On an evening a few days before opening its doors, Streetcar Wine & Beer had a quiet sort of anticipation in the air, its shelves waiting to be stocked with the libations due to arrive later in the week, dust still settling from construction. Finishing touches were being made to the interior, as proprietor Michael Dupuy prepared to realize his dream of opening his own shop.
Dupuy stumbled into the wine business in 2002 after graduating from Tufts University with a degree in English. But it wasn't long before it became clear that it was serendipity. Shortly after taking a job in the wine department at Marty’s in Newton, he recalls telling his roommates: “I think I could be in the wine business for the next five years.” Ten years and several retail and distribution gigs later—including his most recent stop at the in the North End—Dupuy, who lives in nearby Dorchester with his wife, is bringing his expertise and sensibility to his new Centre Street shop. Over a pint of Notch Tafelbier (one of his favorite local brews), he talked about his new venture, his own formative wine experiences, how the “buy local” mantra can be misleading, and what’s exciting his palate these days.
Was there a eureka moment for you when you realized the wine business was a career path?
At almost the same time I started working at Marty’s I met the girl that I would marry. It all happened in the span of about three weeks. It was just one of those things; everything sort of fell into place all at once.
What about wine hooked you?
There’s the obvious sensory experience, but for me I use it as a lens to explore cultural elements and the science involved in winemaking. There’s a real strong historical sensibility to it as well. For me, it’s really a lens to view a lot of different things.
It could be as laboratory-centric as it could possibly be or it could be absolutely natural to the extent that you’re crushing grapes with your feet and letting it fester for a few months. There's a lot of science behind even the natural processes that I find fascinating even though I’m not really a scientific person.
What were some important lessons you learned along the way?
When I worked for Genuine Wine Selections, I had the best boss in the world [Matt Carroll]. He taught me that if you treat your employees like family, your employees will treat your customers like guests.
Tell me about some early wine lessons.
When I was working at Marty’s, restaurants would have Terry Theise tastings and bring the bottles back to Marty’s. The bottles would be down to the dregs so the staff could try different wines from Austria and Germany. It was a real learning experience for me in terms of expanding my palate. It was one of my more important formative wine experiences. Terry Theise has amazing German and Austrian wines and champagnes. For a young drinker, Riesling is a very important wine to become interested in because the flavors are so transparent, because they’re so pure.
Where did you go from Riesling?
You could say I worked my way out and back again. Riesling will always be an important wine for me. There’s a common misconception that Riesling is cheap and simple and for younger drinkers, but really it’s a very sophisticated wine. The brain plays tricks on you. Maybe your first Riesling was a sweet one. A lot of people’s first Rieslings were sweet. Riesling has a very particular aromatic presence, one you can recognize from one variety to the next. So, if you have a sweet version and you have a dry version, they can smell very similar. It’s a very difficult thing to get beyond.
At your store, what will you do to celebrate local?
There are about 20 local distributors whose wines I’ll be purchasing. Right now I'm carrying beer from about 20 local breweries. I'm going to set up a cart with recommendations from JP folks, to try to encourage that community aspect.
What can people expect to see wine-wise that might be unique?
There are so many good wines. Most recently, there’s a boxed wine that comes in a 5-liter box. It’s a big old box of wine. It’s from a winery in Northern Italy: Cascina Roera. It's a Barbera. The idea behind box is that it conserves energy in terms of fuel because of the elimation of weight in transport. Reason number 2: You can drink a lot more wine. It’s a great party wine, for a summer barbeque. It’s an absolutely beautiful wine. If it were in a bottle I’d buy it too.
Also, last week I went to a tasting featuring wines from the Canary Islands. Historically it’s a very important wine region. It’s gone by the wayside and more consumed domestically up until the last couple of years. There’s one importer: Jose Pastor. He’s from Spain, and lives in L.A. The wines are amazing. . . There are unique elements on each of the islands . . . You’ll see these vines growing in black sandy soils in order to protect them from the wine. . . They have a very true sense of what it means to be an island wine or wine with water surrounding the vineyards. There are strong winds that cool down the vines at night. There’s something about that that creates a unique structure.
What’s your approach to helping people choose wine, and what kind of language do you use when talking about wine?
The lexicon is ever-evolving. It used to be pretty static based on a few reviewers. You’d have your “flavor wheel” with a list of all possible flavors of wine. I think that’s going by the wayside favoring a more personal approach, a more individual approach to tasting wine. . . One of my first jobs as a kid was raking blueberries in Maine. I can tell you inside and out what blueberries smell like so if I smell blueberry in a wine that bounces right out of the glass for me.
For person who sells wines, it's easy to fall into the trap of using the common lexicon without having a full grasp of what that means. But I try to be as down to earth as possible and try to relate to people as I know they want to be related to and not get too caught up with the flowery language. A lot of times I’ll be asking questions like: What’s the last wine you had? What did you like about it? . . . I think the trend is leaning away from the megacritic, and it’s much more of a dialogue. A lot of the fear people have when they walk into a wine or beer shop is that they don’t know what’s in the store. . . You’re there because you’re looking for something you know and love or you’re looking for something new. My job is to steer you towards something you don’t know but that I like and think you might like.
What about your beer selection?
I’m fan of underdogs and the under-represented. Of course I'll support local breweries, as well as pay homage to beer from Europe—which has served as an inspiration for a lot of creativity in this area.
What is your philosophy on the local movement?
The buy local thing is somewhat problematic for me. I think a lot of people are using it as a gimmick and not focusing on the quality of what they’re supporting. I absolutely want to support breweries and wineries that I think are doing the best job possible and I would absolutely choose local, but I’m not going to sacrifice quality for politics in general.
So for you, the underlying principle is more about a sense of place?
Exactly. The name of the store has to do with the fact that Jamaica Plain is one of the nation's original streetcar suburbs. It's in important element in the history of JP and Boston. It resonates with people in the neighborhood and it's analogy for the stuff I want to carry. I want people to instantly recognize where the wine or beer is from the second they put their nose to the glass. I think of terroir, a French word that means place, a recognition of a sense of place.
Streetcar Wine & Beer, located at 488 Centre St., is open for business. Watch for regular and irregular tastings.