Thursday, January 1, 2009

Enjoying the search for the ‘right’ vintage

AROUND TOWN: Enjoying the search for the ‘right’ vintage
Thursday, December 18, 2008 5:05 PM EST
By Adam Grybowski Staff Writer

When novice wine drinkers buy wine, they’re often playing a game of chance. Hundreds of choices line the shelves, sorted by region, mottled by description, marked by scores. While an oenophile seeks a select winemaker, the novice fumbles until unable to resist an attractive label.

To parse wine terminology and buck the 100-point rating system of influential wine critic Robert Parker, Mark Censits, the owner of CoolVines, a wine shop with locations in Westfield and Princeton, devised his own custom system. The goal is to provide a way for any customer to shop for wine without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

Mr. Censits, a Princeton resident, opened the Princeton store in August. In November, CoolVines launched a new Web site where customers can track and analyze their purchases and keep a journal. The Web site and the store are constructed to teach customers the patterns of their purchases and the qualities of their preferences, guiding them to develop their taste through experience rather than study.

“No consumer has to be a student (of wine),” he says. “(Buying wine) should be rather casual.”

A custom tag accompanies each bottle of wine offered by CoolVines. The tag is meant to help decode the information on a wine bottle’s label and simplify concepts that may elude a casual wine drinker, from its style to the fullness of its body. Dollar signs represent the wine’s price range.

“Most people have a collection, whether it’s 10 bottles or 1,000,” Mr. Censits says, adding that the price range symbol can help a person quickly recognize an expensive bottle of wine, so they don’t “waste” it on a mundane occasion.

Following the intuitive nature of the tags, the store is arranged by attribute rather than region, helping customers match wine they have liked in the past to something of similar taste.

Mr. Censits envisions CoolVines as an advocate for the consumer, and his system as a way to nurture them to sophistication. It’s a journey he’s on himself. When he opened the first CoolVines store in Westfield, he describes his stage of wine appreciation as “advanced beginner.”

“I knew a lot about what I didn’t know,” he says, sending up the breadth of knowledge a wine expert must possess. He’s closed that gap through reading, travel and contact with staff and distributors.

Such education has led him to focus on wine produced on a modest scale, as well as those made in an authentic style that truly represent the wine’s region or vintage. Bigger brand-name labels tend not to show up on CoolVines’ shelves. Such diversity requires rigorous selection.

“Very rarely have we put something on the shelf we haven’t tasted,” Mr. Censits says. “There’s more good wine in the world than we can show, so we’re constantly making hard decisions.”

A certain class of wine drinkers who seek excitement and adventure probably visit many wine shops looking for offbeat or hard-to-find bottles of wine, Mr. Censits says. “Other people latch on to us and we become their personal sommelier.”

Indeed, offers theme packs in which wine is chosen for you. Wine purchased online is added to a personal journal that can be rated and annotated. Purchases made in the store can be tracked as well.

Such a model helps customers trust their own judgement while building trust for CoolVines — the most important part of the transaction, Mr. Censits says. “Our shelves are a safe place to explore.”

Coolvines is located at 344 Nassau St., Princeton, 609-924-0039. On the Web:

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