Brad Segal and Raul Nunez
Co-owners, Corks on Columbus
Brad (left) and Raul
You are brothers-in-law. Tell us about how you decided to go into business together.
Brad: Raul and I were both retired and initially wanted to stop working. Our wives — we married sisters —actually wanted us out of the house. Raul approached me with the idea of buying a business together. We looked at a lot of different businesses, but none of them really made sense until along came a wine store in the Upper West Side, where the second owner had run the business into the ground. It was a great opportunity. We thought it would be fun to be in the wine business, so we bought the wine store.
It’s clear from your Instagram videos that you’re educated in the world of wine. How did you learn so much? Did you take classes or did you teach yourselves? How long did it take you to have a refined palate?
Raul: The first thing we did was attend Kevin Zraly’s wine class, which is an introductory class on what wines are all about and about the wine regions. We thought it would be fun, and we had a great time with Kevin. I also took WSET 2 and WSET 3 [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] training courses, which gave me a more in-depth education into how wine is made and the different wine regions, and that enables us to explain to our customers what the wines are all about.
Brad: Yes, when we first bought the wine store, we took the wine class, but it’s really been learning on the job. In the beginning, we had more knowledge than the average consumer, but we weren’t necessarily very knowledgeable. I drank mostly California cabernets, pinot noirs, and Italian wines. He drank a lot of French wines. We expanded our horizons and learned a lot more about other wine regions in the world over time. The best way to learn about wines is to taste it. Yes, there are books, but the only way to really know about a wine is to taste it.
Raul: You literally have to drink thousands of wines to get a refined palate. If I tell you something is an oaky chardonnay, if you’ve never tasted an oaky chardonnay, you have no idea what it is. If I tell you something is a big fruity Shiraz, there’s no way of knowing what it is unless you’ve tasted it. You can do Wine Tasting 101, but it’s all about tasting, tasting, tasting and tasting. And then you can tell the difference between a $12 bottle and a $100 bottle — and it’s a big difference.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, what is a wine that pairs well with a traditional Thanksgiving meal?
Raul: That’s a toughie. The way I answer that is I ask the customer, “What are your tastes?” And, if they’re having a bunch of people over for turkey and they ask what I recommend, one of the first questions we ask is, “What is your budget?” Then it becomes questions and answers about the palate of the consumer and the group they’re having. And then I’d recommend a really nice bright chardonnay or a nice pinot noir, because either of those wines has a nice acidity to take away the fat and dryness of a traditional turkey. You want to have a wine that complements the meal so that every time you take a sip and then go back to get a bite of food, the flavor is new again because your palate just cleared.
If someone says “No, I want a cabernet,” cabernet traditionally would not pair well with a turkey, but if that’s what you want, that’s what you want. I like blue, you like red. That’s the name of the game.
Brad: They say Thanksgiving is actually the hardest holiday to pair wines because there are so many different flavors going on. The cranberry, the sweet potato pie, the stuffing and everything else. It becomes a challenge to pair the wine, so we really just tell people to drink what they like. If you Google wine pairing for Thanksgiving, two of the most popular wines are actually Riesling and Zinfandel, but not everyone likes Riesling and Zinfandel, so it’s hard to tell someone to drink it if they don’t like it.
A nice bottle makes a lovely gift during the holidays. What do you recommend if you don’t know someone’s personal preference?
Brad: The first question we ask, and it goes back to picking a wine for Thanksgiving, is “What is your budget?” There’s no sense in me recommending a $50 bottle of wine if they want to spend $20 or if they want to spend $100. And it’s about finding out what they like. Sometimes people come in and they want to give a particular name brand, so the person knows what they got. Sometimes people come in looking for something unique and different. You have to ask as many questions as you can to get a feel for what they’re looking for. There is no right or wrong answer. I do tell people that the most popular wines today are either a cabernet or a pinot noir for red, and then for white either a sauvignon blanc or a chardonnay. And we ask if they want to be adventurous and try something a little bit different.
Most people know Caymus cabernet sauvignon. It’s a very popular wine. Ninety percent of what we sell of Caymus is for somebody to give as a gift, because they know they’re going to give somebody a wine that they’re going to recognize and know the value.
What’s special about being located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side?
