Between getting that (second) vaccination shot and gathering with friends again, take a tour of some of D.C.’s best specialty wine shops. From organic vineyards worldwide to Italy and Argentina, you don’t even need to dust off your forgotten passport to take this journey. The wine experts at the District’s best niche wine stores share their secrets for learning more about wines, especially about varietals and specialties that may be less familiar. The best part about touring wine country from home? When we can celebrate together again, you will know the perfect bottle to open.
MICHELLE LIM WARNER
Cofounder + CEO of DCanter
Owned by husband-and-wife team Michael Warner and Michelle Lim Warner, Barracks Row-based DCanter features smaller wine producers and focuses on family-run, biodynamic, sustainable and unique wines. In addition to carrying wines from France and Italy, you can find bottles from lesser-known wine regions such as Texas, the Finger Lakes in New York, the Balkans and Turkey, to name a few. The local spot also won the best wine shop in the Mid-Atlantic and was listed in the top 10 in the nation by VinePair in 2017.
Starting in 2009, when they began traveling to formally deepen their knowledge of the world’s wines, the Warners realized there was a gap in the market they could fulfill by focusing on wine education in addition to their selection of specialized wines.
The formal wine education they have achieved since is intimidating. Lim Warner is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, Warner is a certified specialist in wine designation through the Society of Wine Educators, they both earned a Wine Spirit Education Trust certification and more. But their approach to learning is accessible.
“We created an education space because we love welcoming curious wine lovers,” Lim Warner explains. “Our hunger for becoming educated ourselves was the impetus for this.”
To that end, DCanter has created classes, weekly “Taste at 8:00” virtual tastings with producers and wine experts, an incredibly delightful educational blog, and personalized wine concierge service to help wine drinkers feel empowered in their choices.
In lieu of the expensive and daunting sommelier exams, you can go to school at DCanter Wine School by attending cohort-based wine classes for three to six weeks with introductory courses, a study of lesser-known wine regions, and deeper dive master classes focused on France and Italy. The courses include bottles of wine for the learning, too.
“Wine Life is our digital magazine to empower individuals to feel more comfortable making wine decisions,” Lim Warner shares. “Everything we do is to give greater confidence to the wine consumer.”
She also offers the following tips: “Try wine. That’s the main thing. Take note of what you like or not, and why. You know fruits and vegetables. You eat them. Learn the smells of the herbs and vegetables in your kitchen. Pay attention to the foods you are already eating and focus on the different aromas and flavors. Take notes. Be curious.”
Director of Operations at Domestique
Recently named one of the top five natural wine stores in the United States by Wine Enthusiast magazine, Domestique is located at the corner of Florida Avenue Northwest and North Capitol Street. Instead of focusing on a nationality or region, Domestique’s ethos is concentrated on the environment and sustainability. They exclusively sell natural wines and wines without artificial ingredients and limited use of sulfur, as well as those certified as organic.
“Collectively as a staff, we try to think about where to begin,” says Meri Lugo, who has been the director of operations at Domestique for the last seven months. “Begin with your local wine store. We currently offer one-on-one appointments to have that conversation: to describe what you like. There are so many rules to wine, but it’s helpful to forget those rules.”
After years of working in restaurants, both in the kitchen and as a server, she learned how wine could transport and delight drinkers.
“Wine is meant to be an enjoyable experience. The more we can shrug off the rules and old-fashioned norms, the better.”
Lugo suggests that evoking a particular mood, memory or feeling is one of the best ways to communicate what you are looking for.
“The more descriptive and wacky you can get, the better.”
What do you want to drink while wearing sweatpants in the park? What will taste like springtime in a bottle? Lugo and the staff at Domestique have you covered.
PEDRO J. RODRÍGUEZ
Cofounder + CEO of Grand Cata
Another awardee of Wine Enthusiast for “Best Single Focus” wine store, Grand Cata was founded by Pedro J. Rodríguez, born and raised in Puerto Rico, and Julio R. Robledo from Chile. With locations in Shaw and La Cosecha in the Union Market District, Grand Cata showcase wines from Latin America.
After they each completed graduate degrees in international relations (Rodríguez) and political science (Robledo), they found a new calling working together at a Washington-based, Hispanic-serving nonprofit.
“I hoped to represent Puerto Rico abroad, but with wine we are ambassadors of the culture,” Rodríguez shares. “We love languages, music, arts [and] culture. With wine, you understand the culture, history, geography and so much more.”
Pre-pandemic, Grand Cata offered classes on demand for six to 16 people and a flight of five wines. They also organize an education Wine Club that serves two theme-based models a month with accompanying exclusives.
“It’s to educate the public, get them excited [and] think about new wines,” Rodríguez states. “Education was intrinsic to our model. We had daily catas, [or] tastings, to try. Exploring Latin America through our store, wines and music is a journey.”
Unlike the rigid rules of French viticulture, Rodríguez points out that Latin American wines are about experimentation. Not bound by rules of growing specific grapes in particular regions, the combination of diverse geographies and climates with old and new grapes creates exciting new wines. That is also the best advice he has for wine drinkers: experiment, be open and take risks.
“We want [to eliminate] the intimidation factor,” he says.
