The Brooklyn-based wine shop builds community with fine wine and good food.
Before her foray into wine retail, Heather Johnston had already had her first taste of working in the food and wine industry as a chef and writer. The owner of Good Wine in Brooklyn, New York is a seasoned food and wine writer and one of the earliest Google Channel Partners with her YouTube cooking channel, SoGoodTV. “I wasn’t shooting to own a wine shop,” she says, of her Brooklyn retail space. She was eyeing magazine writing, but food columns and editors were being eliminated and she had to choose a detour. “When the market changed, I had to get creative.”
Frequenting the wine shop in her Park Slope neighborhood as a customer, Johnston heard the owners were selling it after being in the business for only a few years. Johnston says, “Being flexible in a changing market but still keeping myself, in the general sense, in the industry of food and wine,” were the contributing factors in her decision to become a wine shop owner.
Rebranding the retail spot with a new name and vibe, Johnston also added a new offering – food pairing with wine. Owning what she now calls Good Wine for four years, Johnson says she has learned a lot over the years. “It hasn’t been an easy journey, primarily because the way people purchase anything, including wine, has changed dramatically,” Johnston observes. “Online sales are convenient and human beings go for convenience.”
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While she did consider the thought of an online retail model, she quickly took stock of what she was up against – the big local grocery store delivery service that also sells wine. “That’s not a vertical in which I am competing.” She doubled on her efforts to know her customers better and employed a community-oriented approach, hosting educational and recreational events, and building relationships with other local businesses.
“The point is to meet customers where they are, even just giving them a sense of being known so when they walk in we can reference the last bottle they purchased or have a conversation about what’s on the menu tonight.” As a Grand Diplome graduate of the French Culinary Institute who also holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Trust of London, Johnston is continuously thinking about flavors and combinations.
Johnston introduced food pairings to educate customers on “the pleasure in enjoying food and wine together. It’s intimidating but simple. Once you show people how, they want to learn more.” Wine tastings are available daily, including weekly food pairing classes and themed tastings such as Spanish tapas and wine. “We bring to life the art of food and wine pairing,” says food historian Tonya Hopkins, Johnston’s colleague and Good Wine’s social media lead.
A mutual friend introduced the two given their passion for food and wine, only to have them realize that they lived minutes from each other right in Park Slope. She also facilitates the tasting and pairing events, wedding consults, and other special programming. “People don’t realize wine is different from other beverage categories. Their mindset is to get attached to a certain taste and want that every time,” shares Hopkins. “But wine is a forced lesson in detachment. Every vintage is different.”
The USP at Good Wine is its highly curated offerings, not necessarily by region or varietals but leaning more toward smaller, hard-to-find producers, and organic or sustainable labels. Johnston avoids working with the handful of larger distributors and wholesalers, opting instead for the smaller supplier to source good quality and interesting wines that also speak value. “Value is of enormous importance to me,” Johnston says.
“Park Slope is a gentrified area. People come to this neighborhood thinking everyone is wealthy and will spend $50 on a bottle, but some people are looking for that $15 bottle of wine too. I am about having good wine at good price points,” says Johnston, who has noticed a tremendous difference in the wine retail arena over the last few years, especially in what customers want.
Consumers not only care about the wines they are drinking but also the producers and the process. With environmental awareness on a high, going green and global warming are topics that have permeated the wine industry to the point where buyers want to know who is making the wine, are they using fair practices, and are more involved in their purchase decisions.
Johnston zones in on these little preferences in her clientele and offers a variety of wines to keep anyone from an amateur to those with an experienced palate satisfied with a visit to her wine shop.
Up next, she is working toward obtaining a spirits license so customers can sip on some curated craft cocktails at her community hangout. Meanwhile, she recommends trying wines from Spain, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and Georgia. Among her favorites wine regions though, she mentions Italy for its “confusing wine country, with more grapes than you can name, yet amazing wine culture.” For other recommendations, she says, “For the summer, a pinot noir rosé from a quality producer is a beautiful thing. Also a light red you put a little chill on like a gamay or blaufränkisch can be eye-opening.”
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