It’s hard to imagine Russell Fay raising his voice much past library-acceptable levels. He’s a laid-back and accommodating figure, the antithesis of a nose-in-the-air sommelier, and this demeanor is reflected in his refreshingly unpretentious, personal, and intimate Nokomis area wine store. The Cork Dork Wine Company is a 400-square-foot room sandwiched between an alteration shop and Carbone’s off Cedar Avenue. Outside the signage is sparse, inside the decorations are minimal. His counter is plain and his wines are still in their boxes. The flooring is cork (appropriately) that Fay happily admits has prevented the demise of a few bottles.
It’s a bare-bones aesthetic that mirrors his wine selection– straightforward and honest, nothing fancy, nothing gimmicky. Operating in such a small space naturally helps to preclude indiscriminate selection of his inventory. The store offers 70 to 80 “Cork Dork Approved” bottles touching nearly every major grape and style. Fay believes that it’s his job as a wine professional to weed through the seemingly endless choices to bring his customers wines that really deliver. “I taste everything that comes in here,” he says. “I guess I’m a savvy shopper. I look for the right tasting wine but it also has to be priced right.”
Open for just over a year, the store is almost entirely stocked with wines between $10 and $18 with just a few bottles reaching into the $30-40 range. Fay is a veteran of the Minneapolis restaurant circuit with a knack for customer service. The level of personal touch each bottle on his floor receives is evident in the small pieces of poster board located behind each case. They are smattered with thorough information on the wine, often hand written, including everything from Wine Advocate ratings and tasting notes to local news media and blog write-ups. The prices are rounded to the nearest dollar and displayed prominently, a nice aid to those strictly shopping on price. No customers are likely to leave confused.
Fay began meeting food and beverage industry members working as a doorman and valet at various Minneapolis hotels. After a stint managing a lake resort, he came back to the Twin Cities and worked as a waiter in his friends’ restaurants, where his wine buying days began. “When I first started, I was buying a little bit for Pane Vino Dolce, which is no longer in business,” says Fay. “And Cave Vin, [my friends] also opened that, so I moved over there. I opened The Craftsman, on East Lake, moved from waiter to General Manager, helped build the restaurant out from its early inception, put together the whole wine program, the staff, the bar manager, and all that.” His restaurant resume also includes stints at Mission and Heartland. It was as a waiter that he cultivated his ability to guide people to the right bottle. “I just enjoyed it, you know, the pleasure I’d get from people liking a wine that I chose for them from a really vague description of what they like. I just found it a challenge and it made them look good. If someone was trying to impress friends and they had me pick out a wine, I enjoyed it when it was a success.”
Fay personally enjoys Bordeaux and is getting more into Italian wine, but is most fond of wines from Southeastern France’s Rhone Valley. The region produces dark-fruit flavored Grenache- and Syrah-based red blends and whites ranging from smooth and simple to heavy, nutty, and floral. The Two Tastes he offered for this interview were both very nice examples of what wines the region has to offer at reasonable prices.
HEAVY TABLE: The first thing people will notice upon walking in your store is the complete lack of shelving or racking of any kind. I tried to describe the look of your store to someone the other day as, it’s like someone with a lot of wine threw a garage sale.
RUSSELL FAY: It’s true. I have a marketing friend who was skeptical of the poster board thing, and described it as a glorified garage sale poster, but it made me happy when she said that… And it’s part of how I can keep my mark-ups where I do, is because I don’t have shelves to spend a lot of money on, or custom racking. And I do want to keep it as sort of the “world’s smallest wine warehouse” with the boxes stacked up. Why do you need to buy big wood racks when the cardboard boxes are racks in themselves? I can’t have as big of a selection, but I don’t think you really need a huge selection. Why do you need to choose between 60 different Cabernets? I’m trying to find you the best under $10 Cabernet, the best under $15 Cabernet, the best under $20… Just take it home and see if you like it.
HT: It seems that’s what turns off so many potential wine drinkers; they’re overwhelmed by the choice.
RF: And I think for a while it was “the bigger, the better.” People saw wine warehouse type stores and thought “they’re a big warehouse, I’m getting the best price.” They had tons of choices, but people are frustrated by it.
