Friday, August 17, 2012

The Wall Street Journal: In Astoria, a World of Wine

by Lettie Teague (excerpts)

17.08.2012. If the United Nations ran a wine shop, it might look something like Grand Wine & Liquor in Astoria, Queens (save, perhaps, for the full-window displays of Chivas, Courvoisier and Patrón). I've never been in a New York store with a larger selection of wines I'd never heard of and names that I have no idea how to pronounce. A short list of the countries represented includes: Brazil, Holland, Croatia, Romania, Moldova, Morocco, Slovenia, Tunisia, the Republic of Georgia and Greece—as well as all the more "usual" countries such as Italy, Germany, Australia, Austria, the U.S. and France.

A selection of the wines from the Republic of Georgia.  Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
Grand Wine & Liquor, situated just down from the 31st Street subway station and a bottle's throw from the elevated tracks, opened "sometime in the 1940s," according to the store's manager, Tin Tao, with whom I spoke a few days after my visit to the store. Mr. Tao said he's tasted wines from every country that's represented in his store—though when pressed, he wouldn't name his favorite nation. More importantly, how did a humble wine shop in the shadow of the subway tracks become an international wine hub? "There was a big European community when the store opened, and it catered to them," explained Mr. Tao. "We'd like to keep it that way."

Of course, that "European community" isn't quite the same as it was during Grand Wine's earlier days. For one thing, it's a lot smaller—replaced by younger, trendier residents. Even the historically large Greek population has shrunk, though there was an uptick in Greek émigrés following the economic meltdown in their homeland. There are no tasting notes, store commentary or critics' scores attached to any wines—Greek or otherwise—neither bottles nor shelves. And no one, including the three men busying themselves among bottles of Yellow Tail, seemed willing to help. I had to intercept a man carrying some bottles and plead for assistance. He directed me to a woman named Milada, saying she "knew everything" about all the wines.

"Even this one?" I asked the omniscient Milada Casnochova, an attractive Czech woman with a placid expression. I led her to the odd, brown earthenware bottle that I'd found in the Georgian wine section. The label looked like Cyrillic to me. "That's a semi-sweet wine," said Milada.

A word of advice for would-be buyers of Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Georgian wine: Think semi-sweet.


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