The Corkscrew: The Original Specialty Wine Shop
"I am the only wine store,” says Laurent Chapuis, owner of the Corkscrew on Hulfish Street in Palmer Square, obviously referring only to Princeton. The Corkscrew does not sell beer, although Chapuis himself likes and drinks it. “To my mind, once you stock beer you’re a liquor store.” This is one of the reasons that, despite the fact that CoolVines, which does sell beer and spirits, has moved into a new space just a couple of streets away, Chapuis says he is “not worried” and does not consider any other shop in Princeton to be in competition with the Corkscrew. “Nobody,” he says. “Nationally, there are maybe 20 stores I admire.”
Chapuis opened his Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop in January, 1997, starting with about 1,300 square feet at the space on Hulfish Street that is now Red Green Blue. Over the nine years the Corkscrew was there, he expanded the shop to, he estimates, between 2,000 and 2,300 square feet. In the beginning Chapuis says he made one big mistake. “I made the first shop too beautiful at first. People assumed it was a luxury wine shop. That was not what I meant to project.” Especially, he notes, because “about 85 percent of my wines are priced between $7 and $20,” which, even now, may surprise people. “These are everyday wines I myself drink at home, and that is what I wanted to represent in the shop.” He claims that after downplaying the esthetics he doubled his sales.
Five years ago the Corkscrew moved further down Hulfish to its current location near the intersection of Chambers Street. Among the reasons for the move Chapuis says, are “No stairs. When you’re selling thousands of cases of wine a year, that makes a difference.” The current location also offers better access for the delivery of wines and it has (metered) parking for customers directly in front. The space also offered the potential to expand, which he has already done once. Sales doubled again after the expansion.
He estimates he has between 700 and 800 wines “showing” at any given time, although over the course of a year he carries about 4,000 in rotation. “It varies depending on when wines are released. Plus, we may have only three of bottles of some, like a 1910 Madeira we have right now.” The wines he stocks are based, first and foremost, on his own palate. “It’s the wine selection that makes us unique,” he says. “Each wine here has been tasted by me, and we have a direct relationship with the producer. Our aim is quality for the price, the best value. Most of my customers are wine drinkers, not wine collectors. We find the best representations — the best reflections — of each wine region, and we buy only the top wines that each of those producers has to offer.”
He says the shop excels also by guaranteeing the provenance and freshness of each bottle, ensuring that it has been kept at the proper cool temperature during both shipping and storage, which is why the store’s temperature is kept at 59 degrees. “I buy wines that are aromatically driven, so it is mandatory that these do not become ‘cooked,’” he says.
This native Frenchman stocks mostly wines from the northern hemisphere, supplemented by fortified wines from those same areas, such as sherry, port, grappa, Armagnac, and Calvados. He also carries small, carefully chosen selections of spirits, and his sake selection is considered the finest in the area. “But these are by no means a focus here. I carry some single malt Scotch, for example, because they are a passion of one of my employees,” he says.
Currently, he imports 120 wines directly from the producers, no middleman involved. Although many of the winemakers whose products he carries come frequently to his Princeton shop to conduct free tastings, Chapuis maintains that is important that he and his staff travel to the wine regions themselves.
“Producers will often say anything they think you want to hear in order to sell their wine. But you have to see for yourself. You need to know the origins, how the wines go hand in hand with the local food. You need to touch the soil — that’s the terroir — then you can understand the wine. You must check what’s happening inside the winery. Plus you must see firsthand what is changing. In the wine world, the parts are constantly moving, and there is always a new generation coming along.”
Another factor that sets his venture apart is how he trains his staff, which currently includes five full-time and three part-time employees. No one is allowed to sell to customers for the first six months. “It is literally an apprenticeship or like the army. They learn shelving, geography, history, tasting, and all the shop operations, from moving boxes to understanding how the wines are displayed. I do not interfere with their taste or flavor preferences, though. I start them out tasting a wine that is a textbook example of a particular region and tell them to remember that taste. That serves as the baseline, on which they can subsequently expand. Of course, I always answer questions, I let them take sample bottles home, and I send them to tastings. I’m taking my manager to Europe this January. A wine shop is only as good as its staff. There would be no Corkscrew without my staff.”
