Over the last 28 years Gary Fisch of Morristown has grown his New Jersey-based Gary’s Wine & Marketplace from a small (1,200 square foot) wine shop in Madison to one of the largest fine-wine businesses in the New York metropolitan area, with annual revenues of $50 million and a stable of three — make that four — stores. Until now, he has concentrated on northern New Jersey, with locations in Bernardsville and Wayne in addition to Madison. Come mid-December he will have planted his flag squarely in central New Jersey — on Route 206 in Hillsborough, to be precise.

Fisch, who was recently named 2014 “Retailer of the Year” by Market Watch, the nation’s leading beverage-alcohol industry trade publication, is taking over the license of NEC Liquors in the Nelson’s Corner shopping center at Amwell Road. There, starting around December 10, he will establish a temporary Gary’s “pop-up” for the holidays-and-beyond, until construction is completed on a new permanent location several doors down. That space, previously a Rite Aid, is expected to be ready by March, if not sooner.

On a recent tour of what is currently a shell, Fisch reviewed several things: his plans for the Hillsborough store, the factors that have led to his success and to this move, and what the future holds for the Gary’s Wine & Marketplace brand.

At 9,000 square feet the Hillsborough store will be slightly smaller than the Gary’s in Madison and Bernardsville, which each measure in at 13,000. It will be much smaller than the flagship that opened in Wayne in 2008, which boasts a whopping 24,000 square feet. “But,” Fisch says, “each store has a feel of its own,” while still reflecting the signature Gary’s look. This is often described by customers as boutique-like, despite a wide selection of wines — more than 4,000 store keeping units (SKUs) in fact, ranging from popular nationally advertised brands to top-drawer names, and including three lines of private label wines (see sidebar.) In addition, each store stocks what Gary calls “power” spirits, beer, gourmet cheeses, specialty foods, accessories, and glassware.

Work on the permanent Hillsborough space is expected to begin the day after the transfer of license. When customers enter through the center-front door, on the left will be a custom designed unit holding wines sorted by food pairing ideas, a concept that has proven successful at other Gary’s stores. Beyond that, a display of “Gary’s Top 10 Picks” — wines that range from $10 to $20. This feature, which changes weekly, is a longstanding customer favorite. Then comes the wine tasting bar (standup only, as prescribed by New Jersey law) and beyond that the gourmet cheese department. “We have high-end cheeses by the wheel, custom cut to order,” Fisch says. “We’re not going to be competing with ShopRite. It’s one of the factors that sets us apart. Another is that our staff is knowledgeable about both wine and cheese, a well as wine and food pairings.” At the rear left is the fine-wine room, which, Fisch points out, will be glassed in and visible from the front door for maximum effect.

Much of the massive back wall will be given over to beer and spirits. As with wine, Gary’s stocks mass market and artisanal brands. “I see Bourbon and craft spirits as a huge trend,” he says. “Five years ago we carried 12 Bourbons, now we stock 60.” Gary’s even does private label Bourbon. “We’re doing our own barrels. The Bourbon makers send us pints or vials from individual barrels for tasting, and then they’ll bottle the blend we choose under our name. Sometimes, our barrel blend is better than the national, because it can have more character.”

The store’s massive center will hold traditional wine racks (“gondolas” is the term of trade), with the center aisle devoted to seasonal specialties. Anchoring the front right corner, with a view over the entire room, will be the “crow’s nest” — i.e. manager’s office. The expansion to four stores has forced Fisch to hire a regional general manager for the first time in the company’s history. “When you have one store, it’s like having a kid, right? Two — well my brother was with me in the business back then. Three, now we’re going into a zone defense. I’m no longer going to be able to visit each store every day,” says Fisch. “Initially, I’ll be here and in Bernardsville. The new manager and I will divide up our time here, ensuring there will always be a Gary’s presence.”

