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Great Place for New Wines


Combining the analytical precision and business acumen of the accountant he once was with the passion and commitment of the enthusiastic wine merchant he’s become, Scott Pactor has established a paradigmatic wine shop for the 21st century. Appellation Wine & Spirits, which features eco-friendly wines — about 70 percent of its stock falls under natural, organic, or biodynamic criteria — is small, sleek, user-friendly, and service-oriented. It is also located in perhaps Manhattan’s hottest up-and-coming neighborhood, West Chelsea, where a nearly unprecedented building boom is transforming former parking lots, warehouses, and industrial sites into a sophisticated residential enclave.

While Appellation’s “green” emphasis is a nice marketing handle — and a highly appropriate stance for a new business in this day and age — perhaps more cogent to its mission is that nearly all of its wines (about 90 percent) are from small, independent producers. Whether or not they’re made from grapes that are farmed organically, they are all wines of unique character, reflecting a sense of place, or, in winespeak, terroir.

“I look for the least amount of manipulation in a wine,” says Pactor, outlining his aims. “The discussion starts with this notion of cocktail wines. If you’re trying to make a wine that is user-friendly — not necessarily one that’s being paired with food — it’s usually at a higher alcohol level and it’s more fruit-forward. There’s activity in the vineyard that goes into achieving that. You have to bring the fruit to a higher ripeness level, which, to begin with, usually involves the use of chemical fertilizers. It becomes an entire chain reaction of manipulation — in the vineyard, but also in the cellar. There’s this constant tinkering with the process, but not from a natural perspective. On the other hand, wines that are made by traditional, natural methods end up tasting different. They end up being unique, as opposed to a lot of large-production wines moving in that one direction, with increasing sameness.”

The fact is that natural, organic, or biodynamic wines taste better because the lack of manipulation in the winemaking process allows the qualities of the grape and the terroir to emerge. “That’s why we chose the French term appellation for the name of our store,” says Pactor. “Wines that fall under the appellation guidelines are required to have certain grape varieties and certain alcohol levels. They are supposed to be representative, to have a sense of place. We want wines with that sense of place. We want you to be able to taste them and say: ‘Wow, it does transport me there.’”

A native of Dallas, Texas, Pactor, who is now 36, earned a five-year master’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas. He started out at Arthur Anderson, the accounting firm, where he was recruited for various other jobs. Requesting one with an opportunity to travel, he landed at the advertising conglomerate Interpublic Group, and was sent all over the world to do internal audits.

When the thrill of being a sought-after young accountant began to wear off, he took a leave of absence and went backpacking in South America. Along that path, he decided to pursue a career in wine. He’d taken a no-credit wine course during college, discovering there was much more to the miracle of the vines than just white Zinfandel.

“I liked sweet white wines at the time,” Pactor recalls, “which meant German Rieslings. It was a bottle of Louis Jadot Pinot Noir, probably just a straight Bourgogne Rouge, that opened my eyes to red wine. That’s really where it started taking off for me. Later, when I was living at home with my parents and working at Arthur Anderson, I would always bring a bottle of wine home for dinner. This was around ’95 to ’97, which was when the ’94 California Cabernets came out. So we were enjoying some excellent wines, perhaps not even realizing this was a great vintage.”

Beginning in 2001, Pactor started taking professional courses. Within a couple of years, he landed a position as cellar master for Keith McNally’s restaurants, including Balthazar and Pastis. From there, he moved to a retail position, and also moonlighted as a sommelier at Michael’s and Felidia. Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits, which has since singled out Appellation as the best store for natural wines, invited the young sommelier to join the magazine’s tasting panel.

To fulfill his dream of owning a wine shop, Pactor would need to establish credentials and qualifications for a New York State liquor license, which include securing a commercial lease at a site sufficiently free of geographical competition, i.e., not too close to an existing business. Pactor’s first bid for a space on 23rd Street west of Ninth Avenue was low; the locale eventually went to a branch of the Paula Cooper galleries, pioneer of the art industry’s migration from SoHo to Chelsea.

