Cincinnati has been buying wine from Michael Maxwell for more than two decades. The longtime Newport resident spent six years at The Party Source in Newport before opening his own shop at Findlay Market in 2008. Market Wines is both a retail outlet and a wine bar, known for its eclectic and generous tastings, where Maxwell guides customers through pours of four wines (for $8) each Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Those tastings have been on hold since March, of course, but with the market remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic—people still need meat, cheese, bread and produce, after all—Maxwell’s customers are still coming in to pick up a favorite bottle…or three, or six.
So is it true that wine sales are up in the age of shelter-in-place?
Yeah. We have seen our sales be pretty strong. Part of that is because we are at Findlay Market. One of the comments I’ve gotten from multiple people is, Oh, the guys still have chicken down here. They still have sausage. They still have steaks. The [supermarkets] are out of all those things.
I know they’re saying wine retail is up [in general], but a lot of that will be items that are in Kroger, not necessarily items that happen to be in my store. Big brands like Barefoot and Beringer, those brands are probably up. Small producers, it may not be the same. Isolated wine shops, and wineries that sell 50 percent or more of their wine in restaurants are probably seeing a downturn. But with people not buying wine in restaurants, they’re having to buy retail.
I assume a lot of your usual market customers have a weekly routine: meat, produce, bread, wine?
Yeah, that is the one thing that has been the most fun for me. I’ve been a market shopper for close to 28 years now. Being down there as a business, it’s nice when people come in and say, Hey, this is what I’m having. What do you suggest to go with it? Pairing up a dish, that’s the part I think we do particularly well. We look at what people are eating and focus them on not only what their main dish is, but the whole meal.
A lot of times people say, Oh, I’m having steak tonight. Well, what are you having with steak? Is it just steak and potatoes or are you doing something a little bit different with the steak, or something a little bit different as a side? Then we might go in a different direction.
Any pairing myths that you like to debunk?
Well, there’s certainly, an aspect of, “drink what you like.” I’ve spent time working with people to find a wine that goes with a particular dish, and after about 15 minutes, they’ll tell me, We pretty much only drink cabernet sauvignon. Well, if you want me to recommend a cab, I can. That’s not the ideal wine for that dish. But I’m not going to try to make you drink something that you’re not going to enjoy.
Do you feel like you have a specialty or certain way you lean?
French and Italian tend to be what I hand-sell the most. A decent amount of California and South American. We’re probably the weakest on Australia, although I have some interesting wines in that category too.
One of the things we did from the very beginning is we really pushed rosé. Particularly Southern French rosé, but we’ve always had a pretty decent selection of dry rosés from all over the world. Compared to most places at that time we were a little bit ahead of the game. Through our wine tastings, we were able to get a lot of people to try them. Even within the last couple years, people still look at them and say, Ahhh, I don’t like sweet wine. And then they’re like, Oh, I’m so surprised by that!
You haven’t been able to do the weekend tastings for obvious reasons, but what are they normally like?
We set them up to be pretty informal. And just, a lot of fun because that’s how I see wine. It should be fun, it should be enjoyed, it’s a beverage, you should drink it. And so we try to do generous amounts on our pours, and let you really taste it, because I think sometimes we have to taste it two or three times before you really get the idea what a wine is.
So you get a generous pour, and we’ll do four completely different wines. Usually we’ll throw in some wines that you may have never even heard of. A Fiano, or a falanghina, or we’ll do some sparkling wines from areas in Southern France that are made from the Mauzac grape. If we just did grapes that people pretty much know and wines that people are extremely familiar with, there’s no learning there. There’s no experimenting.
You’re going to meet a lot of people, too, and that’s one of the other fun things about what we do. Findlay Market has such a great collection of people from all across the area. You might be sitting next to a doctor who’s sitting next to a professor who’s sitting next to like a starving artist who’s sitting next to a soccer mom, and you might not know which is which.
You also do quite a bit of beer.
Oh, yeah. I think that beer has come a long way in the last 20 years to being somewhat on par with wine and how it’s served in restaurants. There are a lot of places that will pair it up with food. And there are so many different styles. You may think, I don’t really like beer, but there’s a whole lot of beer out there to try. I’ve had [customers] who’ve said, I don’t like stouts, and I say, Well do you like coffee? Yes. Do you like chocolate? Yes. Try this and think of coffee and chocolate. [And they say,] Oh, well, that tastes great! You can find things that you like in just about any type of beer.
Do you have any go-to, everyday recommendations?
Yeah, there are a couple of things that I will go to all the time. Château De Ségriès Côtes du Rhône is a red wine that goes with a ton of different food. Short of maybe a really light white fish, or a very heavy, rich, spicy dish. But it can go with just about everything else in between. And in the summertime, when it’s hot and they need something that’s super-refreshing, Château du Campuget rosé. Those are two things where it’s very easy for me to grab a bottle and put it in somebody’s hand and be really sure they’re gonna like it.
Is Ohio wine in the mix for you?
We do not do a large amount of Ohio wine. Most of the Ohio wineries, usually, their best wines are also their smallest production. A lot of times they can sell it all themselves. But I’m always willing to spend two or three more dollars on a bottle of local wine, as long as it’s in the same kind of quality as one that’s maybe a couple of bucks cheaper from California or France or what have you.
We have seen some people that produce locally. Burnet Ridge, most of the grapes come from California, with the exception of one or two things, but people are willing to spend $25 to $30 on wine produced in the area. And Meranda-Nixon is a winery that has wines in the middle to upper teens that we have also been able to sell fairly well.
Has there been any pandemic stockpiling? Like, Give me 10 cases of wine?
Nobody’s really stockpiled anything. We are seeing people bump up. People who would come in and buy two or three bottles are buying six bottles, and people who were buying four or five bottles are buying a case. For the people that work from home now, cocktail hour is sometimes starting at 2 or 3 o’clock. Like, I’ve got to stay in and work, and the wine’s right here. May as well open up a bottle.
I had one customer that came in, [and] he said, I’m not going to come back out for another three weeks, but I need more inexpensive wine, because I all I have at my house are, like, my $50 to $100 bottles and I don’t have anything between $15 and $20. You can’t drink all my, y’know, Grand Cru champagne, on a Tuesday night.
Market Wines, 128 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 744-9888