Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí said: “He who knows how to taste does not drink wine but savors secrets.” For wine experts, wine tasting is both art and science. They are the decipherers of subtle, charmed codes that the union of grape, soil, weather, and winemaking artistry transmit to us with that first sip, and they determine what might delight our taste buds. So, when wine expert and former chef Joe Printz created a special haven of fun and discovery for the wine lover as for the curious novice, magic happened and touched everyone, from winemaker to consumer. Nestled in the suburban hamlet of Sparkill, New York, The Grape D’Vine is definitely not your usual wine store. Joe tells us about it while reflecting on his passion for wines and his past as an innovative, highly praised chef.
Joe Printz reigning over his domain, The Grape D’Vine, surrounded by wines and “Shelfies,” the funny shelf talkers he writes (Photo by Maria-Cristina Necula)
I understand that The Grape D’Vine will turn 20 this summer. What was your vision when you founded this special wine store?
Yes, on July 20th we’ll be 20 years old! Well, I didn’t want to sell all the same wines that everybody else sells in their stores. I wanted to be more individual, unique, to offer handmade, artisanal wines. When people walk into the store, I love their expression, because it says: “I don’t know one bottle of wine in this store; I don’t recognize anything here!” And that’s our job: to surprise. I also wanted to meet the winemakers and discover how they did things. I’ve been lucky enough recently to go to Italy and Spain to meet winemakers and see how modest and wonderful these families are. They have been making wine through the generations. These are the kind of people I want to support rather than the people who make 100,000 cases of wine that everybody knows and drinks all the time. I’d much rather hand sell something that I’ve tasted myself, that I love, and that can help a family who’s been making wine their whole lives to get some exposure in a market that would make sense.
You do wine tastings here…
Every Saturday afternoon from 2:00 to 6:00. We will open the special wines that just arrived from Italy when we have an Italian wine tasting, which is probably going to be after the 4th of July. In Spain, I tried probably 150 wines in a week and chose 30. Most of them are here, some are in transit, and they should be here within the next several weeks.
How do you keep your palate fresh when you taste so many wines in the same day?
It does take a little bit of practice. We don’t swallow any of the wine until the very end if we like it, because the bitter taste receptors are at the middle of the back of your tongue. So, in order for you to get a full understanding of the wine, you do have to swallow a little bit. But we spit out 99% of it. Yes, the palate does get dull. If the previous wine you tasted has a lot of acidity, then it will blank out the acidity in the wine that you’re now trying. We have to be smart about it, scrape the tongue, brush teeth without toothpaste regularly, and drink a lot of water.
What’s your record: the most wines you’ve ever tasted in a day?
When I was new in the business I felt as though I had to taste as many wines as I could. I remember this wine tasting where it was close to 100 wines in three hours! It was also quite funny, because you never wear white when you go to a tasting; obviously red wine is attracted to white clothes. The very first time I spit into a spit bucket at a big public tasting, it bounced back at me all over my white shirt, so I never wore white to a wine tasting again.
Joe Printz at a wine tasting in Washington State (Photo courtesy of Joe Printz)
What is important to you when you taste a wine? What do you need to experience to know that it is great?
It has to have balance. It’s got to have a nice ripe nose, it can’t smell off, it can’t smell like sulfur because that means they’ve put too many sulfites in the wine and most people have a bad reaction to that. If you put too much sulfur into wine, it adds an egg-note to it in the smell. It also has to have a nice long midpalate (the impressions and sensations registered as you hold the wine in your mouth before swallowing) and a finish that’s not sour. It can be tart because acidity in wine causes the wine not to taste flabby in your mouth. It makes you to want to have another glass as you’re now salivating because of that acidity. And it also means, when you’re having white wine, that some food is on its way, typically. I like white wine with lots of acidity, but it can’t be sour.
What about reds?
