Bay Ridge

Catherine O’Rourke brings the wine shop experience to Bay Ridge, naturally

June 24, 2024 Alice Gilbert 
Catherine (left), Mabel Fischer (right) and Dolly (front). Photos courtesy of Catherine O'Rourke
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Cellary, a boutique Bay Ridge wine shop, opened during the peak pandemic in August 2020. Since opening, the shop has successfully supplied Bay Ridge with wines from small producers who use sustainable practices and wines generally categorized under the natural wine umbrella we often hear about. There’s more to the story, though; like most buzzwords, natural wine can mean everything and nothing. The key is weeding through the jargon and creating a selection based on good people, good practices and delicious wines. Leave that to Catherine O’Rourke.

Tell me about how you got involved in wine and how you came to run Cellary. 

It all started with a romantic adventure. I went to St. Lawrence University as an undergrad. When I graduated, my former boyfriend and I decided to drive out to his family’s place in Napa. His grandmother had purchased this plot of land right in the middle of the valley in the 1950s. They had this barn that was the oldest in Napa. We ended up staying for two years, and I needed a job. 

Catherine O'Rourke
Catherine O’Rourke.

I started working at a restaurant winery, where my official title was head hostess, but I helped with menu creation, tastings and admin stuff. Part of the package they offered was the first level in the Court of Master Sommelier, and I thought, “If it’s being offered, I might as well take it.” I read “The Wine Bible,” did months of preparation and passed the test. I was hooked. After that, anything else I tried to do didn’t stick, and I just kept coming back to wine. 

I moved to New York in the Fall of 2008 and worked in retail wine shops, importers and distributors, took the WSET exam at the International Wine Center and traveled to Italy and Spain to visit producers, and my mind was blown open. There was an endless amount to learn about wine. When I was a kid, I wanted a card shop, which turned into a book shop, then a vegan baked goods shop. Once I started this journey, I decided I wanted a wine shop. Every bottle has a story, like a book. I wanted a shop that felt like every bottle had a lot behind it and could bring context to the experience of wine.

There are so many wonderful boutique shops throughout Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. My husband and I didn’t want to open up right next to another one. We saw that Bay Ridge didn’t have what we wanted to build. We did a buildout with a wonderful contracting company, which was very exciting because everyone always says that contractors are a nightmare! We opened in August 2020. 

Cellary's store front.
Cellary’s store front.

There’s a lot about wine that feels intimidating to a lot of people. How do you approach approachability at Cellary?  

Everybody starts off saying, “I don’t know very much about wine.” I say, “Nobody does!” Even if you study it all your life, you’re never going to really, truly know it. Breaking it down is helpful. If someone is interested in exploring a lot of different wines, I tell them to learn everything they can about one particular grape and then explore another. Then, you have a reference point to enjoy wine at a higher level. If someone comes in and says they’re having a dinner party, we break it down into the basic categories: red, white, rosé, sparkling, dry, crisp, fruity or full-bodied. I always try to go lower than what people say they want to spend to show them that it doesn’t have to be expensive to be delicious. Wine is an agricultural product. Our shop carries wines made by real people in real places; people realize it’s quite humble. 

How does a wine make it onto your shelves?

It’s so hard because we’re such a small shop with a small team, and there are so many wines that we want. First, we look at the supplier. Since I’ve been in the wine industry for so long, I have relationships with distributors, producers and importers, and I know which ones are philosophically aligned with what we want. There are trendy words thrown around like “natural,” but at the end of the day, we look at producers who have done as little manipulation in the vineyards as possible with regenerative agriculture and put thought and care into their wine.

Within that pool of options, we make sure we’re spanning a good selection of players, including the familiar ones and some quirky things. Sometimes, we taste something with one of our suppliers, and we’re struck by the story or the uniqueness. Or we’re just moved by a wine and want to support it so that it doesn’t die off like many endangered grapes. 

How often are wines switched out? 

It’s a living thing, and we’re always looking at what people tend toward. Some things go out of stock. When you work with small producers, there is a finite amount of wine per vintage. Sometimes, we look for something that similarly fills the category, or we present a new adventure. Right now, we’re bringing in more rosé for summertime, and during the holidays, we bring in more gift-worthy things so that whoever you’re gifting it to can put it away for 20 years. We try to keep a foundational amount of our inventory in stock as much as possible and play around with about a third. It’s a work in progress, and it’s been such a wonderful journey. 

