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Building the Ballot – Wine & Beer

February 13, 2012

Welcome to the second working post of the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 3.0. If you haven’t been keeping up with the blog daily, you may want to take a few minutes and read about the plan to build a better ballot for the Times Union’s 2012 Best of the Capital Region poll.

Today is a working session. I hope you are ready.

First, let me thank those who contributed all their thoughts on grocery stores and farmers markets last week. I’m glad to have the input as I move forward. However, there was one thing that I found to be a bit vexing.

I don’t want to get hung up on this, so let me explain and hopefully we can move on. It seemed that many of you had a difficult time in stepping away from your own personal preferences. There were plenty of responses for Best grocery that told me where you shop, because it is convenient to you. But that’s what makes it your favorite grocery store, and not necessarily a better store from a more broadly conceived set of criteria.

This was illuminating. Because if I can’t get you all to step away from this impulse, then what chance is there of getting the average Times Union respondent to do so. But maybe perceptions of supermarkets are more location-sensitive than other businesses. We’ll just have to see.

So….wine stores and beer stores. What makes them good? And which ones are just a little bit better, rising to the top and qualifying as one of The Best? I’ll spell out my criteria and give you my top three picks for each category. You can feel free to agree or disagree, and leave as detailed a comment as you like. All I ask is that if you play along at home, you submit not just your top pick, but the three best options (in rank order).

Best local wine store
New York is a funny place, because for the most part all of our wine stores are wine and spirits stores. And of course we cannot currently buy wine where we buy groceries. Beer mysteriously is okay to sell in supermarkets, but selling wine in grocery stores aisles will certainly bring an end to our glorious civilization.

Honestly, I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before we join California and a host of other civilized states where buying wine isn’t considered to be a crime.

Will many of the awful wine stores that have been propped up by the state and never have to face serious competition go out of business? Sure. But the best ones will stay open, despite potentially having higher prices than grocery stores would. Which ones will survive? To me, that’s a great filter to identify the best local wine store.

3) The Wine Seller at Harmony House
You know what? I’ve never actually been there. But they have a reason to exist. They sell exclusively New York State wines. And that is pretty spectacular. They are like the Kermit Lynch of Capital Region. It’s a stretch, but work with me here.

2) For the Love of Wine
This is a tough pick, because I don’t particularly like shopping for wine at this store. Maybe it has something to do with the owners’ musical performance background, but I’ve felt that their attitude is always just a bit more affected than I’m comfortable with. Regrettably, I think that can be incorrectly read as snobbery. But this is a small store, whose selection is curated by a couple of passionate wine lovers, and it shows. It galls me that I’ve never been to one of their $5 evening tasting classes. One day.

1) All Star Wine & Spirits
There are three main mega wine stores that offer great wines at great prices. All Star, Exit 9, and Empire. In two of these stores I’ve encountered clueless employees who have attempted to help me select a bottle. All Star is the only one of the three where the staff I’ve encountered actually knows their shit. When wine becomes omnipresent, good prices are only going to go so far. If All Star were a little bit closer to me, they would get more of my money. But I still think they are the best.

Best local beer store
This seems like a dumb category, but it’s one nonetheless. Oliver’s Beverage always wins. But should they? Sure they are big, and have a large selection, at least the location on Colvin Avenue does. But let me tell you, I’ve had completely unhelpful conversations with the staff, and I once bought an expensive French cider that languished on their shelf for so long it had turned bad.

The problem is that there is a distinct lack of comparable beer stores in the area. I suppose that’s a good problem, because really a market our size is lucky to have a place like Oliver’s at all. Here’s what I’ve got for my top three.

3) Oliver’s Westmere
It’s the same Brew Crew everyone knows and loves at a smaller location with less stuff.

2) Oliver’s Colvin
The perennial favorite. It’s large and it has a great selection. There are also usually some great specials of inventory the store is trying to unload.

1) Hoosick Street Discount Beverage Center
Had it not been for this project, I would probably never have stumbled upon this place. The truth of the matter is that I’ve been happy enough with Oliver’s on Colvin despite the lapses in service. But after looking it up, this place seems to be everything I want in a beer store, and from reading the reviews I can see that people I know and trust really love the place. That’s all I need to know. I’m sold. Next beer run I’m driving to Troy.

What say you? Let’s hear it. Submit your top three for each category in the comments below. Or if you agree with the above selections, let me know that too. Thanks.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 11:04 am

    Chris and I had our second date at FLOW’s wine tasting class, it was really fun..we keep saying we want to go back for another one but never get around to it…

    • February 13, 2012 7:55 pm

      Giggling to myself, that another Jen has a significant other named Chris. :)

  2. techcommdood permalink
    February 13, 2012 11:17 am

    I’m not one to buy wine on a regular basis, so my input here will be rather limited.