In the very beginning, I liked big powerful reds. But as I’ve grown older, I like wines with nuance, finesse, length, and lighter cherry notes. I don’t like the big, chocolate, heavy-duty wines until it’s like mid-January when it’s freezing cold outside and that makes sense. But right now, I like Frappato and Schiava from Italy. I love light, elegant wines that make you think while you’re drinking them rather than just sucking them down while making conversation. It’s an interesting change from my understanding of wine. It used to be high alcohol and big flavor, and now it’s more contemplative. I want to sit down and think about what’s in the glass. Especially since I’ve been to so many vineyards and I’ve watched wine being made from start to finish.
It must mean a lot to you to witness the process…
It does. It’s an art. You know, at any winery, any person in the wine business who does estate wines will tell you that the wine is pretty much done when it’s grown in the vineyards. Take French wine, for instance Burgundies: the natural yeast fermentation happens—spontaneous fermentation—and it’s rarely aged in oak, it’s just bottled; what you see is what you get. Every year is dependent upon the weather and growing conditions, and that’s what I love.
The Grape D’Vine (Photo courtesy of Joe Printz)
What are your recommendations for the summer, for both reds and whites?
Pinot noirs or white Burgundy which is 100% Chardonnay. I also love the only other white grape that they’re allowed to grow in Burgundy: Aligoté. Aligoté has so much acidity and it’s bright. If the vintage isn’t ripe enough, it tends to be tart or on the verge of sour. But global warming has changed all this in the Loire and the Burgundy regions. It’s gotten hotter. Consistent vintages from 2016 through 2020 have all been nice, ripe, and delicious, so there’s no issue with them being sour. In terms of reds, for summer I like Sicilian reds like Frappato and Nero d’Avola. I also like red Burgundy a lot; it’s from pinot noir grapes, but it’s earthier rather than fruity. I like wines that are pure and speak of the place rather than of manipulation with oak or by adding sugar—called chaptalization—or by adding acidity. I love wine when it is what it is and has the purity and exact flavors of the vintage.
What about rosés?
That’s a grab bag for me because I taste so many different kinds. I like Provence rosés. I do like, again, Sicilian wines like Nerello Mascalese. I love that as a red wine actually, but I also love it as a rosé. And I like pinot noir as a rosé; Syrah-Grenache Rosé from Provence is wonderful. Bandol from Provence is primarily Mourvèdre grape. That’s a richer style and it’s got a little bit more spice so a bit more heft. I don’t know if you know this, but 98% of the rosés out there start with red wine grapes. When you squeeze the grape, the juice comes out and it’s clear, so you stain it with the grape skin, and it changes it from clear to pink. Depending on how long you leave the grape skins in with the juice, it will make the rosé darker or lighter.
Any local wines?
We have wines from Long Island that I really like. I’m not particularly in search of one region over another, but I am more interested in local than in California wines. California wines speak for themselves and have a market all their own. We have some wonderful winemaking going on in Virginia right now, and in New Jersey, upstate New York, in Long Island. Surrey Lane on Long Island makes a fantastic variety of wines that we support.
You also do fundraisers at The Grape D’Vine. Tell us more.
We do all kinds of fundraisers to help varying causes. We donate wine to causes. If it’s too large an event, I can’t donate all the wine, but we sell it at cost. Just the other night I did one for SHARE Africa, and about 40 people came. What a great cause! They sponsor children in Kenya; $600 can sponsor one child for a year to be educated and fed and get clean water, which is something we all take for granted.
How can people get here from New York City, if they don’t have a car?
The 9A bus travels up to Sparkill from the George Washington Bridge terminal between 178th and 179th streets, and drops you off right in front of the Grape D’Vine and the DVine Bar here in Depot Square. And you can get the Route 9 bus to Sparkill from Port Authority too.
DVine Bar (Photo courtesy of Joe Printz)
Tell us about the DVine Bar.
