Michael Albin: Hudson Wine Merchants

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

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Editor’s Note: Discovering Hudson Wine Merchants one day in Hudson, New York was a real eye-opener. So many interesting bottles. So many intriguing producers from so many world regions. From the well-curated shelves, it was obvious this shop was owned by people who, not only know what they’re doing, but are WAY into it. Enjoy our conversation with Michael Albin, co-owner of Hudson Wine Merchants.

Tell us a little about Hudson Wine Merchants. Would you say you have an area of specialization?

Michael Albin: We opened in June of 2004, on Warren Street in Hudson, New York; and we are about to hit our ten year anniversary. We purchased our building, which was a fixer-upper (to say the least!) and built out the store on the ground floor, an apartment above it, on the second floor, where we lived with our daughter, Beatrix, and soon after we renovated the third floor into a loft space where we could have wine tastings, wine dinners, parties, literary readings, photography exhibits and various performances.

(As it turns out, the third floor space has been a great way to attach our non-wine interests to the wine shop and vice versa.) 

While it is accurate to say that one of our areas of specialization is Burgundy, our true passion is finding the best of the world’s wines and spirits in order to make a cohesive collection of the stand-out examples of today’s great winemakers and distillers in every price point possible. Following our interest and passion then sharing them with anyone willing, has taken us not only through many wine regions of the world, but also, through various styles of winemaking, viticulture and philosophies.

Perhaps this also partially explains why so many of our customers are much more than customers–they are excited to know what we are into; we have discovered many a great bottle and restaurant recommendation thanks to our clients’ love of food and wine; and relationships began from there. It has been an amazing exchange. That said, some of our latest wine and spirit fascinations include Central European wines–Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia and the like–New York State ciders and distilled spirits; I think we are on the cusp of seeing a wave of exciting terrior-driven wines from Portugal.

There is so much to consider, to keep up with and learn about, and that is what has kept the store fresh to the point that, at a decade in business, we still feel on our heels trying to keep up; that is the fun and the challenge of the product end of our business.

I would recommend that if you love something just take a quick iPhone photo of the label.

Give us an idea about your intentions with HWM. Your shop has established a reputation for being enthusiastic, pleasant and accommodating to your customers. You even occasionally deliver to NYC! From where does all this love of wine come? Why are you such a good ambassador of wine?

MA: Our intention from the start was about finding great wine, also though, about customer service. As wine consumers we knew that we liked to frequent the shops that a) had great examples of classic wines as well as less known bottlings of interesting varietals b) had good knowledge about the wines and c) cared about what was going to make us happy. We simply modeled our business plan from what we knew we liked about the wine buying experience, as consumers, and then furthered it.

We didn’t want a gimmicky reorientation of retail wine presentation in our store for the sake of doing something different or dumbing it down, so we stuck with geographic organization, with display areas for value wines or seasonally appropriate wines (as if wines really were part of the fabric of daily life here, too).

We didn’t like wine sales people that had more attitude than knowledge, or that seemed to be going on the assumption that naming an obscure grape a customer probably never heard of meant that they “knew” wine. That is all about that salesperson anyway, not necessarily the same thing as making the effort to find something that might be right for a particular customer–our intention from the start and what will always be our core: we care about our customers, and what they might want.

And we love to share.  Our free delivery started because it was what we needed to do to make our clients’ lives better, easier. I remember our second or third year in business, driving a wine and champagne order out to a client’s house on Christmas Eve.

Now, we regularly deliver to New York City. Early on, it’s true that this out-of-area business was key to surviving the rather quiet winters in Hudson. Our weekenders were entertaining in the city but still wanted our selections. It’s now part of our fabric even though we have witnessed Hudson becoming more of a year-round place.

And frankly, we are flattered that with all the excellent stores in New York, our customers are excited to go with our recommendations.

We are really driven to make people happy, to please them. So when people come in, asking the right questions to figure out what they want (if they want to be engaged at all), where they might be at with wine and food, what they might like, how much they would like to spend, these are all far more important considerations than my own preferences, than that Chambolle Musigny I might be pinching from my own inventory because Marianne is roasting a simple chicken with herbs, and braising parsnips for dinner and I want everything to be perfect.  