Asked how the downturn in the economy has affected business, Chapuis replies, “A lot of wealthy people moved outside of Princeton to find new jobs, but 90 percent of my customer base remains the same.” Many of them come in from Bucks County. “Bucks customers first found out about us because in 2001 we were named one of the top 100 wine stores in the country by Food & Wine magazine.”
Chapuis comes from a long line of men and women in the wine and food business. His father’s family has been in the wine industry in the Macon region for generations, and his mother’s side, from Clesse, just outside Lyon, includes a grandmother who was among France’s famed ‘mere’ chefs and a first cousin who has the largest catering firm in France. “My great-grandfather was considered the best barrel maker in France, and my cousin has vineyards in Clesse.”
Chapuis, 44, who has a younger brother who is a golf pro with his own business in the Lyon area, came to the U.S. in 1987 to finish his education at St. Joseph’s University, from which earned an MBA. “I was not supposed to stay, but then I met Gigi, my wife, at school,” he says with a smile. The couple lives in Yardley with their three sons: twins who will turn 15 in December and a 12-year-old.
After attaining his degree, Chapuis worked for a small wine import and distribution firm, selling fine wines — mostly French — mainly to hotels. About 90 percent of his coverage area was between Washington, DC, and Connecticut, and in 1991 one of his clients was Quilty’s, the fine-dining restaurant then on Witherspoon Street. “I fell in love with Princeton, and that’s how I wound up buying a liquor license here.”
CoolVines: The New Kid on the Block
For Mark Censits, owner of CoolVines, basing a shop in town represents a means of connecting with the community he has lived in for 10 years. He opened the second of his two CoolVines wine shops in Princeton at the corner of Nassau and Harrison streets in 2008 — the first is in Westfield — and last month moved his shop to the center of downtown on Spring Street. “Although I was living here, my kids didn’t go to the public schools, and I was traveling 100 percent of the time as a consultant.” Before entering the retail wine business Censit was a partner in Corporate Revitalization Partners, which he describes as a boutique consulting firm that turned around distressed firms. “While I enjoyed the challenge of learning about many different businesses I wanted something that meant something to me personally. I decided I wanted to do something not only more connected to the town, but in a field I really enjoyed.”
At the time, around 2005, he had been competing in a triathlon and considered going into a related business. “But I came across an article on the wine industry that said two things: one, wine was a growing interest for the millennial generation and two, their choice of wines was not the big brands,” he says. “They were into niche-y stuff, like small Uruguayan producers. I pondered that. That sort of complexity intrigues but also makes it challenging to the consumer. I, myself, always found it frustrating to go into a wine shop and become baffled or overwhelmed by the choices. I figured if I could maneuver a way to preserve the nuance of wine while making it approachable to newcomers…”
So by the end of 2006 Censits resigned, took a short wine course at UC-Davis, raised some capital, and opened the first CoolVines in Westfield. “There was some naivete on my part,” he admits, “but not being from the industry has its advantages, like organizing wines as I do.”
Censits refers to a signature feature of both CoolVines stores, which he says, is “displaying wines according to taste, how a wine pairs with food, rather than geography.” Thus, the first section a customer encounters at the recently relocated Princeton store is called “everyday whites,” and is followed by “everyday reds.”
“These are in the $10 to $50 range,” Censits says. “They’re what you drink on a Tuesday or a Saturday night. You buy, you drink. These are not wines for storing or hoarding,” which, he says is how the vast majority of consumers buy wine. Within each section wines are arranged from light- to medium- to full-bodied.
A third category is new to the CoolVines model. “This is our ‘cru’ area [meaning a growth place or region rather than a specific vineyard], arranged by the six major wine regions, for people who shop by region. These customers come in and ask, `What do you have from Bordeaux?’” he says.
The highest priced wine currently in the cru section is a $350 Richebourg grand cru. The last section of the cru area is Napa/Sonoma. “For California wines, most people ask for these two areas,” he says. “Here we get into the main, most recognizable names: Joseph Phelps Insignia, Matanzas Creek, Robert Sinskey, Jordan, Ravenswood. Our model: find the best wine for the money. That’s harder to do with the really big brands because they can set their prices higher.”
Censits was able to add this section to the Princeton store because of the move — a brand new 1,500-square-foot space along the row of shops and housing on Spring Street recently developed by Jack Morrison. “The biggest challenge of the move was going from 150 to 420 wines all at once,” Censits says. “We got the approval from the borough at 7:30 p.m. on that Tuesday (September 7) and packed up that very night. Next day, we moved everything with the help of about 20 volunteers — friends, customers — and were selling wine by Wednesday night!”
