Angelica Robinson, responsible for every selection in the shop, is clearly unafraid. She claims it’s her sister’s fault. Before they ever opened, sibling Genevieve Oswald was sorting and sifting and finding winning wines and profoundly impacting the direction of the store. Angelica’s world of Old World wines uniformly shows high quality and many bold choices. Safety in the known does not seem to appeal to her palate. In the world of wine sales, wines that are delicious but obscure are a “hand sell.” Customers won’t find these gems by themselves. They need an informed sales person to sell it “by hand.” It’s a rewarding encounter for seller and buyer, but absolutely requires that the saleswoman know what she’s talking about. Angelica knows what she’s talking about. And her staff does, too. Now that’s service.
Designed and built by all-local firms, the shop reflects the same care evident in the product selection. Angelica and her husband, Lee Backer, who describes his role as “support services,” both spoke of their wish to create a shop that was inviting, accessible and engaging. New Mexico liquor stores are notoriously depressing, and our supermarkets overrun with predictable, national-brand schlock. The Cellar’s purpose-built environment, with its high ceilings and high windows above handsomely arranged racks and stacks of well-chosen wine, is a relief. The long wall given over to the 10-door beer cooler offers a quiet shout-out to the beer geeks: you are welcome here, too. And in a final, defiant refusal, The Cellar declares its independence from New Mexico liquor store convention by refusing to stock minis. Instead, they have a well-curated liquor selection. No surprise.
Paul Greenhaw sells wine at The Cellar. The proliferation of sommeliers these days is mostly a good thing, and they mostly elevate the game for all of us. But, wow, can they get silly. And competitive. I was at an event recently that featured many certified Master Somms and, let’s just say, I haven’t seen that many peacock feathers since my ashram days. Paul Greenhaw is different. Long-serving veteran of good Brooklyn wine shops, Paul is a strict adherent of the empower-the-guest school of wine service. Peacock somms will inquire whether you drink Left Bank or Right. Paul is more likely to ask “What’s for dinner?” Armed with a little information from you (customers reveal a great deal as they stammer their uncertain preferences), Paul can lead you to The Cellars’ savvy Section Nine-Ninety-Nine—a rack where everything in it costs $9.99—and pluck an appropriate choice for you. For Paul, “999” works, but he prefers things 10 bucks higher, describing wines in the $20 range as the pricing sweet spot in wine buying right now. He’s right. And Eric Asimov at The New York Times agrees with him. At around 20-plus bucks, wine buyers can pick up an extraordinary array of flavors and style profiles and from nearly every wine region in the world. At $30-$40 the scope opens still wider; no need to go much higher unless you’re on a mission. Choices—and price brackets—at The Cellar reflect this currently prevailing buyers’ market with good-to-great wine at fair, everyday prices.
A good wine writer once suggested the quickest way to a great bottle is to ask the wine guide—the restaurant sommelier or the shop clerk—what they are excited about, right now. It’s a great trick. When I tried it on Paul, he immediately went obscure-but-engaging on me, picking a Pinot Noir from France’s Jura, a region hardly known even to wine people and featured in a recent Jancis Robinson article titled “Jura—the next small thing?” If your wine guy takes you there, you’d better know you can trust him. I trust Paul Greenhaw. Paul is into natural and biodynamic wines right now. The winery he chose is a virtual citadel of the practices. Winemakers favoring natural wines are sometimes affectionately called “lazy,” meaning they believe in slight intervention from the winemaker. “The vineyard, not the winemaker, makes the wine” might be their mantra. Paul’s pick on this day was certainly all natural and, frankly, pretty wild in profile. But cool. And definitely delicious.
His beer-buddy in the place is Taos-born-and-raised Dave Sklarz, who says he “fell into” the whole beverage thing and just found he liked it. So he got good at it. He’s currently having fun with wheat beers, particularly Belgian style. Dave’s got something he likes in that school from Dogfish Head Brewery and also mentioned a red from Deschutes Brewery. Dave is a thoughtful, easygoing and informed beer guide, with a really big fridge full of beers.
There’s an easy-to-miss telltale at The Cellar: no signs. Just people. People like Paul Greenhaw and Dave Sklarz; people like the shop’s creators, Lee Backer and Angelica Robinson; and people like another local wine guy, Charles Baston. Charles has a knack for the pithy summary. Here’s his take on working at The Cellar: “Every day, working on the floor, hand-selling bottles, teaches me more and more about how much there is to learn about wine.” This is a style of wine service that is at once entirely modern and endearingly retro. Modern, as in information––and empowerment-based—but retro as in bespoke tailors and custom jewelers. Best of both worlds, really. It presupposes a level of engagement from both the shop and the customer that is welcome and refreshing. No signs. Just people. And some wide-open spaces to shop and learn and buy.
A word about location. And lineage. By now, everyone knows Cid’s Food Market, created by Taos’ most indispensable grocer, Cid Backer, and his wife and sidekick, Betty Backer. Try as anyone might to make this otherwise, the directions to The Cellar will probably always be “It’s in the Cid’s parking lot.” Here’s the connection: Lee Backer, son of Cid and Betty, honed his retail chops at his mom and dad’s grocery store. When it came time to do his own project with his super-sharp wife, they snagged the spot next to the hottest retail corner in Taos. Smart.
And, really, that’s the theme of the whole place: smart. Smart look, smart choices, smart pricing, smart placement. Walk in soon and find out what you want to drink.
The Cellar is located at 623 B Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos (you know, in the Cid’s parking lot), 575.758.7445, thecellartaos.com.
Story by Andy Lynch