2017-08-10 / Cuisine

Small stores, big wines


Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve noticed a sort of cycle in the world of wine consumption. Specifically, the partial demise of the small neighborhood wine retailer, and the rise of big box stores that stock hundreds (even thousands) of wines. But in the last few years those smaller stores have made a comeback. That’s a good thing, because wine consumers (especially those just starting out) really need the attention and advice of store personnel who know what they’re talking about. And care about their wines and customers.

I’ve written about such treasures several times in this space, like Peter Rizzo’s Natural Wines Naples and others. The latest discovery is Punta Gorda Chocolate and Wine, owned by Stephan Herndon and Patti Haley Herndon. It’s located in the Herald Court Centre at the north end of town, and it’s a whole new take on wine enjoyment.

First of all, Patti is a Level I Sommelier, so the wine inventory (about 120 labels) is quite interesting. “We select great quality wines from smaller vineyards,” she says. “And we try to get them before they’re rated and the prices go up. I taste everything we offer, and we show our customers wines and varietals they’ve never had before.”

A display of wines at Punta Gorda Chocolate and Wine. 
COURTESY PHOTOS A display of wines at Punta Gorda Chocolate and Wine. COURTESY PHOTOS That’s for sure. The selection, which features around 120 wines from well-known regions, also includes several wines from Greece, two Petit Verdots (which is seldom bottled as a single varietal) and even a few from Uruguay. (Don’t laugh … they’re delicious). Says Patti, “we want to make wine approachable and fun.”

Husband Stephan, who teaches art and design at the North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts, has used his experience as a business consultant to steer the couple’s enterprise in the right direction.

“After all, wine and chocolate are a natural pairing,” he observes. “With our chocolate selection, and our cheese and charcuterie plates, we offer a new and different kind of culinary experience.” Customers can order cheese selections and enjoy them at the store’s sidewalk café. They can also purchase a bottle of wine at regular retail, take it outside, and sip and relax.

About that “different culinary experience” — Stephan offered me a sample of bitter chocolate bark drizzled with raspberry balsamic reduction. Revelation.

The chocolate is made by Patti, who calls it Haley Handcrafted Chocolates, since Haley is her maiden name. “I’ve been making chocolates for over 20 years,” she says,” and did it mainly as gifts for my family and friends. It’s nice to see more people enjoying them.”

But the Herndons aren’t limited to wine and chocolate. They also stock a selection of over 100 craft beers. “The Millennials have really made the craft beer market explode,” observes Stephan. He’s right. Market research shows that Millennials’ enthusiasm for these new beers has significantly cut into wine sales.

I had to ask one question: why did they decide to locate their store in Punta Gorda? “It was a great choice,” says Patti.” First, of all, we’ve always dreamed of owning a wine and chocolate store. And second, the merchants association in Punta Gorda has been very helpful and supportive. They wrap their arms around small businesses.”

The couple is dedicated to offering wines that are not generic. “Many large wineries produce wines that are consistent from year to year. They have a house style,” Patti notes. “That’s fine, but there’s nothing distinctive about them.” She selects mostly well-known varietals (plus a few surprises, as mentioned above) that have distinctive flavor profiles.

It seems to be working. The store has been open for over a year, and the Saturday tastings are well-attended.

“People are discovering us,” says Patti. “Besides, we sort of like being the ‘hidden gem’ in this area.”

Here are some gems that aren’t so hidden.

Saved Red Blend 2014 ($22) – A nice surprise. Dark ruby in the glass with aromas of cedar, dark cherry, and vanilla. Spice and cedar on the palate, supported by mixed dark fruit. WW 90.

Saved Magic Maker Rosé California 2016 ($13) – Pleasing light strawberry color with minerals and peach on the nose. Peach flavors and a slight fizz on the palate. Refreshing. WW 88.

Dierberg Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 2013 ($44) – Medium translucent ruby color that gives off aromas of smoke and bold black fruit. Soft, silky and round, with predominant flavors of black plum. Lovely. WW 91.

Ask the Wine Whisperer

Q: What does the word “appellation” mean?

—Carl F., Buckingham

A: An appellation is a legally designated winegrowing region. They are often very strictly defined and controlled by a government agency, such as the INAO in France. For example, “Napa Valley” is an appellation. Within an appellation there are sub-districts, such as Mount Veeder, Oakville, etc. ¦

— Jerry Greenfield is The Wine Whisperer. See his website at www.winewhisperer.com.

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