backroom.
Maybe it’s the appeal of Gary’s own private labels, GF and Go Figure and the extensive selection of cheeses, cured meats and olives.
It could also be the free wine tastings he has several times a week.
Who knows what it is exactly that every week brings those 1,000 people there. But they’re coming.
The Wayne store brings in $15 million of the business' total $50 million in revenues and carries about 2.2 million in inventory.
So much for opposition.
If you build it, they will come.
He built it. He followed his gut.
They come in droves.
Shoeless Joe Jackson would be proud.