After that, Pactor quickly found his spot. “[The broker] showed us three or four spaces the first day. As we were walking through this one, my wife grabbed my elbow and said: ‘This is where we should be.’” Everything was in place by the summer of 2005, and the shop opened in September of that year. Pactor’s silent partners there are his wife, Jee Won Park, a producer for the CBS News Early Show, and his brother Marc Pactor, who lives in Chicago but occasionally comes to New York to help mind the store during busy holiday periods.

A planned expansion — the timing of which has yet to be determined — will double the store’s square footage as well as its stock. The retail area currently occupies about 1,000 square feet, with racks for about 300 wines. The design of the store is spare and minimalist, putting the focus squarely on the wines, which is exactly where it should be. The facings — display racks of bottles, each with one on top, label up at a readable angle — are divided into sections by country, each with its own small flag. Within each section, the wines are grouped from lighter to fuller-bodied. Each display has a short description of the wine on a 2- x 1-inch card; the descriptions also appear on Appellation’s highly accessible, easy-to-use Website.

Pactor and his staff will send you home with one of those description cards for each of your purchases if you so choose. They are cheerful, solicitous, and eager to share with customers as much wine knowledge as is desired. If you’d rather just keep your iPod earplugs in, make a quick choice, and get out of there in less than three minutes, fine. If you’d like a mini-wine education course, pairing recommendations for an upcoming dinner party or just to chat about some of the new wines in stock, the Appellation staff is happy to indulge.

Speaking with Pactor — who is on hand to greet and serve customers during almost all the store’s extensive business hours (Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, noon to 8 p.m.) — is a not entirely unlike a chat with your high-school chemistry teacher: Pactor’s a little bit serious, a trifle nerdy, he’ll toss a fair amount of jargon at you. But, boy, is he full of fascinating and practical information on his wines. The exchange is polite, cheerful, conversational, and will invariably focus on discovering what, you, the customer, wants. He’ll sell you a few bottles, all right, perhaps even a case, but without ramming them down your throat, thank you very much.

Appellation has a broad range of prices (from $9.99 to $150. and on up to the stratosphere); mixed cases are sold at a 10 percent discount and delivered free. If pressed for time, you can order and pay by phone after browsing the Website. All in all, it’s a pleasant, efficient, informative way to spend your dollars on fine wines.

Like any successful retailer, Pactor starts with the customer-satisfaction creed, quickly shifting the topic to specifics about his wares: “You can get good product throughout the city, but our push is to retain customers by giving them a high level of service. I want to make sure we are attentive to [customers’] needs and also give them an interesting product. Not interesting from a marketing standpoint, but from the viewpoint of ‘What is wine?’ It’s traditionally consumed with food. A lot of people in the United States have gravitated toward treating wines as a cocktail — that higher-alcohol, round, fruit-forward style. Lots of people find that appealing. While we have a couple of those bottles, we try to look at wine more from a food perspective. A customer will come in and say: ‘I’m making steak au poivre this evening. What do you recommend?’ At that point it’s about closing your eyes and thinking, ‘What are those flavors and what wine would they pair well with?’

During a recent interview Pactor and this reporter (full disclosure: Appellation is my neighborhood wine shop and I’m a regular customer there) discussed the following representative selections:

2006 Hofer Grüner Veltliner Trocken, Niederösterreich, Austria, $9.99 (liter bottle): A certified organic white that delivers a lot of bang for your buck and makes an ideal “house wine,” drinkable all summer and well into the fall. The ’07 vintage arrives in May.

2004 Sybille Kuntz Riesling Trocken, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany, $15.99: Pactor’s take: “I like being able to taste a wine and feel the acidity rise in my mouth. It makes my mouth crave food. This wine is a great example of a dry Riesling. It has no residual sugar; therefore it’s 12 percent alcohol, relatively high for this type of wine. It has good acidity, wonderful minerality, and is definitely balanced, which is to say it’s not so overly acidic as to turn people off if they want to drink it as a cocktail. It’s also an excellent food wine, pairing well with spicy foods; fish and lighter meat dishes; salads, which can be a tricky match owing to the acidity in the dressings; and also with cheeses, which can be tricky as well.”

