1) So there you were, a young man with a dream of wine ... how did you come to be interested in wine, and how did you pursue that interest?
I first became interested in wine while attending culinary school at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. I began taking classes offered by the Sommelier Society of America. One of the teachers for the class was Andrea Immer, a Master Sommelier. She had an opening in the wine department at Windows on the World, in the World Trade Center, for an assistant cellarmaster. I worked there part-time for the next year and a half. I then landed a job at Astor Wines & Spirits, one of New York's top retailers, as a salesperson, then worked my way up to be their assistant wine buyer. My next move was this shop. Along the way, I was very fortunate to work closely with a lot of great people who knew tremendous amounts about wine and nothing about pretension.
2) What do you draw on for inspiration in creating the atmosphere of 33? How do you describe it? And where on earth are those ultra-cool bubbles from?
33 was designed as a place to get away from everything else. Its minimalist approach was designed to remove all the visual clutter found in most places and allow for the wine and what we do to stand out. The bubbles came from World Market and were put up around the holidays last year ... but stayed because of popular opinion.
3) What odd guesses have people had, or perhaps what odd answers have you given if you're feeling punchy, for why the shop is called "33"?
Most of the time they think it is my age or the address only a few have guessed it was the year Prohibition was repealed.
4) What's the biggest wine myth?
That room temperature is proper serving temperature for red wines and that white wines should be served with an Arctic chill. Both extremes throw wines out of balance and don't allow you to taste the fruit. I only order red wines at restaurants that understand the importance of temperature control.
5) What's your best-selling wine?
I just ran out of an outstanding Shiraz from Australia by the name of Jester. It was high on our bestseller list.
6) How do you deal with folks who come in and order a piña colada or a Bud Light?
I normally say we do not carry spirits or anything mass-market. I try very hard to bite my tongue and not get into explaining the purpose of Germany's Purity Law of 1516. I will generally offer Germany's classic Bitburger pilsner when they ask for the closest thing to Bud Light. But rumor has it that I have been known to pour a glass of water and walk away. I think it is important for people to understand that best-selling is rarely the best in quality. It is cheaper to spend millions of dollars in marketing and in PR than it is to make a high-quality product that mainstream America will purchase. The degradation of taste has been occurring in our country for years. Purveyors of fine wines, beers and restaurants walk a fine line trying to satisfy the masses while hoping to steer their customers towards higher-quality products. By removing all the comfortable, easy choices (Bud Light, Heineken, Bud ... enter any mass-market name), my customers have to think about what they are going to drink. They have to make a conscious decision about what they are in the mood to consume. This opens them up to trying something they are not familiar with. I am very fortunate to believe strongly in what I do and to have developed a loyal customer base that appreciates my lighthearted, laid-back approach to wine and beer and my commitment to the world's best small producers.
7) Can you suggest an ideal combination utilizing the wares of both 33 and The Chocolate Bar, right next door?
Port and chocolate. Port and Zin. Fortified Muscat and Zin. All are wonderful combinations.
8) What's the best thing about St. Louis? The worst?
The best: living in the city where unique small businesses have a chance for survival. The worst: people do not go out as much here and entertain with friends. There is nothing better than sitting around with friends enjoying a bottle of wine at a bar or at someone's house. It is much more interesting than zoning out in front of the TV. I always tell people you should squeeze as much out of life as you can.
9) Do you get people coming out of the woodwork maybe people you went to high school with hitting you up for free booze?
Not really; most people respect the fact that I am a small business and want to see me succeed. People I haven't seen for 10 years at times show up and are happy for me. Since I do not advertise or actively promote my business, I have had a good group of family, friends and customers that have taken a vested interest in seeing this work. They have been the key to my business and I can't thank them enough for believing in my shop.
10) What's your current favorite from your menu?
Champagne. Always Champagne. Billecart Salmon Brut or Schramsberg Brut Rose. It is really an under-appreciated, under-utilized gem. Everyone should drink more Champagne.
11) And about that menu ... it's a little treasure in its own right. Are you secretly a frustrated writer? Can you tell when someone is going to steal one?
I suppose I am a frustrated writer. I love to spin words while trying to convey my ideals and passion for what I do. The menu is a large part of the shop because its whimsical nature allows people to open up and feel comfortable even though they may not know anything about wine. I usually tell them, "that's okay, I don't know anything about anything else." I believe the stealing of the menus has decreased since I began selling them. However, I once read in The Onion that stealing is the highest form of flattery. But I had a hard time picking out who was thinking of flattery.