Shelves and crates of wine at The Wine Thief

Grape Expectations

Even for oenophiles, it’s easy to get lost perusing the many varietals in a wine store, hailing from all over the globe, boasting tempting descriptions, priced this way and that—some low enough to indicate warning, some so high that you wonder if the bottle could possibly be worth it.

At The Wine Thief’s two New Haven locations—one on Whitney Avenue, the other on Crown Street—you might think of the staff as your navigators. Owner Karl Ronne says a majority of the stores’ sales are based on that guidance. The Thieves don’t use the common 100-point scoring system often seen in other stores on the feeling that it’s not an accurate predictor, says Ronne, nor do they “fall into branded pressure.”

“If people walk in and they look lost, saying, ‘I don’t recognize anything,’ then we’ve accomplished our goal,” says Ronne, adding, “We want everyone to savor and enjoy every bottle that’s sold.”

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The shop, which also sells specialty beers and liquor, is committed enough to that ideal that there’s a guarantee on every bottle: if a customer doesn’t like it, s/he can return the unused portion for a full refund. When wines do come back that way, it’s usually due to a rare production flaw, Ronne says. If a bottle is “corked,” for instance, that means it came into contact with harmless bacteria (typically from the cork) that cause an unpleasant odor and astringent taste. “Oxidized” wine, meanwhile, has been overexposed to oxygen during production or bottling, causing it to taste bitter and lose its vibrant color.

Education is big at The Wine Thief, reflected in time spent discussing customers’ preferences, exploring wine and food pairings and, on Friday nights, hosting a 5-8 p.m. wine tasting at their Crown Street location, highlighting some of that week’s new purchases.

In 1996, when he opened the Whitney Avenue location, all of that was the stuff of Ronne’s dreams. Although New Haven had a number of general package stores, he felt it was lacking a specialty wine shop. The business name draws from the technicalities of wine-making: a “wine thief” is a long metal or glass tube, used for taking samples of wine as it’s being aged in barrels or tanks.

The Wine Thief works with roughly 20 distributors, as well as directly with wineries. On shelves and in crates, you’ll find a good range of handpicked products modestly priced in the $10-$20 range (though Ronne notes that, including the extremes, they’ve got bottles from $3 to $1000). Deep thought also goes into choosing the Thief’s unusual selection of beer and liquor, which, like their wine lineup, includes brands you may not have heard of before. Ronne says they’re glad to provide customers their regular brands, but offers them chances to experiment. The shops stock Connecticut-produced Rime vodka, for instance, next to the Absolut.

Maintaining a mental catalogue of details for so many fine elixirs is no simple task for the staff members, but it does seem like a fun one. Envy-inducing perks include “having” to continually taste the changing inventory and taking occasional trips to European wine regions.

The rest of us get some major perks, too. In addition to accentuating our social lives with good stuff to drink, the store also contributes to charitable and other fundraising events, such as sponsoring New Haven’s LEAP program (an academic and social enrichment program for children in high poverty neighborhoods) and providing wine tastings at Common Ground High School’s annual “Feast from the Fields” event.

Then there’s the city’s biannual, winter/summer “Flights of Fancy” event. This winter’s—happening tonight, in fact—boasts curated wine tastings at over 30 downtown shops, with tasters carrying keepsake wine glasses. The Wine Thief provides the beverages, which makes the evening an excellent chance to sample the items staff are most excited about at the moment.

But expanding your wine knowledge is as easy as stopping in the store during normal hours. Being consumed with questions is especially smart when you get to consume the answers.

The Wine Thief
181 Crown Street, New Haven (map)
378 Whitney Avenue, New Haven (map)
Website | Contact & Store Hours

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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