Brad: It’s a real neighborhood. People are really nice. One of the things we really enjoy about being in this business is that we have great customers — customers that we’ve become friends with and socialize with. And the same thing with suppliers. We’re a real neighborhood store. I tell people we’re the Cheers of the wine store industry, where everyone knows your name. We greet customers by their names. We’re very friendly with them. And that’s what’s nice about this area — it’s a real community, a real neighborhood.
Do you visit wineries for tastings?
Brad: We have a small store, so we need to be here. It’s really difficult for us to travel. We’d love to travel more and visit more wineries, but we don’t get to do it very often. The only time we’ve done it since we opened the store was when we went to France for my son’s wedding. We did a side trip to Burgundy, and that was a great experience. You read about how small the area is and how small the vineyard sites are but until you actually go there and see it, you can’t comprehend how small they are. It explains why the prices are so high for burgundies.
Raul: Individually, we have visited different wineries in different countries, but together we’ve only done Burgundy.
If there is one place you could travel to taste the wine, where would it be?
Raul: I’ve been there already — Bordeaux — but I would go back there. I would also go back to Tuscany and just live there for a week or so in a villa with the family and a chef and just do day trips. That’s what I’d like to do on my bucket list.
Brad: Based on the wines I like it would be Tuscany or Piedmont. I’ve been to Tuscany, but I haven’t been to Piedmont. I would also say Bordeaux, because I’ve never been, and I did find going to Burgundy fascinating.
Tell us about your Friday evening tastings.
Raul: Traditionally we do Thursday evenings and Friday evenings. Now we’re trying to add some Saturday evenings, but it all depends on if the distributor is available or not. How it works: We have the distributor come in. They’ll offer a new wine, a new spirit that we just brought in. We display it and have the customers taste it because they might not know what it is. Harridan vodka is a good example. it’s very successful, it’s a pretty new vodka made locally here in New York. The owner has been very gracious, coming in and doing tastings because she wants to expand her brand. It’s a two-way street for the maker to show the brand and for the customer to experience a new wine or a new spirit that they normally wouldn’t try or buy.
Brad: Harridan is fantastic — it’s a little bit expensive but it’s worth the price.
How does your delivery program work?
Brad: We take orders on our website for delivery, and we also take phone orders. We work with many of the delivery apps — Drizly, Minibar, Uber Eats, Grubhub, etc. We have an electric bike that allows us to cover a fairly decent geography. We go 20 blocks north of the store, 20 blocks south.
We have staff who just do stock and delivery. When they’re not making deliveries, they’re putting away the deliveries we get from our suppliers. They’re bringing inventory up from downstairs to put on the shelves, they’re replenishing the shelves with wines and spirits.
Raul: We’re a fairly young store. This month marks our ninth year. So when you compare us to stores that have been established in Manhattan for 20, 30 or 40 years, they’ve already got a much bigger nucleus of customers. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Brad: Sometimes we’ll have a customer who moves out of the neighborhood, but they like us and they like our wines. They’ll still buy from us, and we’ll make deliveries to them. We also have corporate accounts that we do that for.
You have so many rave reviews. What goes into giving a customer the best shopping experience possible?
Raul: It’s about paying attention to the customer. We ask a lot of questions. We don’t upsell. Sometimes we actually downsell, based on what responses we get from the customer. If someone comes in and says they’re looking for a bottle of red wine to pair with a pizza, we ask, “Okay, who are you sharing the pizza with? Yourself? Your girlfriend? Your friends? Are you watching football and eating Cheetos?” It’s about asking tons and tons of questions to try to pick a wine that will fit their budget and that they would enjoy for whatever activity they’re doing. Or if we don’t have the wine in store, another thing that we do that people don’t do in other stores, is if someone says, “I’m looking for a certain sauvignon blanc,” I say, “I’m sorry, I don’t carry that. But before you go walking all over the Upper West Side, let me see if any nearby store has it.” We’ll find it and say “Such-and-such store has it.” They’re shocked that we do that. But it builds goodwill, and sometimes it comes back tenfold for you.
Brad: A lot of it is the little things we do. When a customer walks in, we greet them and say hello and ask them what we can do to help. We let them shop, but they know we’re here if they want help. And then when they leave, we say thank you. Sometimes it’s just those little things that make a big difference.