Bergenfield—It’s not too often that wine salesmen know so much about kosher wine that they can cheerfully discuss the unique biographical details of well-known Jewish vintners like Rashi, who lived 1,000 years ago, as well as share concern that wines that bear his great and historically significant name are so inexpensive.
But then again, Jerry Hampel is not your average wine salesman. Working with wine since 1972, he studied hotel and restaurant management at CCNY and is certified as a sommelier from the Sommelier Institute of America in New York. During the course of his career, he has worked as a line cook in several restaurant kitchens, the wholesale wine business, and has built wine cellars at prominent company headquarters in Manhattan such as Merrill Lynch, in addition to consulting on an extensive cellar project for MoMA.
Many in the Teaneck Jewish community know his face, and may even recognize his small blond pomeranian. He and his dog Amber were a fixture in the Jewish community for those who shopped at the now-closed Queen Anne Wine and Spirits Emporium, the go-to place for kosher wines in the region for close to 30 years.
Hampel has now brought his vast knowledge and understanding of the kosher wine marketplace to the six-year-old Wine Country, located in the New Bridge Road Shopping Plaza across from the Pathmark and near Grand and Essex. He is working with Scott Maybaum, owner of 11 Wine Country licenses, who has overseen the Bergenfield store’s expansion to the kosher marketplace. Maybaum shared that fully one third of all of the Bergenfield store’s regular sized 750 ml bottles are kosher.
“When we opened the store, kosher wines were maybe 10% of the wine selection, and as the community shopped here more and more, we expanded and devoted more space to kosher wines,” Maybaum told JLNJ. He shared that Bergenfield is the only Wine Country store that devotes a significant selection and significant resources to kosher wines.
“One of first things we did when Jerry came in was that he wanted more space to allocate to kosher wines. We expanded and the majority are Israeli wines,” said Maybaum. The store is also bringing in kosher for Pesach liquor, such as sweet potato vodka, and highly allocated wines such as Black Tulip. For information on highly allocated wines (usually rare vintages and collectors items), customers are advised to contact Hampel directly.
Hampel shared that his passion for kosher wine and his deep regard for the habits of kosher-keeping Jews help shape his ability to recommend wine and curate a good store selection. He indicated that he keeps the book Judaism for Dummies on his desk, along with a reliable Hebrew calendar so he knows the Shabbos start times and holiday schedule.
“Without knowing anything about Judaism, I wouldn’t be on the same page as my customers,” he said. “With my background and knowledge, and the amount of friends and associates I have from the other store, I’m taking all of that information and bringing it over here to turn this into the best possible kosher store in this area, by far,” Hampel told JLNJ.
Hampel explained his priority and preference toward Israel when recommending kosher wines. “A lot of customers I’ve gotten to know over the years are very loyal to Israel. When I recommend a wine I usually go to Israel first and recommend those wines, because it just shows that you’re also trying to help get the money back in the country,” he said.
In addition to knowing intricate details about wine regions and beer, Hampel has an impressive encyclopedia-like knowledge of kosher liquor, and can discuss specific names and types of kosher sherry, cognac or scotch with ease. He keeps his list of OK-kosher certifications for scotch handy, for when customers have a specific question or want a recommendation, he added.
In addition to helping synagogues organize wine sales, tastings and charitable events (recent sales have taken place at Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck), the store offers different sales and unique offerings as the year progresses. “Now, we’re focusing on Pesach, so all of the wine for Pesach is 25% off,” said Hampel. He added that the store holds a wine tasting every Thursday evening from 5:30PM to 8:30PM and on Fridays, most often from 2PM to 5PM, though that time changes with Shabbos start times. The tastings most often feature the winemaker or the winery owner and all wines (primarily non-mevushal) are poured by a community designee. (“We don’t touch the wine when it’s open,” said Hampel.) All wines are on sale with additional special/lowest possible pricing during the tasting, Hampel added.
The approach is already working well; the store buzzes with activity during the pre-Shabbos windup. “Last Friday, we sold 53 additional bottles of wine that people didn’t come into the store for,” said Hampel.
Hampel indicated the store is also planning to do special offers like mix-and-match cases from a particular family of wines, such as Barkan. “And, as we finish Pesach, we can begin doing scotch tastings,” he said.
Having had work experience in restaurant kitchens, he is asked questions daily about wine pairings. What does Hampel recommend personally for Pesach? For the Seder, he always recommends starting light, even if the person only drinks red wine. The heavier wines should go with the main course. If you’re willing to start with white for the Seder, “Jonathan Tishbi Chenin Blanc is a great wine. There is just enough fruit to stand up to a lot of different flavors,” he said.
A perfect wine to serve with Yapchik, a crockpot potato kugel and beef dish, the recipe of which appeared in numerous cookbooks last Pesach? According to Hampel, “a heavy red, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Malbec. That will really stand up to that heaviness. But after, you need something to break up that heaviness in your stomach. After that, just have two ounces of Moscato to settle the stomach,” he said.
Contact Jerry Hampel at Wine Country at [email protected] Call him at (201) 385-0106. Wine Country is located at 89 New Bridge Rd, Bergenfield, NJ 07621.
By Elizabeth Kratz