Almost 20, Chelsea Wine Cellar Gets Better With Age

Sun Ae Song, owner of Chelsea Wine Cellar, with manager Gregory Cho. | Photo by Rania Richardson

BY RANIA RICHARDSON | Payment of the last tuition check symbolized freedom for Sun Ae Song, who, with her husband, had put three children through college. An empty nester ready to start a new chapter, she chose to focus on a favorite libation: wine. “It was time to do what I liked to do,” she recalled, “what I wanted for my retirement… and now it’s been 20 years!”

In 1998 people were consuming more wine, so Song decided to learn all about it. She sold the dry cleaning business she owned for 15 years in upstate New York where the family lived, and downsized with a move back to Chelsea, where she and her husband had settled after emigrating from South Korea as young adults. She bought a rundown liquor store nearby on the ground floor of 200 W. 21st St., right off of Seventh Ave.

“I built it from the ground up,” she said, referring to the three-week overhaul that transformed the store into a wine emporium and thriving business. She boned up on the basics through an eight-week course at Windows on the World Wine School with Kevin Zraly (who was the wine director of the storied restaurant atop 1 World Trade Center, until its destruction on 9/11).

Every nook and cranny of the store is packed to the rafters. | Photo by Rania Richardson

Back in the 1990s, Chelsea was not as developed as it is now. Song remembers that the neighborhood had not yet witnessed the arrival of prestigious art galleries and the booming LGBTQ community, let alone the influx of high-rises. Her business grew, as the neighborhood did, into the 2000s — but dipped after the 2008 stock market crash.

Now, with a staff of four, Chelsea Wine Cellar serves the local community with wine and spirits packed to the rafters in a small store that features classical music in the background. Song said, “Most customers are surprised by how much stock we have and that there’s such a variety.”

Chelsea Wine Cellar (200 W. 21st St., at Seventh Ave.) is a longtime presence in the neighborhood. | Photo by Rania Richardson

Predictably, business peaks during the major national holidays, as well as Mother’s Day and Pride Weekend. In general, customers stop by to make purchases before going home after work. Song has noticed that more women are buying alcohol (sometimes, she noted, the store is full of female shoppers). Her sales are 70 percent wine and 30 percent liquor in volume. The store makes deliveries, but it is suffering without a website. Since millennials find it easier to go online, Song plans to rectify the situation this year.

There is no competition from the many grocery stores in Chelsea, as they are not permitted to sell wine and liquor in New York State, although the proposition comes up from time to time. Convenience stores can sell wine products if they contain less than 6 percent alcohol, but that is not an issue, as wine at Chelsea Wine Cellar averages 12 to 13 percent.

Staff member Alain M. Martinez prepares to make a delivery. | Photo by Rania Richardson

“Sixth Avenue has high-rise rentals where people stay six months to two years, tops, and the prices reflect that. We are more cost-oriented in this neighborhood [around Seventh and Eighth Aves.], where people own their own homes and watch their pocketbooks,” Song said.

Customers favor red wine in the winter and white in the summer, although rosé sales have been gaining ground in the warmer months. “The new rosés are different. They are not as sweet and fruity; they are dry,” she noted, recalling the popular brands from decades back, such as Mateus from Portugal, with distinctive shaped bottles perfect for candles. Last year the store had 50 different rosés. This year, she’s not sure she’ll go that far, but there is already a good selection in place.

On the liquor front, bourbon is a current trend and the store sells a number of brands. They also carry an affordably priced soju imported from Korea, a clear sprit that is gaining traction in the US (but no makgeolli, this reporter’s favorite Korean rice wine, which has not quite caught on in this country).

Jonathan Dyer, a representative from a wine and spirits distributor who has been doing business with Song since the store opened, said, “She has an amazing palette and is on top of the business more than most.”

If someone comes in looking for a recommendation Song asks what they have been drinking, their general preferences, and their price point. For spaghetti and meatballs, she might select a light chianti or pinot grigio and for sushi, Sancerre or another dry white from the sauvignon blanc grape. Her own favorite is pinot noir.

Pinot noir saw a surge in consumption after it was popularized in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” the 2004 film about two friends on a wine tour in California, in which the grape was praised as “haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle.” Merlot sales went down because it was scorned, with one character declaring, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f**king merlot!”

“It’s so funny how people are swayed,” said Song. “After that movie came out, merlot almost died. Vintners ripped up their merlot vines and planted pinot noir, but it takes years to have a real fruit. Wine sellers had to import pinot noir from all over the world to keep up with the demand. Merlot is back now.”

Wine is a family affair for the Songs. Mr. Song worked for a distributor until his retirement and now helps out at the store. He owned a liquor store when the couple first lived in Chelsea in the 1970s. In order to communicate with more customers, the Songs studied Spanish through free classes at the W. 23rd St. Muhlenberg branch of the New York Public Library. Their son owns Village Vintner (448 Sixth Ave., btw. W. 10th & 11th Sts.).

Staff member Binod G.C. checks inventory. | Photo by Rania Richardson

With a 20-year anniversary coming up in September, Song is optimistic for the future. And, with a five-minute walk home, “I have the best commute ever,” she said. 

Chelsea Wine Cellar is located at 200 W. 21st St. (btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves., right off of Seventh). Hours: Mon.Thurs., 11 a.m.10 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.11 p.m. Sun. 12 p.m.8 p.m. Call 212-675-1813 or email them at [email protected].

Rosé season is upon us! | Photo by Rania Richardson

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