With the help of a designer and his wife and co-owner, Beth, who works at the shop, Censits says he consciously tried to keep the “cozy vibe” of the original space. “Yes, this space is more industrial, but we softened it with wooden racks, the acid-wash green mottled concrete floor, and a color palate of green and purple.” Besides additional space, having access to downtown foot traffic was another reason for the move.
At the previous location, customers came specifically to shop at CoolVines. “I anticipated the dynamic of people walking in off the street, but it takes getting used to. I remember the first time one person walked in and walked out — I was almost insulted!” he says with a laugh. He expects even more foot traffic when the D’Angelo Italian Market opens next door, around November 1.
What Censits gave up in the move was a dedicated parking lot. “The other tenants at that location were there nine-to-five, so basically when our customers came (evenings and weekends), it was a private lot,” he says. “And, once you knew where we were, it was so convenient. Now I have to emphasize that you get 30 minutes free parking [at the Spring Street garage directly across the street] and that we have 30-minute meters right outside our door.”
Another CoolVines signature is the color-coded, removable tags around the neck of each bottle. “These are really to help you once you get home,” Censits says. “You can see, ‘oh, yes, this is the medium-bodied white, in a traditional style.’ And the price is clearly there, not covered over by a store label.” The tags also include the best temperature range to serve the wine at and, on the back, space for the buyer to rate the wine (from 1 to 5) and add tasting notes for future reference.
Censits’ approach differs in other ways, too. “People often ask me if I travel to find the wines we stock,” he says, “but I say rather than spend my time trying to discover unknown wineries. I prefer to meet the people behind them when they come here — and plenty do.” He keeps the temperature of his shops in the mid-60s — what he terms “a happy medium between what wines want and what human beings want. The important thing is that wine likes to be constant in temperature, within a range. So, 65 degrees consistently is fine. Plus, most wines are in and out of the shop within a month.”
As far as his customer base, he says, “We have wine that’s of interest to 90 percent of the wine drinking population. No Two Buck Chuck; no first growth grand cru. We have hit the mark with customers who want to be part of the wine buying process. The old-fashioned model is that you, the wine buyer, defer to the choice of the so-called experts. You say, ‘pick for me, tell me what goes with this dish.’ Censits is 48 himself, and this former triathlon and Iron Man competitor still believes in keeping his body strong. “I just signed up for a 40-day intensive yoga workshop at LuluLemon,” he says. “It means getting up at 5:45, but I believe in maintaining balance: work hard but relax, have friends, keep your body strong. I competed in triathlon for four or five years, plus Iron Man. I knocked those off my to-do list.” He often attends the free Sunday morning class Lululemon offers with rotating instructors from area yoga studios and hosts wine tastings for Lulu’s evening running club.
Although she is a CoolVines co-owner, Beth Censits, remained uninvolved with her husband’s first store in Westfield. That changed with the Princeton opening in 2008. “This was local, this is my community,” she says. She had worked for years at Jazams, the toy store on Palmer Square, and had forged many connections among customers and other shop owners. Her husband says, “We’re a great team. Beth’s about the day-to-day operations: scheduling the staff here, keeping the shelves full.
And she adopted the beer and spirits section as her own. It needed a champion.” She also oversees the store’s collection of what she deems “cool accessories for wine and spirits.” From these, she points out a huge shopping bag with a quiver for a baguette and a copy of “A Compendium of Scottish Whisky,” residing alongside the store’s selection of Scotch.
The Censitses have been married for 24 years and have three children. Tory, the oldest, attends Parsons School of Design. She helped design some of the display pieces for the store. Gil, 20, is at college in Kansas, majoring in historic automobile restoration. Their youngest is Clay, 16, a junior at Princeton High. Mark and Beth met in Winston Salem, NC. “It was my first job out of college — engineer in a factory,” recalls Censits, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell. “Beth was in retail. It took me months and months before I got up the nerve to introduce myself.”
Censits lived in Lancaster, PA, until he was eight, when his family, including two siblings, moved to Cherry Hill. His mother is a homemaker and his father, now retired, was in corporate finance, including serving as vice president of finance for the Campbell Soup Company in Camden.