“We ask questions. We listen. We ask what you are cooking. In Latin America, wines are an experiment and you should experiment with them.”
General Manager of A. Litteri
Nestled among the wholesale shops surrounding the Union Market District, Italian grocery and deli A. Litteri has one of the most impressive collections of Brunello di Montalcino, which won the 2017 Leccio de Oro Award. Max Evans, general manager at A. Litteri for three years after selling them Italian wines since 2006, says the former owner and wine lover Ken Nankervis, who passed away in 2019, made the unimposing deli a wine destination.
Evans spent 13 years as a wholesale wine merchant for two Italian wine importers, and credits his own wine education to traveling in Italy, meeting the producers and developing relationships with those in the know. That’s also his best advice for the general wine purchaser.
“In normal times, in-store wine tastings are a really great way to learn about wine and what you like without spending the money,” Evan shares. “The best thing to do is to pick an independent wine shop where you can get to know the people. Develop a relationship and let them get to know your preferences. It’s what we love to do and it’s way less risky.”
As the world reopens and we look to refresh our respective palates, D.C. wine shop owners offer advice we can all use when seeking out that next red, white or rosé: Forget the rules, ask questions and try something new.
Recommendations From the Experts
The weather is warming up. What’s a spring wine you’d like to recommend?
A. Litteri: Cascina Chicco Roero Arneis “Anterisio” 2019 from the Piedmont. Super fresh with notes of lemon peel, honeysuckle and a super clean, mineral finish. So good, I could drink it out of the bottle.
DCanter: Canned wine like the VINette Rosé Pomegranate Lime Spritzer from our friends over at the women-led/owned Chronicle Wines. They’re making yummy wine goodies over at the north fork of Long Island, New York. Canned wine is great for outdoor picnics, hikes, BBQs, you name it. And spritzers are fun because they’re delicious, but low in alcohol.
Domestique: We recently popped open a bottle of Matthiasson Peach + Grape Wine at the shop, and I was immediately transported to a summer picnic in Northern California. This lightly effervescent peach and grape wine tastes like a self-contained bellini, in the best kind of way. Drink [this wine] in the park.
Grand Cata: All day rosé. There’s a reason D.C. is one of the highest consumers of rosé in the nation. Big fan of the Bodega Garzón Pinot Noir Rosé from Uruguay.
What’s a good go-to wine for any occasion?
A. Litteri: Prosecco. A great bottle of prosecco can stand alone or pair with a really wide range of foods. Probably the one wine you can find in every region of Italy, it’s a perfect wine to enjoy after a long day. The Italians don’t reserve sparkling wine for special occasions as we tend to here, and prosecco is a wine to enjoy any time. The best part is they are affordable. You can find expensive ones if you try, but most of the best ones I’ve tasted have been under $20.
DCanter: Valençay by Mary Taylor Wines from the Loire Valley of France. It’s a blend of pinot noir, gamay and malbec. It goes with everything (food, Netflix, pals) and is a crowd-pleaser. Plus, I love supporting a woman-imported and woman winemaker product.
Domestique: Bubbles. My favorite type of sparkling wine is pét-nat, a naturally bubbly wine that is bottled before fermentation is complete to create a natural effervescence. This year, I’m really leaning into spring with rosé pét-nat like Julien Pineau’s Bocca di Rossa.
Grand Cata: Always a wine with freshness and fruit such as Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda from Argentina. A great value at $11.
For those of us on a budget, what is your best bargain bottle?
A Litteri: Valle Martello Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019, $10.99. This is just a killer bottle of wine. I don’t often get excited about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (much less really inexpensive Montepulciano d’Abruzzo), but this wine is well-made, structured and just delicious. Perfect for the usual pizza/pasta scenarios but can stand up to bigger flavors like grilled meats or sausage.
DCanter: Mas Rodó Incognit Rosat is a beautiful wine for the price. It’s a $15 rosé that tastes like it should be more. It’s a unique rosé blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and tempranillo: cheerful, deliciously bold and fruit-driven (not sweet). Great for white and red wine lovers who want something easy for the warm weather ahead.
Domestique: Vincent Lacoste’s Nono Rouge. We fell in love with this wine so much that we brought in an entire pallet, which helps us keep it super affordable. It’s the perfect, well-balanced and full-bodied Bordeaux blend. Pairs equally as well with steaks or sweatpants.
Grand Cata: We love full body. Aguijón de Abeja Malbec from La Patagonia in Argentina. It’s a lot of wine for under $20. An amazing value for the price point.
When we are all vaccinated, what are you opening in celebration?
Domestique: Here at the shop, we’ve been stockpiling large format bottles over the past year in hopes that it will someday soon be safe enough to have a big enough gathering to justify opening these huge, celebratory bottles. When it’s time, I’m reaching for a Les Capriades magnum of pét-nat. Bubbles would seem appropriate, and Moses and Pascal of Les Capriades make the most expressive and aromatic pét-nat in the world.
Grand Cata: Definitely bubbles are a must. Love the Sol de Sol Blanc de Blanc from Malleco Valley in Chile. Complex [and] fresh with great personality on the nose and palate. Cannot get enough of this espumoso.
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