When I was a kid and it was time for new school shoes, my mom would haul me and my brothers to Thom McAn in the mall. As we squirmed in the vinyl-covered chairs, a friendly salesman would measure our feet with his trusty Brannock shoe-fitting device. First my right heel, then my left snuggled into the metal arch of the antique-looking contraption while the salesman slid a gauge along the side of my sweat sock-clad foot.
The ritual was odd but comforting. As weird as it was to have a stranger touching my feet, I was gratified to know that he wanted my new shoes to fit me to a T.
I thought about those late-summer trips to Thom McAn for the first time in years on Saturday night at the opening of The Raleigh Wine Shop (126 Glenwood Ave., 919-803-5473, www.theraleighwineshop.com). Something about the way wine merchant Seth Hoffman described his hopes for his new place brought to mind the custom-fit feel of shoe stores of old. (When I told him what I was thinking, Hoffman recalled how his mom took him to Florsheim back in the day.) Hoffman and his partners want a return to the days before shopping became an exercise in anonymity.
Hoffman is a former Seaboard Wine Warehouse manager. He and his partners, Jeff Bramwell and Ryan Fulkerson, have more than 40 years' experience in the food and wine industry among them. If you stop by, you're guaranteed to meet at least one of them. The three partners will be the store's only staff.
The Raleigh Wine Shop's inventory includes 500 to 600 labels. Hoffman says their goal is to strike a balance between high-end bottles for well-versed oenophiles and more affordable wines for those with less knowledge and/or less spending money. They also want to find wines you won't see in every other store in the Triangle. "We're steering away from the big production lines," he says.
While that sounds a bit high-minded, the partners promise help for shoppers in all price ranges.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously," Hoffman says.
With dead-on timing, Bramwell breaks in, "I especially don't take Seth seriously."
Set in an early-20th century building near the Morgan Street end of Glenwood, the space has a modern, spare feel, enhanced by light, blond wood floors, soft lighting and exposed ductwork on the high ceilings. The bar in the back and the counter up front are crafted from salvaged 100-year-old oak.
"I think those dungeon-y places can make wine even scarier," Hoffman says.
The wines on the walls are arranged according to origin, while bins in the center offer user-friendly points of entry. One bin of Italian whites and light rosés bears the label "If you like summer ..." Others offer alternatives to popular varietals with "If you like Pinot Grigio ... If you like Merlot ... " The categories are designed to encourage exploration.
"Some people get in a little bit of a wine rut," Hoffman says.
Tasting notes on the shelves offer additional guidance, but don't look for Wine Advocate numbers. The partners promise to try each wine they're selling, and they will be happy to help you pick, without relying on Parker points.
A cooler on the second level holds local cheese and sausage from makers including Farmhand Foods and Hillsborough Cheese Co. A nearby stainless steel vat dispenses organic Grecian olive oil that customers can take home in refillable glass bottles. The cider selection is small but wonderful. Behind the bar in the back sits a shiny Wine Station machine, which keeps a dozen selections fresh and at the correct temperature, for tasting any time.
But for me, the most wonderful aspect of The Raleigh Wine Shop is the back corner that sat empty on Saturday night. Parents, rejoice! The partners have plans for a children's play space.
Since seeing nooks dedicated to kids in other Triangle shops, including The Wine Authorities in Durham and Sip ... A Wine Store in Cary, I've been hoping someone would follow suit in Raleigh. Most wine stores feel about as child-friendly as a four-star restaurant, which means you have to make a special trip without kids in tow. But if my 4-year-old can play with a pile of Legos in the back while Mommy stalks a few bottles of white or rosé for the weekend, that's better than scoring a free cookie at the grocery store.
And it's as good a fit for me as any pair of Thom McAns I ever got.