Like Fine Wine

Like Fine Wine

I trust the proprietors of Hamden’s Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits Co. more than I trust my doctor. In decades of frequenting the store, the suggestions I’ve gotten, no matter the price, have never disappointed. The staff—currently including Bob Feinn, the owner for more than 50 years; his nephew Fred, son of Bob’s late brother and longtime business partner Ben; and Ben’s son-in-law Eric Seggerman—clearly relish offering guidance to their customers. Even little senior rescue dog Ozzy, a 13-year-old poodle/Yorkie mix, performs with aplomb his role as the shop’s part-time mascot and greeter.

Entering the well-stocked shop for the first time might be daunting except for its homey, parlor-like charm, with soothing classical music overhead and classic burgundy carpet underfoot. Historic photos and memorabilia are displayed throughout, including an antique still. “We know it was used in Pennsylvania to make apple brandy in the early 20th century,” Bob Feinn says. Collectable beer steins are placed here and there, including one that appears big enough to comfortably hold the contents of a six-pack. The most striking decoration is a recessed hand-painted ceiling mural by Connecticut artist Tony Falcone depicting the wine-making process.

Mt. Carmel’s roots go back to 1913, when Bob’s maternal grandparents acquired the building and established a general store called Levine’s Market. In January 1934, one month after the repeal of Prohibition, his uncle Sydney Levine got a liquor permit and started stocking one corner with pints and half-pints. Over the following decades, the family expanded the inventory to feature fine wine and spirits and added Sydney’s brother Phil and brother-in-law George Feinn to the team. George’s sons Bob and Ben joined the business in the 1960s, took over ownership in 1971, and two years later expanded the store to its current 3,500 square feet.

Those feet contain hundreds of rare wines, starting with France’s top-of-the-line grand cru Bordeaux and village premier Burgundy vintages and featuring other special varietals from the Rhone Valley, Loire Valley, Alsace, Germany, Italy and the United States. Price points range from $8,000 for a bottle of 1994 Romanee St. Vivant Leroy red Burgundy to $9.99 for a half-bottle of 2009 Chateau Malleret Bordeaux. (Those who prefer the familiarity of labels like Kendall-Jackson, Barefoot and Yellow Tail will also find a healthy stock of them here.)

Sixty years on, Bob retains his fascination for the wine side of his business because of its astounding diversity—and the hierarchy that results. “Every wine is a little bit different, because every area that produces wine deals with different conditions,” he says. “Take Burgundy, for example: You can have two vineyards that are separated by a car path, and one vineyard will be premier cru while the other will be village-level. And the premier cru wine will be twice the price. This happens simply because the water, the soil, the exposures and drainages are different, even though the vineyards are next to each other. This isn’t only true in Burgundy, but that’s the classic example.” The availability of a particular vintage also plays a part in determining price, especially among Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals. “In one instance, I sold a bottle of wine for $20,000, more than I paid for my first house, which had three bedrooms and a two-car garage. A year later, only a barrel or two of this wine was made. Ultimately, the final bottle went on sale for $50,000.”

Though fine wines are still the store’s biggest draw, Bob notes that sales are down among younger adults due to “the popularity of sweeter wines and spiked seltzers.” He sees grain spirits selling better than ever, but mostly in the form of small-batch labels and craft beers. At one end of the store, Mt. Carmel’s interesting mix of single-malt and blended scotches, bourbons, brandies, vermouths and rums attracts enthusiasts and collectors. Fred Feinn notes the phenomenon of “bourbon hunters,” who, like wine collections, may be driven as much by hype and status as by quality. “The fact is,” Fred notes, “you can get a terrific bottle of bourbon for $50.”

The staff at Mt. Carmel work to give customers more for their dollar, through a variety of strategies including direct imports, searching out reasonably priced wines that compare favorably with higher-priced options and offering discounts. The staff ensures the quality of all its special labels by tasting them in-house or at their source, and they love sharing their expertise through free Saturday afternoon tastings. “We have groups of people tasting together, that’s really the best education,” Bob says. “We see a lot of people who want to know more about wine or spirits and are eager to discuss the experiences they may have had with different bottles. Those customers are the ones we find the most fun to deal with.”

In their 90th year, January’s calendar has already touted several special promotions. Currently, the shop is offering a close-out sale of several labels, including a 2022 Lelievre Gris de Toul Rosé from France’s Lorraine region, down to $7.99 from its original price of $19.99, and a 2017 Herman Moser Riesling Kremstal from Austria, a $13.99 special reduced from $25.99. Other varietals on discount include Chardonnay, Prosecco, Pinot Noir and Arneis. On January 19, Bob Feinn co-hosted a multicourse Winter Truffle Wine Dinner at Chef Paul Barron’s The Table in Madison, with pairings including wild quail consommé with a Serial Madeira from Rare Wine Co. and cassoulet Périgourdine with Pere Pape Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Further plans, I’m told, are in the works, demonstrating that even at 90 years old, Mt. Carmel is still vibrant and vital, and not just in spirit.

Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits
2977 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon-Sat 8am-6pm
(203) 281-0800

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, featuring Fred Feinn, Eric Seggerman and Bob Feinn, photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Images 2 and 3 photographed by Dan Mims.

More Stories