While not often, it does happen that certain people are intensely hard to please—some people, even pride themselves on this. I find this a challenge—I usually am inspired to climb that mountain, to the point where employees have thought that I was a bit screwy in the head (of course, they were right!). 

What has to happen for a wine to be added to your already outstanding collection? What criteria do you consider to put on a new line?

MA: Over the years, our selection has grown in the number of “faces” we carry. That is natural in that we have time to discover new bottles while continuing to enjoy sharing the wines we love by talented producers. Our criteria for new wines is still the same: if it is really well-made, well-priced, and has a natural fit to our existing collection, then, it’s in!

It’s a little like curating or being well-rounded to an extent, covering certain categories as best as we can; also though, our selection is like an ongoing discussion of wine–who are the best lower alcohol, terrior-driven American producers? What importers are bringing in the most exciting Austrian wines? What are the best-made examples of orange wines, or of wines made by using fascinating centuries-old Greek or Roman techniques that still offer  wine qualities worth considering?  

What are the wines that are great because they were made in an organic and biodynamic fashion, and what are the wines that employ these same practices and are terribly flawed (even though someone somewhere is calling that flaw ‘gutsy character’—it’s quite a world, the wine world!)

Hudson Wine Merchants is known for being a very welcoming place. There’s even a dog in residence (along with marrow bones on the floor)! Tell us about your approach to marketing wine.

MA: We’ve never had an official business plan (mom and pop shops usually don’t) and so we’ve never had a marketing plan. We are all about customer service and a sense of dedication to where we live. We think Hudson is a very special and unique place and it thrills us that we can say “welcome” to everyone who walks in the door. 

Hudson is a very dog friendly town. Our first dog was old and docile when we opened. She was super sweet and people would come in just to pet her. Our second dog, Percy, is a sweetie too, except he doesn’t care for other dogs. This can be a problem for people who stop in with their own dogs! Fortunately, Percy is a very smart mutt, and trained himself to leave the room when another dog enters–he goes into the back hallway to be locked away where he feels safe, until the other dog leaves. Our little guy!  

Talk a little bit about how different parts of your former selves–writer, musician, English professor–have coalesced into a successful wine seller in Hudson, New York.

MA: I think my background is a typical for many in my generation. I’ve worn a few hats and somehow it has educated me in a way that I can use it in my present life. I love to get to know people and help them learn about wine in whatever way works for them. I certainly think of small production wine making as an art. My wife, Marianne, was a photographer and art curator, so the store also has its own thought-out beauty. Great photographs on the walls, we think, adds to the shopping experience. Everything is of a certain level. No mass-production cheap faux-wine shiraz; value finds for around $8 a bottle, yes; Clicqout, for champagne, no; yes to Bereche, for a few dollars more, or a T. Thiese grown champagne for a good bit less (Aubry, etc).

Perhaps even more importantly, we understand that wherever there is a rule there is an exception—if a big-production wine is really well-made, and too fair for the price, and we can share it with the people who trust us, than so be it.  

Can we talk about The Hudson Standard bitters and shrubs? We’re intrigued–tell us about this new product line. What’s going on there?

MA: The Hudson Standard idea started with a friend (aka customer) talking about the handcrafted bitters movement on the west coast, around 2010. By 2012, we realized that it would be really fun and interesting to explore making bitters in the Hudson Valley. At the same time, Marianne got really excited about shrubs, which are syrups made from fruit, vinegar and sweetener. They are a versatile cocktail mixer, but we were most taken with shrubs as a stand alone non-alcoholic cocktail when mixed with seltzer (sometimes with a splash of Dolin Dry Vermouth!). It was our “adult” soda because it is both tart and sweet, pretty complex.

The ingredients in The Hudson Standard’s bitters and shrubs are almost entirely sourced from the Hudson Valley; and working with local farms right now is exciting– there is such an openness to new ideas about crops, production, sustainability and cooperative ventures. We think of The Hudson Standard as a convergence between cocktails and farm to table. The energy going into raising the quality of this area’s “culture of the table” is tremendous, both from the production and consumer side. Our clients’ excitement at finding, evaluating and supporting these new local products, whether liquor, cider or wine, is tremendous.