LARS SWANSON [photographer]: People will come in here and figure that, a guy who owns a wine shop probably knows a thing or two about wine. And they see these few selections and think they’re probably okay, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in here.
RF: Exactly, it’s like my little wine list, you know, if I was still buying for a restaurant.
The White: 2009 Cuvee des 3 Messes Basses, Ventoux. $13.
RF: I haven’t tasted many Rhone valley whites this light, aromatic and easy drinking. Most Rhone whites you see are maybe Roussane based, and I love Roussane but it’s not everybody’s taste, because it’s got a little more weight and spice to it. This is a really simple, subtle white that’s good in the summertime.
HT: The grapes are Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc.
RF: And it doesn’t have the extreme acidity that many light summer whites have, like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
HT: And this is for someone who likes low acid wines, but not necessarily the fuller body of a Gewürztraminer or a Chardonnay.
RF: Exactly. And I have customers that say “I can’t do an acidic white, it gives me heartburn” or “I don’t like the big oaky Chards.” Again, it’s priced right at $13. I just found it as a refreshing light white that they’re not trying to do too much with, just letting the grape varietals speak for themselves.
The Red: 2008 Grande Ribaute Cotes-du-Rhone. $9 – the grapes are Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault.
RF: This is from a cooperative in the Rhone Valley. It’s nothing fancy. It has that classic light cherry flavor from the Grenache that Rhone Valley reds often have. It’s inexpensive, but a well-made wine from a very proactive cooperative that tries to get the farmers to farm organically and care about their fruit.
HT: [smelling] You were not kidding when you said cherries.
RF: Yeah, definitely cherries, and a little pepper spine running through it too. [tasting] Yeah, has a little pepper in the back from the Syrah. That’d be a nice light summer red, too. I have Chateauneuf-du-Pape and ’07 Vacqueyras and all these other big Rhone Valley reds. This is more of the table wine, everyday
Rhone Valley red.
HT: I was going to say, this doesn’t have a whole lot of that bulk and deep flavor that you’ll get with a lot of Cotes-du-Rhones.
RF: Especially right now. ’07 was such a huge vintage for Rhones, that’s what’s mostly out there right now. But they’re kind of atypical, they’re big, huge wines. ’07 was a long growing season, and it got great vintage reviews.
HT: Yeah, you see Robert Parker tweeting about [2007 Rhones] every day.
RF: But they’re not going to be like that every year. This is ’08, and that’s probably why it’s inexpensive. Maybe a lot of retailers keep buying ’07s since they’re so drinkable early, and I do have a good selection of ’07s. I just couldn’t pass up the price I could sell this wine at and it’s a great example of a Rhone.
HT: It’s really nice – fruit forward, light, easy-drinking. So, what is your go-to bar or restaurant in the Twin Cities for a good glass of wine?
RF: 112 [Eatery]. I was just there a week ago. I had a Southern Italian, a Calabrian red. I have a Calabrian red in here as well, but it’s a different grape. It was wonderful. And also because they’re constantly busy. I know from when I was running restaurants, especially ones with 30 choices by the glass, I’m always skeptical of how long a wine has been opened for. You don’t have that at 112 because they have six reds and six whites, and they’re always busy.
HT: What’s one piece of advice for the casual wine drinker who wants to get more in to wine?
RF: Don’t judge a wine varietal by just one example that you’ve purchased. I always hear the comment “I don’t like Riesling” or “I don’t like Merlot.” Well, maybe you’ve just had a bad Merlot, or one with a taste that isn’t your style. There may be a Merlot that does fit your style.
HT: Or you’ve had a German Riesling, but it was too sweet, so maybe you should try a dry one from Alsace.
RF: Yeah. Don’t think that a varietal tastes the same no matter who is bottling it. There’s lots of different ways to express a varietal, you probably just didn’t like that expression you tasted.
Fay went on to discuss the Sideways effect on Merlot and Pinot Noir sales, commenting that he felt bad for producers that were making good Merlot, since there was obviously so much bad Merlot out there. That’s the problem he says his store aims to solve.
John Garland publishes the local wine blog G Sheaves: On the Wall.
Cork Dork Wine Co.
4726 Cedar Ave S, Minneapolis, MN.
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-8pm