Many wine pros are inspired by a sublime experience deep in a chilly cellar, or a romantic roam through a vineyard of virtue. But for Brian Robinson, the 44-year-old owner of Fort Greene’s beloved wine shop Gnarly Vines Wines & Spirits, it can all be traced to truckers.
In the late ’80s, when Robinson was an undergrad at UPenn, he traveled to France for a two-month study-abroad course. He fell hard for the storied charms of Europe and managed to stay on for a few more months when his dad (who owns a Queens-based welding and gas-distribution company) set up an internship with the French company Air Liquide—although it was another kind of liquid that held his attention.
“All the workers and truck drivers in France would go to the local café for lunch, and they all had their stash of wine,” he recalls, referring to the tradition of asking the staff to stow a few days’ wine for them. “They’d have things like rabbit stew with braised endive, get their little glass of wine from the bottle the owner would keep for them in the back, and that would be lunch.” Witnessing that culture and custom changed him forever.
After six months in France, Robinson came back to New York and worked in the family business—a sector less sexy than wine, sure, but one that afforded more job security. But when an opportunity with Air Liquide lured him 3,000 miles in the other direction to Bakersfield, California, he set out for the West Coast. He spent a year and a half there, bought a motorcycle and rode back cross-country to New York. But after returning east—to work for Dad again—he stumbled onto a second life-changing wine experience. And as in France, he came upon it through the least likely of circumstances.
He was volunteering with New York Cares, teaching homeless kids how to swim, when he met a fellow volunteer, Michael Green, who happened to be a well-connected wine educator. When Green learned of Robinson’s interest in his field, he invited him to one of his events—a vertical tasting of grand cru wines from the lauded Pauillac producers: Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande and Château Pichon Longueville Baron. Robinson had no experience blind tasting—and had never so much as swirled such highfalutin Bordeaux before—but there among the collectors and sommeliers, his palate stood out.
In the first round of tasting, Green first let his guests know exactly what was in their glass. But then he slipped the bottles into bags, repoured all the glasses, and held a little contest to see who could identify the producers and their vintages. Robinson won.
“It was part beginner’s luck and part aptitude,” says Robinson modestly, “but in large part it was because I’d never tasted like this before. An uncluttered palate is a huge advantage. I was a blank slate.” The prize that night was a bottle of 1988 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montepulciano and the current release of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. But what Robinson really won was a hot new career.
He pitched a tasting series to the Penn Club, which led to a few corporate gigs, and in 1997 went to work for Philips International auctioneers, appraising and cataloging collectible wines, a job he was very good at. He was lured away by Christie’s wine auction department, and then at WineBid.com. He became an investor in the Tasting Room, the tiny East Village charmer that won the hungry and thirsty hearts of New York’s dining and sipping cognoscenti. He got married; became a father.
Then came the dot.com bust of 2001.
WineBid tightened its belt and let him go, and for the first time in his life, Robinson was without a job. As it happens, getting kicked to the curb might have been the best thing that happened to him—and it was pretty lucky for Brooklyn, too. Because he started to think seriously about opening a wine shop.
There were a lot of perfectly good reasons not to do it. He could have gone back to the family business. He could have heeded the warnings of well-meaning friends (“You don’t own the store, the store owns you!” “You can’t trust anyone, all your employees will steal from you!”) and no one would have blamed him if he’d thrown in the towel when a neighboring wine shop put up a year- and-a-half-long legal fuss over his then-pending liquor license.
But like an old, fine bit of rootstock finding its way deep into the soil, Robinson dug in. His determination was fueled in part by his disenchantment with the world of fine wine. His years working in wine investments had fed his suspicions that high wine prices didn’t necessarily point to quality. “[In the auction world], after you pay the buyer’s premium, the tax, the delivery, the electricity, the cellar storage, the salary for the [cataloger], a wine that cost $100 may wind up costing $200. At the end of the day, what does the investor get other than money? You can’t taste a dollar.”
He was also inspired by a story he’d heard on NPR about small business versus the big-box store, and how the “too big to fail” economies-of-scale notion doesn’t actually make for a better business model; it stayed in his mind as he watched the corners of New York’s small-business fabric unravel, replaced with larger national chains. “My thought was, it’s got to be better to invest in a local pizza joint than index funds.” It had taken him a few years and a few thousand miles to land in Fort Greene, but now the devoted wine enthusiast was ready to be a store proprietor—with a mission to help the neighborhood’s curious imbibers drink very well. Myrtle Avenue was where he found his home plot; his passion for locavesting formed the foundation of his business and anchored the community around him.
While his plan took shape, he lived off of savings and worked a few side jobs and freelance gigs. In 2005 when Tasting Room owners Colin and Renée Alevras decided to move to a larger space on Elizabeth Street, they asked Robinson to be the wine director—as well as project manager for the expansion.
“I learned how to build a business model, bring on investors, structure a deal,” he says. “It was really a trial run for getting Gnarly off the ground.” He found the perfect spot for his shop, spent a year and a half on legal battles securing his license, and then a year building out the long, bright, ample space. In 2007, Robinson stepped down as the Tasting Room’s wine director and opened Gnarly’s doors.
Since then, it has become his mission to be a rising tide to float all the block’s boats. He insists on working with neighborhood businesses—from graphic designers to carpenters and plumbers to his tech support, accountant and florist. The walls hang with the work of borough artists, and the bike he rides to and from work every day comes from Red Lantern, just across the street, which also makes pretty great coffee. He gets that there, too. He also believes that Fort Greene residents should be able to find a fantastic bottle of wine without getting on the subway. “You shouldn’t have to go to Manhattan to get decent wine.”
Hence the depth and breadth of Robinson’s selection, which zigs and zags across price points, countries, appellations and palatable interests; a broad spectrum with good options in all categories, from premier cru Burgundy to thoroughly respectable boxed wines.
And his clients aren’t just thirsty—he reports they’re often also savvier than their counterparts across the East River. “Brooklynites are pretty advanced customers,” says Robinsons. “They’re not buying wine to seek approval; they buy it because they like it. I’ve had a few Manhattan customers who’ve come in asking for a bottle that will impress, and if it’s something they hadn’t heard of they’re suspicious. Brooklynites appreciate what’s under the radar.”
Today he is the kind of shopkeeper who knows everybody, if not by name, certainly by face—and likely by previous wine choice. As for his own drinking choices, they’re literally all over the map, but he still loves to raise a glass to the French truckers who made such an early impression on him. “From that experience,” he says, “I’ve always have had a coup de coeur for Côtes du Rhône; it’s honest, gamey, earthy, unpretentious—and a really great bang for your buck.”
To France and Back. It took Robinson a few years and a few thousand miles to land in Fort Greene. Today Gnarly Vines offers options across a broad spectrum, from premier cru Burgundy to thoroughly respectable boxed wines.
Photo credit: Julie Glassberg.