    3) Exit 9, Clifton Park
    They have a tremendous selection, and if you know what you’re looking for, it’s a great stop for both variety and price. However, most of their staff seems clueless about the products they sell, which is a problem with any “mega” store. Unless there’s a promotion and/or they’ve been trained to push a specific product, they really don’t know much about their inventory (even knowledge about what’s even available in stock).

    2) Hoosick Street Wine Cellar, Troy
    Located at the corner in front of Hoosick Discount Beverage, this shop is small but the people working there are extremely courteous. They are knowledgeable, friendly, and are up to the task of finding something specific you may be looking for.

    1) Crescent Wine Sellers & Spirit Shoppe, Clifton Park
    This location used to be huge, but I think largely due to Exit 9 and the nature of the Clifton Park shoppers (who largely only ever hit the exit 9 area for anything) they’ve had to cut back to one retail unit instead of two. Their staff are extremely knowledgeable and know where everything is in the store. While they’re not the cheapest, I’ve never been steered wrong with their recommendations.

    Now for beer. This should prove to be interesting.

    3) Oliver’s Colvin, Albany
    I only include them for selection. I’ve never hit the Westmere location. If you’re looking to branch out your tastes, Oliver’s is a great place to start. Just don’t expect their employees to be of much help in selecting based on style. They’re trained to push units, not to understand your palate and advise accordingly.

    2) Savemore Beverage, Clifton Park
    Their craft section continues to expand. I have found bottles of limited run brews here that no one else in the area seems to carry (likely because not enough beer geeks come here to shop). The employees here can seem rather business-only, but I think it’s in part due to the many people who come in for a 30-rack of cheap American light lager and in part due to the attitudes of those who come in looking for a keg only to learn that they have to pay through the nose in state-required deposits before they even tough the price tag on that keg. That said, these guys are all very knowledgeable about their beers, and are happy to track down another guy working at the store to answer any question they can’t handle (provided you’re not a jerk). I’m in enough that they know me by face, and often recommend beers to me for the next visit as I check out based on what I’m purchasing. Their prices are quite reasonable as well.

    1) Hoosick Street Discount Beverage, Troy
    What can I say… If you’re into beer, this is your prime stop in the area. They have excellent beers on rotation for growler fills (local and other craft) and their selection is, while condensed, very wide. Their staff is top-notch as well. While they move a lot of cheaper/macro beer, they always keep their craft shelves full. And of what they stock, much of it can’t be found anywhere else in the area without some deep searching. Their prices are fair as well.

    As beer is my thing, I have to give some nods here…

    Glenmont Beverage Center, Glenmont
    I have never been here, mainly because it’s a bit of a hike for me. But many of my beer-loving friends frequent this place. I’m on their mailing list just to keep up with new arrivals, should they get anything I can’t find closer to home. They get some great beer in, and from what I hear it goes quickly, which tells me they have a legion of loyal customers.

    Waterford Beverage Mart, Waterford
    careful, you just might drive right by this place! They have a craft beer selection that takes up close to half their (small-ish) store. Everything is stocked well so you should have no trouble finding things. They don’t seem to have a “build your own 6-pack” system like other stores though. The benefit of this place is selection and convenience, as it’s rarely crowded.

    Price Chopper, Shopper’s World in Clifton Park (and other locations)
    Yes, I said it. While not “amazing”, there are some great things happening here. A year or so ago someone had the great idea to expand their craft beer selections. Now, about 1/3-1/2 of their available shelf space for beer holds craft brewery products. Though mainly 6-packs, they also have a fairly wide selection of bombers (22 oz bottles), and have a build-your-own 6 pack system as well. While the beers you can build from are fairly common, it really allows those looking to try branching out their tastes to do so one bottle at a time, rather than taking a “risk” on a full 6-pack of the same beer. These build-your-own bottles are also available for purchase individually, so you can buy just a couple of bottles if that’s all you’re wanting to try. I don’t usually buy beer in a grocery store, as they usually don’t have anything I’d consider drinking aside from a few over-priced “premium” selections, but this offering from Price Chopper has won my money on many occasions for convenience and selection. I just wish they’d grow the selection even more, as I’ve had everything they sell!

