“Come on in. I just finished putting the wine away about an hour ago,” says John Noakes as I enter Off The Vine Wine & Spirits, a wine shop in Norwalk. “I had about 100 cases just sitting in my basement.”
Off the Vine is a work in progress; a paint brush lies in the corner waiting for use and the shelves have a few empty spaces awaiting bottles. Still, Noakes is well on his way toward reopening the store in its new location. The shop, previously situated on the corner of Spring Hill Avenue, is moving across town to Winfield Street. The space has its own legacy. It once housed the original location of Fountainhead Wines before it became a part of Fat Cat City on Wall Street.
Off the Vine is a relatively small operation. Noakes owns and works in the store full-time and has two people who assist him part-time. The new location is physically petite as well, even more so than the previous shop. Don’t let the size fool you though. The shop offers an enviable collection of boutique wines.
“Having a small store poses its challenges, but it makes it so that your taste has to be spot on,” explains Noakes. He strives to offer only the best products to his customers and tries to find unique, small production wine.
“I taste everything that comes into the store,” he states sincerely. “Otherwise, you short change the customer.” He estimates that he samples new products at least once a week and is particularly motivated to make exciting new finds as he lines the shelves in his new location. “I have a lot of spaces to fill,” he remarks. “I’ll be building up the inventory within the next month.”
Noakes has an interesting background. A bit of a Renaissance man, he dappled in several fields before settling in the world of wine. Once an established journalist, Noakes wrote for Sports Illustrated in New York City. Before that, he’d participated in a specialized producer’s program for film at UCLA. When I remarked at the varied careers he’d considered before arriving at his current destination, he chuckled and said simply, “Imagine that.”
He went on to elaborate about an “epiphany” that he had while working for Sports Illustrated. “One day I woke up and thought ‘I don’t want to commute everyday into Manhattan,’” he laughed. While enrolled in the producer’s program, Noakes had worked in a large-scale store known as the Wine House. He’d also moved between kitchens, serving as both a bartender and a cook. He realized those were the moments that provided the most fulfillment and decided to return to the food and beverage industry.
The shift did not come easily. To make a living, Noakes got a position as a special education paraprofessional with the Darien Schools. After a full day with students in the classroom, Noakes would become a student himself. He started studying to become a sommelier in the evenings. Although he decided not to become a sommelier, he received his certification and used his newfound knowledge to open Off the Vine.
Noakes expresses sincere gratitude to the men of Fat Cat Pie Company for providing him with inspiration and guidance during his foray into the business. If Noakes was Luke Skywalker, Tony Ancona was his Yoda. “I spent so much time with them, learning everything I could,” he recalls. “They have been so good to me.” Their bond endures; Ancona informed Noakes of Fountainhead’s move and suggested Off the Vine takeover the location. Competition isn’t much of an issue. “There’s room for both of us. They have their own gig,” notes Noakes with reverence.
When Off the Vine opens its doors, it will have several exciting components to set it apart from many other wine stores in the area. For one thing, it will be one of very few local spirits stores to offer gourmet cheese. They secured a special permit from the health department which will allow them to sell cheese and serve crackers and olives alongside the wine. In addition, it will offer some specialty drink items such as Aunt Whisky’s Bloody Mary Mix, well-known locally, and a few craft brews.
Even without these extra features, Off the Vine proves exceptional because of its selection of wine. I had the opportunity to preview the shelves and was impressed by the diversity and sophistication of the choices. For example, the store boasts the Kika, a late season Chenin Blanc from South Africa. This special dessert wine is the last of the vintage in the entire state. Noakes also devoted a corner of the shop to wine from 90 Cellars. The 90 Cellars label signs confidentiality agreements with esteemed vineyards to procure leftover juice. Because buyers do not know where exactly the juice has come from, the bottles can be sold for 20-30% less than they would cost otherwise. The bottles are solid in quality and accessible in price. His personal recommendations include the 2005 Chauteau Brilette Moulis en Medoc, which he describe as a “killer blend” and the Puerta Vieja Crianza 2008, an “amazing pairing with duck.”
Noakes will continue to indulge his journalistic side by writing a wine column for Fairfield County papers. He began writing for them three years ago with Chef David Repp of Splash in Westport, but took a temporary hiatus. The two hope to start penning the “irreverent, whimsical column” when the store has reopened. The articles can be found in print and on the Off the Vine website: http://www.offthevineonline.com/. Past writings can be seen online as well.
While Noakes looks to the future, he wants to provide the best experience for the wine enthusiast when the shop opens. “I’d love to do some online sales in a few years,” he remarks. “In the meantime, you keep your head down and do as much as you can that’s as good as you can.”
From what I saw, the shop is looking better than “good,” and with his enthusiasm, background, and work ethic the grand reopening promises to be worthy of attention.
Off the Vine Wine & Spirits 67 1/2 Winfield Street, Norwalk