Fisch says moving into Hillsborough was a no-brainer. “It’s our kind of town. We will be the local wine shop for Hillsborough residents.” He points out that Gary’s carries the same big-name, mainstream brands as Bottle King, which is located directly across Route 206, and “at the same rock-bottom prices.” And, he says, his store will be able to offer a wider selection than smaller local shops, such as Petrock’s, which is also on 206 and virtually within sight.

The sheer size of the Gary’s buying power also allows him to stock many fine wines from around the country and the world at attractive prices. “And we deal directly with winemakers in Napa, for example, with whom we have good relations,” he says. The combination of buying power and strong relationships gives him flexibility in buying from year to year. “Now, the 2012 was a great vintage in Napa, so we’ll be selling a lot. But what happens if it’s a bad year there, or in Burgundy or Piedmont? We can pick and choose what and how much we carry each year. Take, for example, this one winery in Oregon whose pinot noir typically sells for $50 a bottle. They offered us three barrels of the 2013 vintage, same as in 2012. But the 2013 vintage had problems with too much rain and rain at the wrong time. It actually tasted very watery. We couldn’t sell it for $50 as we had the 2012.”

On the other hand, he says, “The 2010 Piedmont is off the charts. Normally we taste to reject. But the 2010 Barolos, especially, we like so much we’ll shift our spacing to stock as many as we can sell.” Italy’s Piedmont region, he insists, is emerging as a more affordable alternative to Burgundy, “with the same level of quality, albeit a different flavor profile. So this means that maybe this year we’re not so focused on, say, Bordeaux. But we’re always focused on Napa — because that’s my passion.”

What about competition in the wider area? “We’re a full-service shopping experience and will be a ‘destination’ draw,” Fisch predicts. “In fact, we already have a few regulars who come up from Princeton to our Bernardsville store. The wine stores in town are by necessity limited in size and scope. They focus on certain wine areas but won’t carry major brands, or be able to feature, say, California wines to the extent we do.”

Gary Fisch, 57, is no stranger to the Princeton area. He graduated from Rider University in 1979 with a degree in political science. “By senior year my friends all knew what they were going to do. But me? Not a clue!” he says, laughing. His father, who worked for Fedway Associates, the New Jersey wine and spirits distributor headquartered in Kearny, asked him if he might like to sell to liquor stores. “I had been president of my class in sophomore and junior years, so I knew I could communicate,” he says of his decision to give it a go.

“So my father gave me a list of unsold accounts.” This was in spring of 1979, right before graduation. “Among my first accounts was Community Liquors in Princeton,” he recalls. Eventually his clients would include the Nassau Inn and Winberie’s.

“But I received no training when I started with Fedway, so the summer after graduation I visited California wine country,” he continues. There he met legendary Napa winemaker Louis Martini. “He trained me, soup to nuts, and I became an ambassador for Louis Martini wines and eventually for those of his daughter, Carolyn Wente. They both became my friends.” Fisch also attended three years of Kevin Zraly’s acclaimed Windows on the World wine course. “Then a friend of mine had a small wine and liquor store for sale in Madison, and I took it on as ‘sideline’ to selling liquor. But I had no money, so my brother Mark joined me, and we borrowed against our credit cards,” he says of his modest beginning.

Mark Fisch, who is a decade older than his brother, retired from the business in 2001. Both were raised in Edison. “My mom always worked, and in a variety of jobs,” Gary says, “including at a dress shop. I worked there too! I recall vacuuming, stuffing envelopes — that sort of thing.” Fisch and his wife Liz, who trains life coaches, have been married for 34 years and have two children. Their 24-year-old daughter is in graduate school at the University of Chicago, majoring in social work. Their son, 22, is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis studying accounting, finance, economics, and writing. “He’s a terrific writer and a great communicator,” this proud father says. After graduation, he will work for Ernst & Young in New York City. Given those areas of interest, might his son someday join the Gary’s team? “The deal with my son is that I’m open to it if he wants to, but only under these conditions: He must spend three to four years working outside the wine industry, then another year or two somewhere inside it — but not with me! Then, if he still wants to…”

Among all its stores, Gary’s enterprise employs between 125 and 175 people. “At least two have been with me in the Madison store for about 20 years, and in Bernardsville I have some who are hitting the decade mark,” he says.