Last year, Marianne made a late summer batch of Pear Honey Ginger Shrub and Ginger Bitters. They sold out quickly. This season, she has added new flavors: a classic Strawberry Rhubarb Shrub and a bright, citrusy Spruce Shoot Bitters. We are working hard in our test kitchen now, to add a couple more flavors in 2014; also, launching a kickstarter in May so that we can increase production and distribution.

Tell us how we consumers can be better customers. What are some tips you can share on choosing and buying wine?

MA: Keep track of what you like: One tip has to do with that wine is a simple pleasure, and there are times when a client at a meal somewhere is loving a bottle of wine, then they come to the wineshop a few days/weeks/months later and don’t remember it.  

I would recommend that if you love something just take a quick iPhone photo of the label. Or, if you are getting a mixed case of fun new wine to try, keep that receipt, be aware of the price, and mark what you like.  

An excellent combination is to come in with a sense of what you might want, and then to be open-minded. If you are in the hands of an able wine merchant, even if the store doesn’t stock exactly, say, that rosé you had on your vacation in Sicily, working together you might find the closest thing available, or something that you may never have thought of that the merchant knows has similar qualities.  

Taking half steps in different directions, is a safe way to learn.  

And have fun learning!  Many wineshops have in-store tastings and they are free and there is someone there pouring, to tell you all about the product. Engage your wine merchant with where you are with wines, what interests you, share something you hated or loved–most wine merchants love talking about wine and wine and food.  

We discovered Aaron Burr hard cider at HWM. (So delicious and with such a great story.) Talk about the rise of small-batch, handmade ciders. Why do you think they have rocketed in popularity?

MA: Cider-makers have been at work in New York State long before this boom. This is a product with a substantial history in our region. Currently, New York State is spending a lot of energy facilitating this growth. Quality, interest and a sense of experimentation seem to be on the rise; there is a young energy and passion to many of the new producers. Hudson Valley residents are beginning to think about pairing sophisticated bottlings with specific meals, and it makes sense. People here clearly have an emotional stake in, not only the region’s bounty, but in the quality of its products–there is no mistaking it, from my vantage point behind the store counter.

Last year, our favorite ciders were pre-ordered by the case and we couldn’t keep them in stock–it was like getting in a coveted wine by a great winemaker!

We are a little store and we  had a cider display of six or seven different styles, made using various techniques; and they all went, and people didn’t want to just take one and go–they were interested in hearing about each one. Five years ago, maybe even three, in the store, no one was coming in excited about cider; or at most, people would have us hunt down a French cider for them.

Are there other trends in wine that you see at Hudson Wine Merchants? What wine is flying off the shelves these days?

MA: One trend we haven’t discussed is the growth of small batch distillers, and the popularity of bourbon and scotch; whether vodka, gin or some unique spirit, if the product is made in the US, or even if it isn’t, but it is intriguing, and seemingly done at a high-level, with an interesting story, people want to know about it– which ones stand the test of time is another thing! Independent bottlers, for Scotch whisky, have brought in some exciting things–Independent bottlers go around purchasing single barrels of some very exciting scotch that may not fit into the flavor profile of a big brand house.  

For great value red wines, Portugal and Spain seem to entice our shoppers (and us) more than do the malbecs and carmeneres of Argentina and Chile. Rosés do great in the spring and summer, ciders, in the fall. Valle D’Aosta and Savoie–mountain wines seem to be more present in the New York market. Jura wines have so much unique character, chefs and food critics come in, see them and get super-excited. Visiting the Jura a few years ago was memorable–vintners were rightly proud of their wines–some, world class–frequently sold on the counter next to their homemade jams, etc, at the winery–again, part of the fabric of life!  

So many of HWM’s wines are organic, biodynamic, small farmed (the specifics of this certainly merit their own article!) that we don’t have a section for them, they are just mixed in with everything else.

People care about this, and would rather not drink doctored wines with all sorts of mysterious ingredients in the bottle. Sicilian reds, Canary Island wines–importers are finding a lot of great stuff. One just has to sift through it all.

Michael, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. We really appreciate it.

MA: Well, thank you. This was a lively discussion. I enjoyed it.

Photo credit: Marianne Courville