How do you define natural, and where do you see it going in the cultural zeitgeist?

We don’t like to use the word natural, but if a producer does, we’ll use it too. A vineyard that, for example, will plant more fava beans instead of spraying pesticides if they need more nitrogen. In the winery, we look for as little manipulation as possible: using natural yeast to start fermentation and maybe a pinch of sulfur for safe travel. We work with one producer who defines himself as a natural winemaker in northern Portugal. He uses a pinch of chestnut flour instead of sulfur, and his wines drink clean. 

Cellary's natural wine selection.
Cellary’s natural wine selection.

People think of natural wine as dirty, mousy and earthy. That’s just because some natural wines haven’t been made soundly. I like something that has been minimally manipulated but still drinks clean and shows the true nature of the grape. As with so many buzzwords, I think the natural trend is good because it brings attention to these practices. Wine is one of the few things we consume that doesn’t have an ingredient label. Producers will take advantage of that and add all kinds of colors, flavors, dyes and chemicals, and you end up drinking a wine made to seem like the other 200,000 wines just like it. People drink it, and they wake up feeling like crap, and they think it’s because they drank wine, but it’s the chemicals (unless you had too much wine). I hope this trend raises the quality of wine across the board. 

Working on the supplier side for over a decade taught me that these words can be useful to start a conversation, but wine can be really good and well-made without the gimmicky labels. So many small producers are making wine like this and have been for generations without the resources to do a lot of marketing and branding. They’re just doing it because it makes them happy. 

Is there a wine you think is an underrated gem that people should be buying more of?

I think everyone should be drinking Kerner. We’ve had a few different Kerners; we have the Strasserhof Kerner right now. It’s made by a guy with a few hectares in Italy, near the border with Austria. It was part of Austria until the Treaty of Versailles. It’s very Germanic in culture — people speak German and Italian. It produces 12% of Italy’s apples and 1% of Italy’s wine, but the whites are just singing, super acidic and aromatic. The Kerner grape is a hybrid created in the late 1800s, named for a guy who wrote poems about wine. People joke that it’s named after a guy who wrote drinking songs. It’s a cross between Riesling and a light red grape called Trollinger. The Trollinger part helps it grow more rapidly, and the Riesling brings that light as a feather texture and shining acidity. You get this white flower, clementine, peach thing. 

Tell me about opening during the depths of the pandemic.

In New York, you have to sign a lease before you put in an application for a license. So you have to find a landlord willing to give you a chance for this thing you don’t even know you’ll get a license for. We signed the lease in September 2019. In June of 2020, when we were finally approved for the license, it was full steam ahead. It was difficult to meet people with masks on because I wanted to talk with them so much. We did it gently and were respectful of people’s boundaries. It was an organic meeting of the community because everyone wanted to get out and learn something new. We’ve been completely stunned and so grateful for the way the community has supported us. 

Cellary's beacon to wine lovers.
Cellary’s beacon to wine lovers.

One of the challenges was that we were introducing these wines that people hadn’t heard of, and we couldn’t give them a taste. You can use as many words as you want to describe a wine, but nothing compares to tasting it yourself. I was very excited when we were able to share the sensory experience. 

Are your customers mainly coming from Bay Ridge or beyond?

They are mainly Bay Ridge. We have friends around the city who we deliver to: usually to Manhattan once a week, Staten Island once every few weeks, and other parts of Brooklyn pretty frequently. We joke that north of 86th is a whole other neighborhood where people don’t know we exist. Some people come down from Sunset Park or Park Slope, or people who have moved away will come when they’re back in the neighborhood. 

How do you get the word out about your shop?

We send a newsletter and a text monthly. We have a point-based loyalty program with monthly texts with a discount and a movie quote or verse poetry. We do weekly tastings, except in January and August, so we don’t run our suppliers tired. Otherwise, we usually do them on a Friday from 5-7. Our knowledgeable suppliers come in and teach about their wines. We’re so grateful that word of mouth has worked so well for us.

What’s next for Cellary?

We’re just excited to be here! We have a dinosaur-themed Summer Stroll coming up. We have a fishbowl of tiny dinosaurs that we give out to kids — I guess this is marketing weirdly, though we didn’t mean it to be! We’re working on merch, too. People always ask about a wine club, and we had one at one point, but we rethought it and decided not to be a subscription so we’re not a burden to our customers. People have enough subscriptions. The working title is “Thematic Three Packs,” available any time. We haven’t worked it out yet, but it should be fun!


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