In terms of the economy, Censits notes that “the energy has come back in the consumer market. The thing about wine is, there’s an almost infinite price continuum. So during the recession even the wealthiest wine buyers slid downwards in the average bottle price. That is not coming back as quickly as is bottle volume. Our volume is actually up; our revenue is still down. That’s not good. Thankfully, we never went strong into the higher end. Still, those who were spending $12 a bottle are for now sticking with those $9 bottles.”
Still, he says, he is beating the odds. “The average industry performance is to make $400 to $800 per square foot (per year). We’re at double to triple that. I love wine but I’m really striving to create something successful, something with growth potential.” Which is why his long-term plans include franchising. “No one has really done that very well. The quality of wines has not really been there.” He cites WineStyles — a group of 100 or so brick and mortar franchise wine stores — as an example.
“The business needs to make money soon,” he says. “After all, I have two kids in college.” He and Beth are not yet drawing salaries. The investing partners in CoolVines are primarily members of his family. A formal capital raise at the outset enabled him to buy the Westfield and Princeton liquor licenses. “Almost everyone on the managerial staff has stock options. We set up a holding company that owns the brand name and the website. So, when we have 100 stores, they will be paid royalties,” he says.
At the Big Stores: Joe Canal and Glendale
Both Mark Censits of CoolVines and Laurent Chapuis of Corkscrew acknowledge that the bigger wine stores in the area will always have their proponents. As Censits puts it, “Sure, it’s convenient if you’re out shopping on Route 1 at Whole Foods to go to, say, Joe Canal’s, or if you’re at Wegman’s, you’re there anyway. We’re getting people who are dedicated wine buyers. We have a different approach, a different vibe and feel.”
Michael Brenner agrees. He is general manager of operations and marketing for one of those big guys: Joe Canal’s Discount Liquor Outlet at Mercer Mall on Route 1 in Lawrenceville. (He holds the same position at the sibling store in Woodbridge. There is also a Joe Canal’s in Hamilton.) The 25,000-square-foot store opened in 2001 and Brenner estimates they have about 5,000 bottles on their shelves at any given time.
Wine consistently represents more than half their sales; the rest is split among beer, spirits, and other beverages. “We have a loyal customer base because we have such a variety,” Brenner says. “We have wines from $2.99 into the thousands of dollars. We have more than 1,000 bottles under $10. Our customers are looking for a great bottle at a great value. We have all the major national brands but we also have interesting wines from small producers, helped out by our travels.”
Travel to wine regions is, in fact, something he cites that makes the two Joe Canal’s he is affiliated with different from the other mass market wine chains. (For clarification, there are nine other stores with the Joe Canal name, all in South Jersey, but, Brenner says, each is standalone and has different ownership.) The Lawrenceville and Woodbridge stores are owned by a consortium under the name Birchfield Ventures LLC. Brenner says there is or was an actual Joe Canal, and that a Paul Canal owns one or two of the South Jersey stores.
“The biggest different thing we do (is) we love to tell the story of the wines. We visit the winemakers and the farmers of the grapes; we write travelogues of our experiences. Just this past year, our employees have visited Spain, South America, and France, everyone from management to our wine sales people. We try to get everyone on a trip once a year. The merchandisers bring in ‘shelf talkers,’ but we put on our own, sometimes even with our photos. We educate and entertain. We impart knowledge, but not in terms of incomprehensible language. We have a great team — that’s the most important thing.”
The Lawrenceville store employs between 40 and 50. Brenner says some of those in management worked their way up from cashier. Brenner himself has been with Joe Canal’s for five years. He grew up in Boston, and tended bar in college. “I’ve had 20 years in business management, but most of my wine experience started as floor manager here,” he says. Brenner and his team are also excited about their new website, www.jcanals.com, which includes links to the blogs that are written by various staff members. They have themes like Mixology Monday (that is Brenner’s specialty), Thirsty Thursday, and Foodie Friday. “One of the blog contributors is a professional chef; another is a former cheesemonger,” says Brenner.
Another thing that sets his stores apart, Brenner says, is their celebrity events. “Just this past weekend we had Nancy Sinatra in our Woodbridge store,” he relates. She poured Sinatra Estate Wines, produced in California and Italy. “Before that,” he continues, “we had Dan Akroyd with his Crystal Head vodka, and Deborah Brenner (no relation) of Women of the Vine cellars and author of a book by that name. So we’re getting a reputation for good in-store events and bringing in winemakers.”