The DVine Bar restaurant is right next door to Grape D’Vine. We opened it a year after we opened the wine store. We’ve gone through many iterations with it because of Covid. For a while we became a taco restaurant, and everybody loved the tacos. Now we’re back to tapas, interesting four-course tasting menus with wine pairings, and we have 4-5 brunch items that you can order along with your tasting options. We recommend the wines to go with the food for each course. We’re open from noon to 6 p.m., and it’s caught on like crazy. Thank God people are back, and they’ve said how much they missed coming.
You know, during Covid isolation, the wine business blew up because we were deemed an essential business. We were so busy with curbside pickup and deliveries! From March 2020 every week was like Christmas week, and I had to hire two new people. We made ourselves available to everybody. My recycling bin was hysterical because the wine reps wouldn’t come in person, but they would send me a case of wine every other week. I have 40 wine reps! I was getting cases and cases of wine dropped off to the store that I had to taste through. So, I’d bring home a case of wine, invite some friends over who were in my “bubble” and we would taste 24 wines in a night. I was so embarrassed about my recycling bin.
Joe Printz (Photo by Heidi Broecking)
You actually come from the restaurant industry; you were a prominent chef, now a “recovering chef” as you call yourself…
Yes, I’m in recovery! I started cooking when I was 14 years old, working in professional kitchens for the summer in New York City. My mom owned a famous telephone answering service for movie stars back in the 60s, 70s; she had it until she passed. I was introduced to a society caterer in New York when I was 14 and I would work all day long, peeling carrots or potatoes, learning how to make things like salmon mousse. It really got to my soul. So, I went to cooking school at the New York City Technical College for two and a half years. I had been accepted to the Culinary Institute, but I didn’t want to wait six months to get in; I wanted to go right away. I figured if you’re passionate about it, you’re going to get the same education anyway. When I got out of school I started working for a caterer. I did that for many years and then I went to Washington, D.C. to do Ronald Reagan’s inaugural luncheon. After that, I opened four restaurants in D.C.
What cuisines did they offer?
I had a pizza place, but the pizzas were made with unusual flours: I was grinding up wild rice and making smoked-up pizzas with wacky combinations of things that nobody had ever seen or tasted before. Another place, Williams, was a rotisserie restaurant. Another, Cafe Med, is where I got my notification from The Washington Post that I was an up-and-coming chef because the 21 items on the menu would change every single Tuesday for two and a half years. I never repeated anything: appetizers, pizza, pasta, carpaccio, entrées, salads, desserts. I cut my teeth in those restaurants. Then, you get to be a certain age and you can’t do that anymore. So, I came back to the city, did catering again, and also catered in Greenwich Connecticut for three or four years. I loved wine, so I switched to the wine business, and I knew intrinsically what wines went with what food. Now very often I give people recipes and suggestions while we’re standing at the counter here. I really love the communication with the clients. It’s been fun and I would do it all over in the same way. I mean, I really do like what I do. It’s not work.
One last thought: what do you believe that wine brings to life?
It’s a passion. This is going to sound weird: if I can maintain a two-glass buzz my whole life I would do that. When I’ve had my second glass of wine or I’m in the middle of it, I feel so happy that all the cares have melted away. I’m enjoying something that I really wanted to drink anyway, and I feel euphoric and grateful. So, to me, wine brings happiness and gratefulness. I love to share that with people and help enlighten others about wine and food pairings. That instills general exuberance and enthusiasm. You don’t have to drink a lot of wine, but it has to be the right wine, especially with food and with friends. Wine unites people and brings a sense of happiness.
Wine is a living work of art brimming with history and geography and the energy of the people who made it.
Absolutely, that’s so true! In twenty years, I learned so much about the placement of vineyards, the angles to the sun, how the Grand Cru regions are… Wine is made in the vineyard long before it gets to press and turns into juice. What makes a great wine is the way it’s handled in the vineyard on the vines.
Top: Joe Printz with a bottle of Frappato, a Sicilian red wine he recommends for the summer (Photo by Maria-Cristina Necula)