  3. -R. permalink
    February 13, 2012 12:10 pm

    Wine for me is a matter of convenience and location. As I tend to know what I like, I can generally find something decent even in mediocre shops. I frequent the Wine Shoppe on New Scotland for its eclectic selection, bizarre layout and the nice woman who works there, as well as Mayone’s Wines & Liquors out in Glenmont because the guy who owns it likes big Italian and South American reds, and his prices are very good . Often, wine purchases might be coupled with beer, so I’ll stop at the liquor store immediately adjacent to Oliver’s on Colvin Ave. (Albany Wine & Spirits) which has a generous case discount, but is fairly pedestrian in its scope. For me, it isn’t about the volume or breadth of inventory as sometimes it’s too easy to lose oneself. I also gave up my oenophile pretensions years ago (along with golf) since I don’t have the income to thoroughly and properly pursue either of those dragons; I already have enough hobbies that seriously dent my bank account.

    Beer has been a passion as of late, so I’ve spent some time researching. Oliver’s on Colvin is (alas) the undisputed selection king in the area, and the sheer volume of inventory they move means the prices tend to be the best in the entire area. I say alas because the staff tend to be unhelpful (and there are a couple of folks who work there whom I find insufferable), and no matter how much I frequent the place, they act like they don’t know who you are. A frequent buyer’s club would be nice, as would a bit more congeniality. Westmere is nearly identical to Oliver’s, just with a bit less selection. I recently tried out Glenville Beverage on Freeman’s Bridge Road in Scotia, and found it to be quite pleasant. They have a fairly knowledgeable staff, a very fine tap/growler selection and an excellent selection of craft beer. My problem is that I just don’t get out that way too much, but my northwestern friends all deem it their go to beer store, and I can see why. Hoosick St. Discount Beverage is a fine store as well. However, my two 22oz bottles of Rouge Yellow Snow IPA that I brought home on Friday had been sitting for too long and had formed some sediment chunks. Not a bad thing, but I would expect better and it leads me to wonder how much craft beer they actually move, despite their inventory. Also, the store obviously caters to the blue collar and collegiate crowd more than the other aforementioned vendors – lots of floor space is devoted to swill. That said, I find their selection ample, and the staff very eager to assist, but their prices tend to be slightly higher than Oliver’s.

    • techcommdood permalink
      February 13, 2012 1:23 pm

      Hey R – sediment chunks? Really? You should study up on craft beer to learn what those chunks are and why it’s important you see them there.

      • -R. permalink
        February 13, 2012 2:34 pm

        Thanks for your concern, but I know why they’re there; let’s just say in all my numerous samples of this particular IPA, the sedimentation hasn’t coagulated into small stones at the bottom. Perhaps it was simply the bottom of the barrel on the bottling line, though the beer did taste a bit on the stale side.

  4. February 13, 2012 12:29 pm

    I would counter that part of what makes a store the best is its location — it’s not just my favorite, but it’s also the one that’s located the most conveniently, the one that parked itself in the right place for me to be able to get to it, the one that’s most accessible. For instance, any store that doesn’t have a parking lot loses points with me, because it’s so much more convenient to park in a lot than scrounge for street parking. Location isn’t everything, but it certainly is important. Similarly, if you have an otherwise great store, but it’s located way out where I never go, it’s a pain to get to, which is inconvenient for the customer (me), which makes it not as good of a store.

    (As for my picks on these categories, I don’t buy wine or beer, so I’ll just vote for everyone else’s consensus on this one.)

    • February 13, 2012 7:58 pm

      I think, though, this is the key difference between “favorite” and “best.” What makes a store your favorite may have to do with location. Favorite is subjective. Best can be subjective, but it far more objective. I think location may play into it in very limited circumstances, but, for example, that wine store without a parking lot may be in a pedestrian neighborhood and therefore easier to access for someone without a car. Who is right?

      I think that’s what Daniel is trying to get at with this contest — that it may not be your favorite for a lot of valid reasons, but it may very well be the best because of a list of more objective criteria.

      • Darren Shupe permalink
        February 14, 2012 2:25 pm

        I agree with you that “favorite” does not equate to “best,” and I think Daniel’s post contained a valid complaint. I was guilty to a certain degree of favoring the Slingerlands Price Chopper in my original comment on another post because it’s on the bus line, and I don’t like to drive (though I still think it’s a pretty decent supermarket).

        Still, “best” is something that depends on what a particular consumer is seeking. If you’re looking for great produce, you might go to one place, and and if you’re trying to find USDA prime beef, say, you would most likely go to another. We all see these things through narrowed eyes that reflect our own desires, and though we can try for objectivity, there’s always going to be that element of “what do I like?” in any such decision.

        There’s also the fact that, given logistical considerations, not everyone can get to a particular place. I’ve been to Shop Rite stores in New Jersey, for example, but there would be absolutely no reason for me to go to Niskayuna. Presumably that’s why you have a poll – people with different experiences share their input, and then you have a consensus. That in effect brings a certain objectivity.

