CHB Neighbor Profile: Meet Gnarly Vines Owner Brian Robinson

brian Do you live in the neighborhood? How long have you lived here?

Brian has lived here for seven years.

Are you involved in any community-based groups?

For six years he was a member of the Clinton Hill CSA and just this year joined the Ft. Greene one. Last year he hosted a wine tasting and potluck for the Ft. Greene CSA. As the father of three young children Brian has been involved in charity events for P.S. 11, The Co-op School, The Dillon Child Study Center, Brooklyn New School and Carousel Children’s Center by contributing wine to their fundraisers or donating private wine tastings for their live auctions. Brian is also an avid swimmer who just participated in the Brooklyn Bridge Swim.

Describe your career path. Is this your first foray into the retail side of the wine business?

Brian started out working in a family business that distributed welding and industrial supplies. At around the age of 30 he left that and started working at Phillips Auctioneers as head of their wine department. This made sense because wine was already a passion for him. His specialty was appraising, authenticating, and cataloging private collections. After a few years at Phillips he moved to Christie’s and later to, an internet auction site. Having concluded that he was no longer enamored with the idea of collecting wine, he decided that he wanted to start selling it instead. In November 2007 he opened Gnarly Vines on Myrtle Avenue. Brian first caught the wine bug in the late ‘80’s as an intern for Aire Liquide in Nanterre, a gritty, industrial suburb of Paris. One of the things that struck him while there was how wine was consumed by the common man. He remembers fondly drinking inexpensive, rustic Côtes du Rhône with the truck drivers at lunch in the company cafeteria. Brian eventually received a formal wine education through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), where he earned both the advanced certificate and diploma.

I really appreciate your and your staff’s lack of pretension and the fact that the store carries plenty of great bottles of wine in the $10 range. Could you talk a bit about the store’s philosophy?

Brian says that anyone can pick a winner for $50, whereas in the $10 category you really distinguish yourself by your selection. At the lower price points there is a wide range in quality. When selecting value wines, he first looks for the absence of any obvious flaw. In general Brian tries to avoid mass-produced wines and prefers smaller producers and more environmentally-friendly wines. Brian’s assessment of wine combines both objective and subjective selection criteria. His philosophy is to pick a winner in every category and to not have too much redundancy. He describes his overall wine philosophy as adventurous. He observes that people are typically much more adventurous when it comes to food but relatively conservative (or play it safe) with their wine. He hopes to change that.  Brian is a big proponent of wine tastings and believes that as much as possible people should taste before they buy. He’s been conducting tastings since 1994, and the store provides a great space for them.

I know that you use your shop as a gallery space, which is a terrific idea. Do you primarily focus on local artists? What is your curatorial policy or philosophy? Do you have someone on staff who handles this?

Brian says that almost all of the work they display is by local artists. He’s frequently amazed at the talent of friends, neighbors, and customers and loves to showcase it.  He has noticed that having new art in the store every six weeks improves the morale and spirit of the people entering it. As a rule he gives the artists tremendous leeway and allows them to determine what they want to exhibit and how.

Are you actively involved in the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Business Improvement District or the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project LDC?  Have these organizations been helpful to you regarding marketing and community outreach and/or in other ways?

Brian is an active member of the Myrtle BID who regularly weighs in on various issues and searches for ways to dialogue with other small business owners. He feels that sharing information about services is crucial and believes that small businesses can work together in many ways beyond just marketing.

Did you have any special events or promotions linked to the “Move About Myrtle” events on Saturdays in September (or doesn’t that affect your section of the avenue)?

Even though Myrtle Ave was not closed to traffic directly in front of Gnarly Vines, they conducted in-store wine tastings during the ‘Move About Myrtle’ events to bring people further down the avenue and capitalize on the increased foot traffic on the street.  They are also participating in Explore Myrtle Avenue, a frequent-buyer program, where if you spend $10 at five or more businesses you become eligible to win one of four Myrtle Avenue Shopping Sprees valued at $400.

Has the store been adversely affected by the severe recession? Have you noticed any “recessionary” buying trends amongst your customers?

Brian says that it’s hard to say because he’s only been in business for a couple of years. His business tends to be on an upward trend right now with his customer base growing. People in the neighborhood are still discovering the store.  As for buying trends, he has seen a decrease in sales of bottles over $30, as customers tighten their budgets. At the same time, some families choosing to stay at home and cook rather than go out for a nice dinner might decide to spend more on wine in order to make the evening special. Brian observes that their strong collection of bottles in the $10 range has been selling briskly. Fortuitously, his firm belief that wine should be affordable positioned him well for the recession.

You mentioned that the store will be celebrating its two-year anniversary this fall. Congratulations!! What sort of events do you have planned around this birthday?

To mark the anniversary they’ll have a series of in-store tastings, and like they did last year they’ll bring in food from several local restaurants, pairing food with wines over a series of days.

Brian says that at some point he would like to organize more wine dinners at local restaurants. In 2004/5 he led a series of wine tasting dinners in the neighborhood that were pretty popular. During the last year he organized a South African winemaker dinner at Madiba, at which he presented wines from the beloved and established Seven Sisters Winery as well as introduced two new South African winemakers.  At another recent wine dinner at Chez Lola, he presented Miquel Angel Cerda, one of his favorite wine makers from Anima Negra in Mallorca.

Finally, what are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?

Brian mentions Yú Interiors as one of his favorite stores. To him, its incredibly charming owner Ludlow Beckett epitomizes the style, elegance and attitude of Ft. Greene. With three small children and a new business, he doesn’t get out as often as he’d like but when he does he hates to leave Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. He tends to be very partial to his Myrtle Avenue neighbors A Bistro, Chez Lola and Anima. Having just written an article about pairing Spanish wine with the African cuisine in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, he’s currently a big fan of Bati (Ethiopian), Kif (Moroccan), and Grand Dakar (Senegalese).  A nightcap at the Hideout is a great way to end a local night out.