These Wines Have Got Legs

These Wines Have Got Legs

The Cool Room at Astor Wines & Spirits

When I graduated college in 1977 and moved into the Village, I remember shopping, practically on a weekly basis, at Astor Wines & Spirits. That was the “cool” liquor store to shop at, located on Astor Pl., near Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, bright and spacious, and, especially important for me (on an editorial assistant’s salary), truly reasonably-priced liquors and wines. Astor Wines & Spirits moved in shortly after World War ll. “My father (Edwin Fisher) bought the store in 1968,” explains Rob Fisher, COO of the company. Then, about 10 years ago, this famous NYC wine emporium moved down the block to 399 Broadway, into a building with a larger space and a storied past: Thomas De Vinne’s Press factory, which opened in 1886, a handsome brick building designed in the Romanesque Revival style, and one of the city’s most elegant printing companies. De Vinne died in 1914, his printing operation ended in 1922, and in 1966 the structure was designated a New York City landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places. I live in Princeton, New Jersey now, but I thought it was high time to visit the “new” space, where I had a most enjoyable chat with Fisher and his main wine buyer, Lorena Ascencios. “At 11,000 square-feet, it is about twice the footage of the old store,” notes Fisher. What else makes this space so special? Adds Ascencios, “We are physically the largest wine store in NYC: We carry 3,000 wines and 1,500 spirits, both with great variety, but we also have a different buying philosophy from a lot of other stores. We look for a wine with a story to it. Lots of our wines come from small wineries and importers that we know directly. They’ve often been around for decades or in some cases, centuries.” Both Fisher and Ascencios point out that what a customer will NOT see on their bottles are any Robert Parker labels or other commercial wine ratings. “These are under-the-radar wines, the kinds you won’t find in glossy magazines, those from individual wineries in Italy and France, Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia.” Says Fisher, “You will also see spirits here that you won’t see anywhere else.” Case in point: the wonderful Kings County Moonshine corn whiskey, packaged in a clear medicine bottle, or the three-time distilled rare Mezcal from Oaxaca, Mexico. (Talk about colorful descriptions: The label on this Mezcal—Del Maguey Pechuga—reads that it is made with “wild mountain plums, apples, plantains, almonds and uncooked rice. While it is distilling, a washed chicken breast is suspended in the still and the vapors pass over the pechuga”)

The cool room, which stores many of the rare wines, is equally as provocative, where you can find such items as red wines from the vineyard of Prince Alberico Boncampagni Ludovisi, Prince of Venosa in Lazio, outside of Rome. As the story goes, the royal recluse meticulously tended to the vineyard on his Fiorano estate, until his daughter married into a well-known, commercial Tuscan wine family So distraught was he that his precious wines might deteriorate in quality under different management, he tore up all his vineyards: The bottles here were retrieved from the original winery in the 1990s, some of the very last bottles left.

Other areas of the store promote local products, such as the "I Love New York” section of all-New York State wines, or the aforementioned Moonshine from Kings County, Brooklyn. Astor also has the largest selection of sakes in NYC, rare dessert wines and, if that weren’t enough weekly themed tastings and classes with often include a welcome cocktail, snacks, an illuminating lecture and follow-up Q&A.

Astor ships to 30 states plus the District of Columbia.

» Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St., 212.674.7600