When Ivy Mix, Conor McKee, and Piper Kristensen signed the lease for Fiasco! Wine and Spirits in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the space “was a giant red box—not at all inviting,” as Mix puts it. The ambitious proprietors handled the demolition themselves, ripping down drywall and unearthing swathes of alluring brick.
“I think we got pretty lucky,” admits McKee, noting the prime “corner spot with lots of indirect sunlight and a barn full of retail-ready furniture from Ivy’s mom.” Its size is also a boon, he adds: “You can walk in with a stroller, your dog, a backpack, or all three, and not feel like you’re going to knock everything over.”
The smart design of a wine and spirits shop—equal parts welcoming, visually striking, and functional—is as crucial as the inventory, solidifying a brand’s distinct identity while providing repeat customers with an attractive, efficient layout.
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Capturing a Shop’s Personality
Beyond selling bottles, the goal for the team at Fiasco! was to “serve as a beacon in the community,” says Mix, and the design reflects that. “The space is big with a lot of light, which is quite different from the shoebox stores you see frequently in New York City,” she says. “We have a large book collection and encourage people to come and sit on benches in our windows and read up.” Between the rugs, wood tables, and presence of Monty, McKee’s dog, “it really feels like you’re at someone’s home that happens to have a lot of booze,” McKee adds.
Brandon Loper, the co-owner of Golden Age Wine in Mountain Brook, Alabama, outside of Birmingham, also desired a transporting vibe to complement the James Beard-nominated shop and wine bar’s minimal intervention wines, and tapped his wife Amanda, a principal at the local office of David Baker Architects, to elicit one. “It’s such a nice space to work and play,” he says. “We used reclaimed oak from a local cast-iron pipe company on the ceilings to connect to wine barrels and a concrete bar top that mimics one of our favorite fermentation vessels.”
Blurring the Lines
In many states, melding the on- and off-premise sectors is legal, but that combination poses logistical challenges that can be solved by savvy design. Consider Cork Wine Bar & Market in Washington, D.C., which expanded into Spring Valley in the northwest part of the capital in 2021. Located inside Pizzeria Paradiso (both spaces were designed by local firm Gronning Architects), it stands out from the restaurant with a white and gray color scheme that emphasizes the wine.
Likewise, in Houston, Goodnight Hospitality partnered with local architects Curtis & Windham and Studio Robert McKinley in New York on the design of Montrose Cheese & Wine. June Rodil, MS and Goodnight Hospitality partner and CEO, says that the retail-wine bar hybrid can sometimes be confusing for visitors, “so it was important for the initial impact of the space to be clear about what we can do and what we offer. Our philosophy is, if it’s not on the floor, people can’t buy it, so we try our hardest to have everything we can for guests to see.” An upside to the mere 700 available square feet? Views of the entire stock from practically any vantage point.
The shelf talker is a handy, enlightening sales tool, but it can also reinforce design aesthetics. Orange Glou, a shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, specializes in orange wines, and founder Doreen Winkler’s vision for the design is complementary, mixing natural wood and white with bursts of orange neon. Likewise, Winkler adorns all bottles with orange tags bearing handwritten tasting notes and pairings. At Golden Age Wine, shelf talkers display just the producer, region, variety, and price via a slot designed by Loper’s wife that deftly integrates into the shelving. “We wanted to encourage customers to engage us, so we purposely do not have huge signs pointing to different sections or stacks highlighting wines on sale,” says Loper.
Knowledgeable staff members are also a draw at Montrose Cheese & Wine. “We knew we wanted to have a human experience, and with so little space, it would almost be awkward not to have a conversation and rely heavily on shelf talkers,” says Rodil.
But Diane Gross, the owner of Cork Wine Bar & Market, eager to help demystify wine, set up the store so that “consumers can explore without having to ask for help, especially if they don’t want to,” she says. “Shelf talkers tell you what you are getting.
