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Boston Born: Urban Grape Wrote The Book On Wine

Like any produce-based good, wine is the result of years of labor, individual effort, and great farming. Along its journey from vine to vin, it becomes infused with the personality and characters of its farmers and makers, and these backstories are precisely the reason that Urban Grape owners, TJ and Hadley Douglas, fell in love with wine.

“The story adds everything,” TJ says. “Other than that, wine’s just fermented grape juice.”

TJ got the wine bug during his 14 years spent at the front of restaurants, managing and tinkering with wine lists. He enjoyed providing a service and an experience to people, and missed the instant gratification of feedback from customers once he transitioned into wine distribution. The couple were appropriately in one of the world’s wine capitals, Italy, when TJ confessed to Hadley his desire to open his own shop; one that would allow him to recreate the personalised hospitality of his restaurant days in a liquor store environment.

The couple opened Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill in 2010, and opened in downtown Boston, on Columbus Avenue, in 2012, to really put the “urban” in the name.

As with many remarkable stores these days, Urban Grape is far from just a physical space that sells something. It’s an experience. The store is sexy and chic. It hosts weekly free tastings and private events. There’s modern music bumping. And most importantly, it’s stuffed to the gills with wine. But the real difference between Urban Grape and other stores is how its products are organized.

“We have what’s called a ‘Progressive Format,’” TJ says. “The wines are all arranged by whites and reds, on a scale of one to ten based on their body or their weight, light to heavy. Like skimmed milk, to semi-skimmed, whole, heavy, to heavy cream.”

Arranging the store this way, like a horizontal wine list, allows casual drinkers — a.k.a the majority of customers — to easily get in to what’s on the shelves and think with their own palates rather than get hung up on where it’s grown or the nuances of grape varietals.

It can be misleading to group wines by region of origin, or what grape they’re made with, TJ says, as not every bottle of one type of wine tastes the same. Grouping wine progressively gives a more accurate representation of what it’s like on a scale, and customers get a better idea of what they’re buying based on their preferences.
At Urban Grape, wines are separated by color, and then ordered on a bodyweight scale, from 1W or 1R to 10. The cheaper bottles are on the lower shelves, like at a bar. “People drink this way without even realizing it,” TJ says.

And there’s no snobbery about which section of the store you enjoy shopping in. One of the goals with the store, Hadley says, was to take the intimidation out of the beverage and remove the perception that heavy bodied wines or beers are somehow more serious. “When someone walks in, our questions to them are the same,” she says. “What do you like, and what are you doing with it?”

No matter their answer or their price point, the couple want everybody to walk out with a quality bottle. “It’s absolutely vital that we’re paying attention to the lightest bodied wines just as much as the heaviest,” she says. The farmers and winemakers are, and consumers should too — and they’re just as much a part of a wine’s story as the makers, Hadley points out.

A sliding door near the back of the store is covered with notes from winemakers and farmers who have visited the store. It’s one of the best parts of the job, says TJ. “The winemaker is trying to tell a story, and it’s great that we get to hear that story out of their mouths.”

TJ’s love for wine comes from how it’s made, where it’s made, and what the farmer is trying to say with it. He keeps detailed notes on his phone about each of the around 800 bottles that live on the shelves. But for Hadley and most consumers, the best part of buying a bottle is the memory they get to make with it.

“I’d say we’re selling the story rather than the cépage,” TJ says. When you put wine in relatable terms people can understand, like warmth and sunshine versus cosy and wooly, as opposed to going into the specifics of what a bottle contains, it’s demystifying. The whole store becomes accessible, and the world of wine opens up.

Hadley and TJ pair together well in running the business, because while TJ has the greater wine education, Hadley’s consumer and marketing experience is just as valuable to Urban Grape’s success.

Which is why the couple have written a book. “It’s all about stripping the intimidation of wine,” Hadley says. Like the store, it emphasizes the importance of just trying different wines, exploring your likes and dislikes, and has release as of early November, just in time for the holiday season. It pairs nicely with a bottle or two for a gift.

The best part of the job, Hadley says, is watching as customers’ tastes widen, palates grow, and they begin to appreciate all kinds of wine.

Because it means they’re having more interesting experiences, and being part of better stories too, even if they’re only playing a small part. But it’s arguably the best part, because they get to finish the bottle.

The store hosts multiple free tastings a week, each geared toward making the beverage more accessible and helping people try more wine to expand their palates. And it’s not just free wine on offer either. Urban Grape stocks spirits, ciders, and a constantly growing craft beer selection.
With the change in seasons, the wines on sale shift too. Over summer, there were 104 varieties of rose on the shelves. Trends help to make wine fun, Hadley says, so she and TJ are constantly on the lookout for what’s hot in the wine world to bring it to Boston.
The ceiling lights are made from classic glass wine aging vessels called “demijohns.” Wood and concrete are also both used to age wine, TJ says, so the concrete floors and wooden island tie were designed to subtly tie the store together thematically.
“Wine is made in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, and sold in some of the ugliest,” Hadley says. “Why not have a beautiful store?”

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Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.