        I applaud what Daniel is trying to do. It’s a rather Sisyphean effort to change the rules of the game. It’ll be tough, but I hope he succeeds.

  5. February 13, 2012 12:34 pm

    It is an hour drive away but it would kill me not to vote for my absolute favorite wine shop I’ve ever visited: Hudson Wine Merchants. They are incredibly knowledgeable, have a small, but thoughtful selection and they have a dog. A dog ALWAYS helps. It’s not convenient to me, but it’s totally worth the drive if I am on a mission for something different.

    Putnam Wine in Saratoga is also very good. They usually have wine available for tasting and the people who work there are really informative and helpful. Like Hudson Wine Merchants, it’s a small selection, but offers a nice range of options for all budgets.

    Olivers on Colvin has my vote. I love going in and making my own 6 pack of microbrews.

    Also on the beer store front – I’d say any place you can fill a growler with local beer is as good, if not better, than a beer store. The Pump Station in Albany or Davidson’s in Glens Falls are great choices. I’d bet you can get a growler at Brown’s, but I haven’t been there yet…I do like their table at the Troy market, though.

    • techcommdood permalink
      February 13, 2012 1:27 pm

      Brown’s offers growler fills of their beer and also stocks bombers for sale. The Ruck also fills growlers of anything they have on tap, which is quite a lot these days (amazing selection). Also, Hoosick, Savemore, and Glenmont also fill growlers. You’d likely find other beer stores offering the same, as it seems to be big with the not-quite-hipster crowd these days. ;-)

      • February 13, 2012 1:40 pm

        I’ve heard great things about the Ruck but haven’t been yet. I usually like to go out for a good time near the Albany bus line for obvious reasons. Troy seems like it has some good places, I really should just get a designated driver and get my butt over there.

      • February 13, 2012 2:03 pm

        You really should. Once you get downtown, everything’s easily walkable.

  6. Hollie Miller permalink
    February 13, 2012 12:58 pm

    Wine Stores:
    1. I do like Empire Wine. Mostly because of their non NYS varieties. I know the items I like and often I’m searching for a particular vineyard. Empire is the only place in the capital district that keeps my favorite California vineyards in stock. I compromise on the friendliness of the staff because I know what i’m looking for when I go there.

    2. All Star – Their staff was really great. Three different employees asked if I needed help. They looked wines up on their computer for me without rolling their eyes. I just wish their selection of South African wines was a bit larger.

    3. Purdy’s in Saratoga Springs – they’ve always answered questions. Referred me to decent bottles of wine. But their advice on sparkling wine has been clutch so many times.

    Beer Stores:

    1. Glenville Beverage Center – In my quest to taste every pumpkin/ harvest ale seasonal I could get my hands on I walked out of there with 15 different beers. They have a nice rotation on their growler section. Their mix & match 6 pack has always been my favorite way to sample new things.

    2. Olivers – Central – I like them for their selection. But often I find it difficult to search a giant PDF of what beers they have. Sometimes too they have them on the list but not in stock. There are so many web applications now a days that I would LOVE for their inventory to be updated more often on the website. It’s a little intimidating to go into the large store. Sometimes I get a nice staff member who will help, sometimes I get the staff member who hates to be bothered.

    3. Uptown Beverage Center – Rotterdam, NY – For a suburb shop, I always expect to just see large walk-in coolers filled with bud, bud light, Coors, etc. But they have a nice specialty brew section. I was thrilled to pick up Brown’s Whiskey Porter the other night (as Rotterdamian’s hardly make it to Troy with regularity) They also have a nice small section of British ales. Staff is always nice but it’s hit & miss with the knowledge base. The younger guys know more about the specialty stuff.

  7. Elyse permalink
    February 13, 2012 2:24 pm

    For the Love of Wine tasting classes are super fun. I actually really enjoy the attitude of the owners though our tastes don’t always align.

  8. February 13, 2012 7:12 pm

    I live in Troy, so I’m at Hoosick Beverage Center all the time. Great selection, they always have what I’m looking for, the dudes there are knowledgeable, and they have taps where you can fill up growlers with a rotating selection of beer (I know the Oliver’s Colvin also has this). They have a large section of the store devoted to stacks of cheap beer to satiate the RPI brosephs, but I’ve yet to be disappointed. There’s a wine store in the same lot, too; I wouldn’t nominate it for any selection/pricing/service awards, but it makes that area on Hoosick a good one-stop spot.