A recent development that he is most excited about is the Joe Canal’s growler stations. “Craft beer is growing by leaps and bounds,” he states, and customers have responded to their program, which offers six or more rotating beers on tap. Selections currently include Brooklyn Detonation and three pumpkin ales, among them that of Riverhorse, based in Lambertville. Customers purchase a 64-ounce growler bottle for $6.99 and then use it to buy refills fresh from the tap.
Brenner echoes the observation of other wine retailers about sales trends. “We have found that the average customer is not spending as much, but is buying more in terms of volume,” he says. “Partly, this is because they are dining in more and going out to restaurants less. Yet we continue to grow.”
Ditto for the two Glendale Wine & Liquor stores in the area, on Quaker Bridge Road in Mercerville (Lawrenceville) and on Route 27 in Kendall Park, according to Brian Miller, who manages the Quaker Bridge location. The company is owned by two brothers, whose father founded Glendale in 1974 in Trenton. That store is gone, but the Quaker Bridge store opened 15 years ago and the Kendall Park store a few years before that. Both have mostly the same stock, Miller says, although he and his counterpart in Kendall Park, Bart Deschampmeister, each carry products based on their particular clientele’s preferences. One example: the Route 27 store carries more Hungarian wines because there is a Hungarian population just north of there. “In general, we carry common wines, highly rated wines, and esoteric wines,” he says.
Even though his store is smaller, at about 4,000 square feet, than Joe Canal’s, Miller contends that his store offers more wine selections. “I have single facings and they have multiple facings,” he says, referring to showing a particular wine in one spot in the store versus several (stores with multiple facings may have more bottles for sale but a smaller selection). What sets Glendale apart, he says, is that “we discounted from the very beginning, from the founding. We discount every single bottle every single day, from the low end to the high end. This is unlike any other store in New Jersey. Other stores run sales, so occasionally their prices may be pennies less than ours, but not on a stable, consistent basis.” Wine accounts for about two-thirds of overall sales at Glendale.
“(For) people who shop around, the nice thing is they try wines elsewhere and then come here to buy,” he says. “They’re price conscious. With what has happened with the economy, people are looking for better value. The $30-and-up price range really got hit. People have traded down. In my store we offer better value even for esoteric wines. People should know that there are many high-end producers who offer second labels for pennies on the dollar. If their name label goes for between $30 and $40, these second labels go for $10 to $11. We can point these out.”
All the shops profiled here offer regular, free wine tastings, and Miller is proud that his store is among them. “We have wine samplings every Friday from four to five and repeat the same wines from two to four on Saturday. The wine reps often come in to lead them, but we also have producers come from all over the world,” he says.
Miller has been with Glendale for 18 years and at the Quaker Bridge store since it opened. “For 15 years before that I ran restaurants in Peddler’s Village,” he says, referring to the Bucks County tourist destination.
Miller, too, cites customer service as a draw. “We have a handful of employees, but these guys are knowledgeable, and they will carry out packages. We’re not fancy, but customers appreciate us for the quirky, friendly banter we have with our regulars. We try to have fun with our repeat customers.” He is also proud of the store’s commitment to the community, citing involvement with local chapters of, for example, Big Brothers Big Sisters, March of Dimes, Susan Komen, and McCarter Theater.
Relatively recently, Wegman’s entered the mix with its own wine shop attached to their Nassau Park store off Route 1. Even more recently, Trader Joe’s, also off Route 1, attained a liquor license, which means locals have access to, among other things, their famed line of Charles Shaw wines — AKA Two Buck Chuck (although in New Jersey it sells for $2.99).
In other downtown Princeton wine scene news, last November saw the sale of Community Wine & Liquor, the longtime Witherspoon Street spot owned by Mark Bovenizer. That store is now Witherspoon Wine Company, and its owner, Craig Whelan, says he is in the process of reshaping it, in part by editing the wine selection so there is more floor space to roam around in, and also by bringing in what he says with pride is the largest selection of craft beers in Princeton.
So, whether you’re a wine person, a beer person, a single malt scotch person or even a sake person, you’ve got more than enough warriors in town to help you do battle.