Shelf talkers dreamed up by McKee are a playful art form that elevate the friendly neighborhood feel of Fiasco!. “He has a snappy wit that gives you a vivid idea of how a bottle will taste,” says Mix
Organization Is a Priority
Rodil’s desire that customers see as many bottles as possible is a good starting point for the layout, “however, we have to be artful about how it’s set up to maximize space and flow,” she says. For example, a feature wall puts the spotlight on seasonal wine and current allocations, and the top shelf is always stocked with June’s Rosé, “our number-one seller, so it means our regulars always go to it and naturally look through the featured selections,” Rodil elaborates. “It’s purposely placed that way so we don’t have stagnant features and can change our theme at least once a month.” More expensive selections are found in the back of the shop and large-format bottles, she adds, are placed at the very top “to give height to everything and the illusion of a bigger space.”
Winkler takes a different approach at Orange Glou, where her offerings are intentionally tightly edited. “Rather than being hit by hundreds of wines when you walk in, you can really take in what you see,” she points out. There is also a display devoted to the O.G. Wine Club, the precursor to the brick-and-mortar store, and a small fridge in front that showcases several cans. During the summer, this display of portable Piquette wines came in handy for last-minute picnics and beach excursions, but Winkler says most customers seek out the bottles that line her plant-bedecked floating shelves, which required a design hack to install on a brick wall. “A special bracket had to be created to hold all this weight. We found something slim and light to use so it still looks great,” says Winkler.
When it comes to organization of the wine categories themselves, strategies differ wildly—but should also be thought out. At Fiasco!, the wines are arranged “a bit like a wine list, but in a grid formation, divvied up by white, skin contact, rosé, red, sparkling, and then broken down left to right by geography and bottom to top by price,” says McKee.
Inside the shotgun-style Golden Age Wine, red wines are laid out on the right side of the wall by region, grape variety, and body; everything else, from rosé and pét-nat to white Burgundy and fortified wines, is on the left. Old World wines get the lion’s share of counter space at Cork Wine Bar & Market, categorized by region, but there are also special displays singling out the likes of New World picks and off-season rosé. These are found on built-in shelves original to the space that Gross maintained during the renovation because they buoyed the design from a utilitarian perspective, she explains: “There were cabinets behind them and we needed the extra storage.”
For many big-city shops, space is limited, but Winkler knew from the outset that she wanted Orange Glou to contain a dedicated storage section in the back for shipping materials and inventory and built the space into the shop’s original design. For the Fiasco! owners, creating the back-of-house operations was a more spontaneous process; the discovery of arched doors in the basement prompted them to hire a contractor who used the doors to subdivide the once sprawling room to create an office in the back. Now, they are using it to help assemble products for the Fiasco! wine club, cocktail kits, and collaborative packages with the podcast Ask Ronna.
Short on space at Montrose Cheese & Wine, Rodil notes that high-volume or soon-to-retail bottles are case-stacked on dunnage racks and current releases are broken out of cases and stored on Lockwood shelves. “Our back-end storage mirrors, as much as possible, our front-facing shelves so keeping products on the floor is easy to manage. Every nook and cranny is used,” she says.
Another pivotal part of any wine and spirits retail operation is its cold storage facilities. Cellars and fridges are fixtures, but how they are utilized is also key. Montrose Cheese & Wine stashes popular purchases in two upright coolers at the back of the store and a Wine Well cooling unit is reserved for more expensive or room temperature bottles in need of a quick chill. Most of Orange Glou’s chilled wines are housed in an on-brand big orange Smeg.
Room for Extras
Private tastings unfold in the newly opened Champagne Room at Golden Age Wine, Thursday night tastings draw crowds at Fiasco!, and it’s not uncommon for Montrose Cheese & Wine to throw parties with DJs and dueling raclette machines. With only 10 stools at the bar, however, Rodil and her team transformed a small breezeway between the building and the one next door into a bustling small patio for company happy hours and classes.
Along with demarcating the shop into retail and storage, Winkler was adamant there be a third zone for private events, classes, and weekly tastings at Orange Glou. “I was very keen on a tasting room, as I do not like the idea of just pulling up a table in the middle of the room,” she explains, “or worse, a barrel.”
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Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.