A few months ago, Michael Drapkin and his wife, Theresa, bought the former Madden’s Fine Wines & Spirits on lower Broadway in Kingston’s Rondout and renamed it the Kingston Wine Co. The store, located in a handsome 19th-century storefront, officially opened three weeks ago and has already created a buzz, with local wine buyers raving about the high-quality selection and Michael’s deep knowledge of his product. The Kingston Wine Co. is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Here’s some background about Drapkin, who spent time at a family winery in southern France, along with an overview of his merchandise and why he and Theresa moved to Kingston.
Kingston Times: How did you connect with wine?
Michael Drapkin: I adored cooking at a young age. When I was 16 or 17 years old, growing up in the Baltimore area, I’d come home and cook on Saturday night. Even when I was very young I was a very old soul. I studied political science at college, and one of my professors was the wine critic for the Washington Post, who traveled frequently to Spain and Argentina. I thought, “Wine is not just fermented grapes, it encapsulates so many areas of study, including English, poetry and history.” In my junior year I ripped up a law school acceptance letter and got my first job at Whole Foods in the wine department in Washington, D.C. It was early 2005. I engaged with customers who just bought a sole filet or a whole chicken and wanted to know the best wine that would go with that. The experience fortified my belief I needed to one day own a wine shop.
KT: What came next?
MD: I needed to connect with the farmers and the winemakers, so I spent five weeks in southwestern France in 2007 working the harvest at a small family-run winery. It gave me more meaning and understanding of the people who make the wines. I lived in their home with their children and was exposed to the labor of making wine. I also saw how that culture engaged with wine as an agricultural product. It was part of their everyday existence.
I was the only American there, and for six months prior I just immersed myself in intensive French classes. President George W. Bush was in office at the time, and my nickname in the vineyards by one or two guys was “the neighbor of President Bush.”
KT: What brought you to New York City?
MD: There was an ancestral pull because my mother and grandfather had lived in Brooklyn; also New York is the epicenter of wine culture in the U.S. If you work in a wine shop in New York City, the exposure you have to various wines and distributors is unparalleled. I moved to the city in June 2008 and worked at a newish shop in Tribeca called Vestry Wines as the assistant manager. It was an intimate shop focused on small production wines with a little tasting bar and a very personal interaction with customers. I also spent about six months working in the wine department at the restaurant Balthazar in Soho. It was a roll-up-your-sleeves French bistro with a very great but abbreviated French wine list. Every evening I’d open a bottle of wine and talk about it with the staff, what food it would go with, its background.
KT: What’s the appeal of owning a wine store?
MD: The wine shops I have enjoyed as a consumer have a distinct voice and authenticity about them that emanates from the walls. I wanted to create that. It means a shop that’s highly intimate, where the owner has vetted and tasted and knows the wine deeply. We wanted to do the same as a gallery owner who curates the pieces. As a merchant I need to feel I’ve done my customers right and I’m putting wines on my shelf that I too would happily bring home and put on my table.
KT: How did you finally make it happen?
MD: I had always wanted to open my own wine shop and began looking to start one or take over an existing one. I knew I wanted the shop to be small and in a neighborhood. It was a long drawn-out process that was becoming very frustrating, because of the [building rental] prices and difficulty of acquiring a license in the city. You have to deal with multiple layers in the New York City real estate market; there’s three people between you and the landlord.
I was randomly looking at a website that aggregates businesses for sale in various categories when I saw the previous shop in Kingston up for sale, in an amazingly historic storefront. We had come up to the HudsonValley before and felt a connection. Theresa and I came up on weekends last summer to experience the city and the people. We stayed at an Air B&B owned by Peter Wetzler and Julie Hedrick, who had been in Kingston’s Rondout since the 1980s and shared their wonderful insights. They were integral into us pulling the trigger, and at the beginning of November, we bought the business. We also live here in the Rondout. Theresa, who is a graphic designer, works out of the house for a nonprofit in New York City. She helps out at the shop and with the communications and marketing. She also designed the store logo.
KT: Describe your selection of wines.
MD: We try our best to curate unadulterated, traditionally made wines that for the most part are not a highly commercialized, industrialized commodity wine. We focus primarily on winemakers who have a deep connection to their place and attachment to that soil, whose wines have a connection to history and tradition and aren’t manipulated and manufactured because some marketing guru in a cubicle has told them what appeals to the consumer. We have a 250-ish selection. I don’t need 35 cabernets on the wall. There’s a strong European presence in our store, with Spain, Italy and France well represented. I’m also a freak for the wines of Austria and Germany. We also find admirable and delicious wines from Argentina and Chile. You could find a delicious South African shiraz here as well as wines from California, Oregon and WashingtonState. I’m also expanding the selection from New YorkState. There are a few great wines from the Finger Lakes, which stand up well to the Rieslings from Germany.
KT: What about your price points? Aren’t artisanal wines a lot more expensive?
MD: No. I have wines starting as low as $10 and a huge selection of $10 to $15 wines in this category. An acre of land in NapaValley is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if not into the millions more than a fifth-generation farmer’s land in southern Spain off the beaten path. In the center of the shop I have a farm table displaying many of our $15 wines.
KT: Who do you buy from?
MD: There are distributors who have a portfolio focused on these wines. Two of the importers I buy from are Neal Rosenthal, who is based in New York, and Kermit Lynch, who’s in California. Kermit has a shop in Berkeley and has a close relationship with Alice Waters. The way Alice thinks about food, Kermit thinks about wine. I’m an active buyer and always seeking great wines.