Recommendation By A Ghost: "Steve" at Wine Academy of Lakewood, NJ
It was generally an ordinary Sunday morning - visiting family, putting together the ShopRite list to get through the week, shopping errands… And this day I decided to stop by one of my favorite wine stores to pick out something different and exciting. I’m not a big drinker - those of you who read this blog regularly may beg to differ! - but I usually get ONE NICE BOTTLE for myself every so often.
There are at least 4,668 liquor stores in Brick, NJ alone. Those of you who live in Brick know exactly what I mean. But the best one is argumentatively situated on the border of Brick and Lakewood, nestled in the center of a seemingly failing strip mall overshadowed by a Home Depot off of Rte. 70. Wine Academy is a chain of specialty liquor stores that focus more than half of their real estate on wine - good wine - and has the largest variety of bourbon and Scotch Whisky that I’ve ever seen. When I need to get someone a liquid gift, I’m coming here.
I walk in and notice that it’s quiet for a Sunday, but hooray for me! I can walk the aisles in peace, and take my time reading each individual description card neatly stuck to each wine bottle row. Ornate carved wood & wrought iron ‘street signs’ mark all of the different valleys and varieties that grace their shelves.
I look around to see if anyone notices my newbie curiosity of the “Loire” section, but I see no one - I’m clear to read. Just then I hear, “Can I help you with anything?” Without so much a tap, breath or a rustle, I turn to see a man standing right beside me: Grey hair, nice pants, cabernet-colored sweater over a dress shirt, 5’6” maybe, friendly smile and he could have been anywhere between 55 and 70 - I have no idea. Who knows these days…? I don’t really care; Where did he come from? “Oh… uh.. Hi,” I nervously coughed out, “I’m just exploring… sort of looking for something different.” “Well I’m Steve, nice to meet you,” he says to me with a polite yet firm handshake. He tells me that he’s one of the main buyers there and he spends a lot of his time writing the description cards, so he’s tasted pretty much everything in here.
“Well what do you like?” asks Steve. “I really like dark reds lately… Argentinian Malbec, that sort of thing,” I respond with false confidence.
Steve proceeds to look at me as though he’s just laid down the last tarot card and can now predict my future with absolute certainty. His barely distinguishable New York accent coming through, he throws, “Hm, well… I’ve got something I think you should try. Take a look at this.” As if floating, he guides me completely out of the area I was in (I still have no idea what wine from Loire is all about) and back towards the main entry aisle to the Cabernet Sauvignon section, California. He reaches for a bottle I most likely would never pay attention to, nor give any consideration to whatsoever had he not pointed it out to me. “You’re going to thank me for life, I’m telling you. This is one of my favorites," he promises.
I suppose it’s the “CABERNET SAUVIGNON” extra-large text centered on the label that would make me pass this one by, not knowing any better. It’s just like having “WINE” written directly in the middle. Yes, I know it’s wine. Thanks. I decided to take his word for it and as I headed for the counter I took one last look behind me to say, “At $22 a bottle, this better be good, Steve, seriously.” But Steve was gone. Where did Steve go? He was right there!
I brought this bottle home and kept replaying this experience in my head. Soon enough the time had come to try this stuff: Goddammit, Steve. You’ve ruined every wine I’ve ever had up to this point. Ever. Thanks STEEEEEVEEE. It’s the Kobe beef of steaks.
Blown away by this, I eventually found my way back to Wine Academy about a week or so later. I wanted to admit to Steve that he was right, that he had me pegged. HOW?! I must know. Give me another gem, Steve! Better yet, allow me to study as your protégé. I looked around but Steve was nowhere to be found. I poked around the store for a bit, trying to recreate the steps from my original encounter, but no luck. Finally I went up to the counter and asked if Steve was around. “Steve? Uh…. I don’t know who you’re looking for.” “Really? Older guy, said he wrote all the description cards,” I asked? The look I received said it all - Steve was either a figment of my overactive imagination, a random patron posing as an employee, or the helpful, friendly ghost of Wine Academy. I’ve decided that this third option is the most probable. Regardless, whoever he is (or was), he knows wine and has forever changed the way I approach the nectar of the gods.
I’ve been in here many, many times since then and I’ve not seen Steve again. But I have continued to go outside my comfort zone and give unassuming bottles a chance. So far, so good! Plus Wine Academy has the coolest thing ever in the back of the store: Wine Tasting Machines!
Apparently someone like The Ghost of Steve chooses 16 different wines for you to taste. Get a Wine Academy points card from the front counter and each day you can come in and treat yourself to 4 different wine tastings. They stage clean glasses to the left under a wine region map. If you like what you’re trying, the corresponding bottle is staged underneath - simple!
Aside from this amazing invention and The Ghost of Steve, Wine Academy always has great gifts - hand painted ornate wine glasses, spirit gift sets, beautifully crafted baskets, Tito’s bottle sweaters for those cold January days... Things of that nature.
One of the most impressive things about this store is their immense, and I mean IMMENSE catalog of Bourbon and Scotch Whiskey. My husband is a big fan and has pretty discerning tastes in this department. I unfortunately cannot appreciate it as much as I may have tried. Still, regardless of what I’m into, I enjoy coming here to pick him out something he’s never experienced before under their expert recommendation. Perhaps one day I’ll be decide to go wild and have them open “The Glass Case.”
Wine Academy is a feast for the eyes as much as it is a tour for the adventurous taste buds. I hope to see Steve again, but in the meantime I'll continue to stock up on Ninety Plus Cellars lot 94 CabSav whenever I can, and peruse the "streets" hoping to find that next amazing sensory overload. Meanwhile I strongly suggest you visit and take the plunge - if not for yourself, certainly for a nice gift for someone special.
Wine Academy Superstores
1900 NJ-70 #234, Lakewood, NJ 08701