  9. February 13, 2012 8:05 pm

    Hoosick Beverage is really phenomenal. They do carry the swill, but so does Oliver’s – you just may not notice it as much because of the way the store is laid out. The guys at Hoosick are helpful, friendly, and really know their beer. They’ll special order just about anything you ask for, provided they are able to get it. I tend to go to Oliver’s more often because it’s closer/more convenient for me, but if I am over that way I usually stop in to see what they have to offer.

    I also agree with All Star as number one for wine store. It is, in my opinion, the best place to go for someone who is new to wine. Empire is probably my favorite wine shop, because of their selection (they have a large inventory, and a hefty portion of said inventory is really good), but All Star is hands down the best. The staff is great, and the layout is conducive to teaching yourself about good wine … though the staff is ALWAYS willing to help when asked.

  10. Sylva permalink
    February 13, 2012 10:38 pm

    I love Mike at Spirits of Troy. He never steers my husband or I wrong, has a great pick of well-priced reds and even some whites (no oak, thanks!). Good location for us in Downtown Troy (Ferry St just up from the tunnel on Rt 2 or off of 3rd St).

  11. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 13, 2012 11:20 pm

    Here’s another vote for Putnam Wine. And Purdy’s, also in Saratoga, has a big selection and are eager to help.

  12. February 14, 2012 12:59 am

    Those of us who live in Saratoga can’t help voting for Purdy’s and EBI. EBI in particular gives Colvin’s a run for its money with fresher beer and growlers priced several dollars less. Come on up y’all.

    • February 14, 2012 1:58 am

      I forgot all about EBI. Great store! I used to go there regularly years ago, for both beer and homebrew supplies.

  13. February 14, 2012 6:53 pm

    There are only two Wine & Spirit stores I recommend:

    2. Empire Wine

    1. Hoosick Wine Cellar – attached to the Hoosick Beverage Center, knowledgeable staff, decent selection.

    Beer Stores:

    3. Oliver’s
    2. Brew Crew on Western Ave
    1. Hoosick Beverage Center – again, staffed well with knowledgeable folks and a great selection of craft brew.

  14. Ellen permalink
    February 14, 2012 11:11 pm

    Wine and Spirits of Slingerlands has an interesting selection of wines and a knowledgable and helpful staff.

  15. Jessica R permalink
    February 15, 2012 4:05 pm

    Beer (Semi-simple answers here ;-) )
    1) Hoosick St Beverage
    2) Brew Crew on Western Ave (Westmere)
    3) Deli and Brew on Rt 4 in Troy – I go here the most for its convenience to me, but it often surprises me with the specialty beers it bring in – nice to see they actually care about beer quality, given they only have 3 coolers available for beer, and two of them are filled with cheap beer for the HVCC students.

    1) Exit 9 – Putting this one first because I recently went to a great wine and food tasting there. The guy who ran it was amazing, and I learned a lot. They put it on for free for a small group of us from work – we just has to ask for it. Plus, unlike Hollie, a NYS wine selection is a big draw for me (for the reason below), and theirs in the largest I’ve seen. Their prices are very good.

    I tend to only buy wine that I’ve tasted, so that means I like wine tastings, or to have a selection from wineries I’ve been to (mainly Finger Lakes). I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a store and asked an associate for a wine suggestion based on what I’m cooking, so employee knowledge isn’t that important to me.

    This just made me realize that I haven’t seen any places that sell Canadian Ice Wine from the Niagara Falls region. This is fairly well-known wine region, and close enough geographically that I’m sure people from this area have visited them (lots of people go to Niagara Falls). Professor, why do you think this is?

    2) All Star – They have tastings, good employees and a find selection. The atmosphere of the store is much nicer than Exit 9 or Empire, so I’m ok with their slightly higher prices

    3) Empire – I like good prices.

    Professor, although I admire your reasoning, I would be cautious about recommending a store you haven’t been to yourself. The concept behind the Harmony House is very admirable, but the execution is poor. I went there when they first opened, and almost half the store was only Bully Hill (my least favorite NYS wine). They did have a wine tasting, but all the wines were horrible, making me wonder why they were chosen – I didn’t want to buy any of them. I ended leaving with a Dr. Franks/Salmon Run, but they didn’t have my favorite SR wine, Meritage. Of course, this was a few years ago, so I’m sure things have (hopefully) improved.

    • March 15, 2012 4:50 pm

      Earlier, I got the following dispatch from a trusted friend, and thought I would share it with you here:

      “Today I purchased a bottle of Jackson Triggs ice wine at Empire Wine.”

      So let it be known, one can indeed find Niagara Region wine in Albany. Well, Colonie… but still.

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