1996 Francesco Rinaldi & Figli Barolo Cannubbio, Barolo, Italy, $41.99: For those accustomed to modern “international style” wines, this traditional Barolo may be seem unexpectedly thin, dusty, or musky-tasting. Imagine four years or more of aging in old oak casks in a dingy old cellar. “It gives you the impression that there’s a horse somewhere in that cellar,” Pactor agrees, with a chuckle. “You get a lot of that wet-horse note.”

1987 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, (red) Rioja, Spain, $86.99: A classic, elegant old-style Rioja; many producers will put their older wines in new bottles, with new corks but not this one. “With Lopez de Heredia,” says Pactor, “you get the original bottle and the original cork, which is wet almost all the way through. It’s great. You also have a lot of cellar schmutz on the bottle, which is fun, too.”

1981 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, (white) Rioja: This remarkable white — Pactor labels it “just beautiful” — is aged eight years in oak casks and another 16 years in the bottle. Comparable white Burgundies go for $300 or more.

1985 Castell in’Villa Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy, $138.99: This Pactor’s desert-island wine (provided someone else is buying) is a beautifully smooth, silky, feminine Chianti that, despite its age is (Pactor’s words) “still youthful in many ways. It has similar body to the Chateau Musar.” A classy special-occasion purchase at a price that delivers very good value considering the wine’s age, style, and acidity.

1998 Château Musar (red), Lebanon, $45.99: Talk about terroir: Taste this unique wine, made from a Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux-style blend of grapes, and picture the dusty hills, breathe the desert air, feel the hot sun baking those vineyards. “Musar has more of an old-world style,” says Pactor. “It’s got maybe medium or medium-minus body. As a red wine grows older, its tannins start breaking up. They become softer, and so will the body. The alcohol begins to evaporate, and it becomes a lighter style wine. The Chateau Musar is an evolving wine. It has life, but it’s on the second half of its life, not the first half.” (Didn’t you get a lot better in your second half? So why shouldn’t Château Musar?)

2002 Robert Sinskey Vandal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Valley, California, $58.99: Made from organically farmed grapes and representing its Carneros terroir magnificently. Pactor assesses it: “Its alcohol level is fairly high, but when you taste it you realize it does have tannins and it does have acidity that keep it in balance. The aromatics are unique. It’s not a wine with this same red, candied, lollypop flavor you get with a lot of Pinot Noirs these days. If you want Coca-Cola, you can drink Coca-Cola.”

Appellation Wine & Spirits
156 Tenth Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10011
(212) 741-9474

Defining Several Useful Terms

The distinctions among terms such as “natural,” “organic,” and “biodynamic” can be confusing and at times misleading. Here are some guidelines to help clarify them. If you’re unsure about how a given wine fits into these categories, just ask the seller. If he or she can’t answer, consider shopping elsewhere. Also, be aware that different countries have varying standards and definitions.

Biodynamic: A holistic system of agriculture based on Austrian teacher-philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s world view, which is called anthroposophy. Steiner believed in applying a scientific methodology to spiritual inquiries, and among his many inventions there is biodynamic agriculture, considered the first systematic, modern, ecological approach to farming. It incorporates all aspects of organic farming as well as additional principles such as following the astronomical calendar and creating special organic compost preparations.

Organic: Within this category, which allows no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, there are two important distinctions: 1. wines made from organically grown grapes, and 2. organic wines. The former may have some sulfites added as preservatives, which is part of the winemaking — as opposed to the grape-growing — process; the latter have no added sulfites.

Natural: Because it is so difficult to obtain official organic or biodynamic certification — the paperwork and bureaucracy can be overwhelming — many winemakers will farm and/or make their wines by these two methods, but may opt to use this more general term to describe the results.