Like any produce-based good, wine is the result of years of labor, individual effort, and great farming. Along its journey from vine to vin, it becomes infused with the personality and characters of its farmers and makers, and these backstories are precisely the reason that Urban Grape owners, TJ and Hadley Douglas, fell in love with wine.
“The story adds everything,” TJ says. “Other than that, wine’s just fermented grape juice.”
TJ got the wine bug during his 14 years spent at the front of restaurants, managing and tinkering with wine lists. He enjoyed providing a service and an experience to people, and missed the instant gratification of feedback from customers once he transitioned into wine distribution. The couple were appropriately in one of the world’s wine capitals, Italy, when TJ confessed to Hadley his desire to open his own shop; one that would allow him to recreate the personalised hospitality of his restaurant days in a liquor store environment.
As with many remarkable stores these days, Urban Grape is far from just a physical space that sells something. It’s an experience. The store is sexy and chic. It hosts weekly free tastings and private events. There’s modern music bumping. And most importantly, it’s stuffed to the gills with wine. But the real difference between Urban Grape and other stores is how its products are organized.
“We have what’s called a ‘Progressive Format,’” TJ says. “The wines are all arranged by whites and reds, on a scale of one to ten based on their body or their weight, light to heavy. Like skimmed milk, to semi-skimmed, whole, heavy, to heavy cream.”
Arranging the store this way, like a horizontal wine list, allows casual drinkers — a.k.a the majority of customers — to easily get in to what’s on the shelves and think with their own palates rather than get hung up on where it’s grown or the nuances of grape varietals.
And there’s no snobbery about which section of the store you enjoy shopping in. One of the goals with the store, Hadley says, was to take the intimidation out of the beverage and remove the perception that heavy bodied wines or beers are somehow more serious. “When someone walks in, our questions to them are the same,” she says. “What do you like, and what are you doing with it?”
No matter their answer or their price point, the couple want everybody to walk out with a quality bottle. “It’s absolutely vital that we’re paying attention to the lightest bodied wines just as much as the heaviest,” she says. The farmers and winemakers are, and consumers should too — and they’re just as much a part of a wine’s story as the makers, Hadley points out.
TJ’s love for wine comes from how it’s made, where it’s made, and what the farmer is trying to say with it. He keeps detailed notes on his phone about each of the around 800 bottles that live on the shelves. But for Hadley and most consumers, the best part of buying a bottle is the memory they get to make with it.
“I’d say we’re selling the story rather than the cépage,” TJ says. When you put wine in relatable terms people can understand, like warmth and sunshine versus cosy and wooly, as opposed to going into the specifics of what a bottle contains, it’s demystifying. The whole store becomes accessible, and the world of wine opens up.
Which is why the couple have written a book. “It’s all about stripping the intimidation of wine,” Hadley says. Like the store, it emphasizes the importance of just trying different wines, exploring your likes and dislikes, and has release as of early November, just in time for the holiday season. It pairs nicely with a bottle or two for a gift.
The best part of the job, Hadley says, is watching as customers’ tastes widen, palates grow, and they begin to appreciate all kinds of wine.
Because it means they’re having more interesting experiences, and being part of better stories too, even if they’re only playing a small part. But it’s arguably the best part, because they get to finish the bottle.
Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.