Spotlight: Chambers Street Wines

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams, a contemporary portrait photographer based in lower Manhattan. Her specialty is women’s portraiture as well as personal branding and magazine-style family photography.

Long considered one of the best wine stores in the U.S.—if not the best, according to SlateChambers Street Wines is primarily known for natural wines. “But of course the vast majority of our customers are people in the neighborhood coming in for a nice bottle of wine to have with dinner,” says Jamie Wolff (above right), who co-founded the business with David Lillie (above left). “They follow our focused interest and they’re a receptive audience. In the context of the wine business, we’re super lucky.”

How did you get started in this business?
David: As a musician with three kids I couldn’t support—and no education—I needed a job. I had some wine knowledge and I had visited vineyards while touring with a jazz group. I just walked into a store uptown and got a job. This was in 1986. It was a high-volume discount store—an aspect that doesn’t exist as much anymore. We ran a full-page ad in the New York Times every week—everyone did—which just doesn’t happen now. I worked hard and sort of became the manager. I learned a lot, in the traditional way, from the bottom up. People didn’t go to wine school or get wine degrees like they do now.

Then you went out on your own?
David: Largely thanks to Jamie, who had been at Christie’s but wanted to try retail, so he came to work at the store uptown. After a season, he said, “This is crazy, you’ve got to get out of here!” We took a leap into the unknown. We decided to focus on what became known as the natural wine movement. It didn’t exist in the U.S. then, but it did in France.

When did you open this store? Why here?
David: We opened in the old firehouse at 160 Chambers in May of 2001. I had been looking on the Upper East Side, but Jamie said to look down here. He lived on Reade and then Duane in the 80s.
Jamie: There was one of those rapid-delivery services popular in the aughts that wanted to sell wine, but you have to have a store to do that. It lost hundreds of millions of dollars in a year. We effectively bought out its lease.
David: It was bigger than our current store: We had two floors, with a mezzanine office, and you could see where the pole used to be. My son Eben worked for us, and he made friends with everyone in the neighborhood, as he tends to do. But we were forced out in 2008 due to building issues.

What is Chambers Street Wines known for?
David: We’re one of the main sources for organic, biodynamic, natural wines. And we’re known nationally as one of the only sources of well-stored natural Piedmont reds.
Jamie: But of course the vast majority of our customers are people in the neighborhood coming in for a nice bottle of wine to have with dinner.
David: At that store uptown, there were always deals, and the sales staff was told to push certain wines. We decided to sell the wine we love instead—and it worked. For a while, when starting out, we had some familiar brands, but relatively quickly we weaned customers off those things and onto wines we felt are better. Now people in the community trust us as a source of good wine. They may or may not care about the biodynamic part.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Jamie: I get a huge kick out of happy customers. They follow our focused interest and they’re a receptive audience—it’s kind of a miracle. I hear from retailers across the country how difficult it is not to sell the brands.
David: Tribeca is a much more open-minded environment than the Upper East Side, where we’d hear, “Don’t try to sell me anything. I know what I want.”
Jamie: In the context of the wine business, we’re super lucky.
David: And to help producers is very satisfying. We’re friends with many of them now. We visit them and get to see what they’re doing. It means so much to them, preserving the earth, not poisoning the soil. And it leads to vastly better wine. Conventional farming uses inert soil that gets fertilized, but soil that’s alive generates nutrients that plants need that aren’t necessarily in fertilizer.

Most popular item?
David: For many years, it was Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet, a dry white from the Loire Valley. Muscadet was not known as high-quality wine, but it seemed obvious to me that some of them were fabulous wines. When I was working on Upper East Side, we started concentrating on the region, and we developed a market for it. We’ve been told that we sell more Muscadet than any store in the U.S., and I hear that outside of a store in Nantes, we sell more Muscadet than anywhere in the world.

Most expensive item?
David: We buy cellars, so occasionally an old Barolo can be as much as $800.

Least expensive?
David: La Vieille Ferme for around $8, which is well-made for a large production wine. It’s unusual for us that it’s a brand name.