Gary Fisch doesn’t intend to stop at four stores. He told Market Watch he is actively looking for two or three more locations. “We have the infrastructure to expand,” he says, “a CFO, an accounting department, human resources.” But he also jokes that he has always expanded right before a recession hits, and the facts back up his statement: 1991 for Bernardsville and 2008 — November of 2008, no less — is when the huge Wayne store debuted. “So my advice is to sell all your stock now!” he says with a laugh.


#b#Go For the Wine and Cheese Tasting#/b#

It’s not often that a 10 a.m. interview about a new business coming into town includes a wine tasting, but when I met Gary Fisch at the empty shell of the space in Hillsborough that will soon be home to his fourth Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, I came prepared to swirl, sniff, sip, and, yes, spit. Fisch brought three wines from his private-label project, which came about because of a friendship with a Napa winemaker. The program has three tiers: Going Forward, Go Figure, and Grand Finale. (Note the initials: GF.) They include California white and red wines from Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros.

Going Forward wines are bought when wineries have excess bottles. “For the winemaker, it makes sense for them to bottle their excess, rather than leaving it in the barrel. But of course, in good years they don’t want to flood the market with, say, 1,300 bottles, so these historically have been sold as ‘shiners’ — bottles without any labeling — mostly to corporate hospitality interests, like the Marriott Corporation. But when the market tanked in 2008, even that business was impacted.” So for his Going Forward line, he buys the extra bottles, slaps on his label, and sells wines that typically go for $50 at $18 to $25.

The Go Figure line is basically commissioned bottles: sourced from the same vineyards and made by the same winemakers each year, with a goal of continuity from year to year. These wines sell from $20 to $35. “A great winemaking team with great grape sources,” is how Gary extols this line. “They’re wines with true pedigree.”

For Grand Finale wines, the Gary’s team buys by the individual barrel, each one a blend produced by first going to the winery to taste and then developing their own blend in consultation with the winemakers. These wines reveal the name of the winery on the label. The current Grand Finale wine is a Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir (Stanly Ranch) that sells for $60. (List price for Saintsbury’s version is $140.)

For our tasting, Fisch brought three Go Figure wines, each of which impressed me for different reasons. The 2012 Lot 26 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, for example had a pronounced aroma of oak when I sniffed it, so I was prepared to dislike it. But on the palate, the oak receded and lively fruit came forward. The pinot noir (2012 Lot 24 Carneros Pinot Noir), too, was fruit-forward but subtle and nicely balanced. The 2011 Lot 23 Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon, though, blew me away with its rich, silky body and powerful flavors that reflect its brand-name price of between $75 and $125. Gary’s price: $35. “And it can still age another three to four years,” Fisch notes.

Because Gary Fisch is also a consummate host and salesman — talking about wine and food is his single favorite activity, he says — he cannily brought along a platter of three cheeses, specially chosen by his cheese team, to accompany these wines. They had been artfully arranged on a natural slate cheese platter with their names scripted in chalk: tomme vache, five-year aged Gouda, and p’tit Basque. The board is, of course, sold at the Gary’s stores, for $19.

Instead of opening the three bottles with a wine cork, Fisch demonstrated the Coravin 1000 wine opener-preserver which uses a hollow needle to penetrate a wine bottle cork and allow wine to be dispensed without removing the cork. Thus, the wine does not oxidize, and continues to age in the bottle. “So,” Fisch explains, “say you’re making a steak for dinner on a weeknight and you have a $150 bottle of Napa cabernet that you’d love to have a glass of to go with it. Well you can.” (The opener retails for $299 and comes with two argon gas capsules. A two-pack of argon gas refills is $20.)

Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.

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