Your very favorite item right now?
Jamie: I can’t think of anything. It just shows what a lousy salesman I am.
David: Right now, light-bodied reds from the Jura and the Loire, such as Pineau d’Aunis.
Jamie: At our house, it’s the Ciliegiolo grape. Antonio Camillo in Tuscany makes wines that are fresh, with plenty of depth of flavor.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
Jamie: As a relatively early resident, I was only surprised that it took so long. This is a great part of the city that seemed under-taken-advantage-of. It’s been a natural growth over a long time.

9/11 threw a bit of a glitch in there.
David: We’re still paying off a loan we took out to survive through that. People suggested we move, but we stuck it out. We were actually back selling wine in four weeks.
Jamie: I don’t know if it was legal, but people were here buying it.
David: My son was making deliveries throughout, which worries me.

How has your business changed?
Jamie: When we started, there were four of us working six days a week. Now there are 25 of us working seven days a week. The best change is the availability of well-made small-producer wines. It has vastly increased. It’s an embarrassment of choice.
David: For the first six years, we worked 10 hours a day, six days a week.

What percentage of your business is local?
Jamie: 60% by volume, less than 50% by value.

I would think that the Internet shifted business away from the neighborhood.
David: Not so much. We have tons of customers who shop online for local delivery. The internet is perfect for us—we’re a niche business, with a concentration on a certain type of wine. When we updated the website for e-commerce, business jumped by a third.

Tell me a crazy customer story.
Jamie: A forty-something gentleman in a business suit came in and said, “I was in Prague last weekend and I had an incredibly good red wine. What was it?”
David: Or people will say, “I bought this wine, it had flowers on the label….”
Jamie: Use your cell-phone camera! It’s what it’s there for.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
Jamie: Between us, we eat at all the lunch options. Two favorites are Khe-Yo and the Odeon.
David: We all patronize Blue Moon Fish at the Greenmarket. And I have to mention Racines…. [He’s one of the owners.] But I actually bring my lunch. I started bringing sandwiches for myself, my wife, and my son when we opened, and I just kept doing it.
Jamie: He doesn’t make me one.

What does the future hold?
David: We’ll be here. We love what we do. I’ll be 68 this year and my son (below) will be 35. He’s gung-ho to keep this going. I’ve been traveling with him to France, where I’m now known as “le père de Eben” instead of David.

Previously in this series:
••• Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa
••• Floratech
••• Steven Sclaroff
••• Roc
••• Estancia 460
••• Boomerang Toys
••• Antiqueria Tribeca
••• Real Pilates
••• Church Street School for Music and Art
••• Kings Pharmacy
••• Church Street Surplus
••• New York Nautical
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• Donzella
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

6 Comments

  1. I love Chamber Street Wines. Go in, give them a style, a region, a price range, whatever – and you’ll wind up with an exceptional wine, as in, you’ll really stand up and take notice and probably taste something completely new to your experience. We’re lucky to have them in the neighborhood. The most fun is throwing a dinner party and stopping by CBW and describing how many people you’re having over, what you’re cooking and the order of the courses…et voila! They’ll choose all the wines and your guests will be wowed. These guys know their stuff like you wouldn’t believe and most of the wines are from Earth-friendly, organic growers, too.

  2. thanks Erik! what fun to learn about our friends and neighbors

  3. ok, i’ll admit that i have been cheating on chamber street wines with trader joes ($4 la granja tempranillo). for years, i have been going there and telling them what we’re eating and under $15 and not only do they never up sell me, they frequently find something cheaper. they have NEVER recommended a bad bottle. i can’t wait to try the $8 La Vieille Ferme.

  4. I moved to Battery Park 2 years ago and have been lazily ordering wine online for a myriad of reasons. But mainly because I missed my old neighborhood gem on the UES and haven’t found anything I loved in the area.

    I will be changing that ASAP and look forward to visiting Chambers Street Wines. This sounds exactly like what I’ve been looking for. Thank you for highlighting them and for the rec!

  5. They could have mentioned that they have been voted the best wine store in the world. My favorite by far, though Caves Auge on Blvd Haussmann is amazing, too. But you have to know the right people to get what you want. Chambers is a wonderful, friendly place, and a wine-leader in so many ways. If you want to develop your own taste in wine, this is the place to go.

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