Of the 50 to 75 bottles available on Stageleftwineshop.com, the new online wine shop from New Brunswick, New Jersey–based steakhouse Stage Left Steak, many feature photos not of the wine label, but of faces or vineyard vistas instead. “The featured winemakers or wineries are people and places that we know personally and that we’ve done our homework on,” says Stage Left co-owner Francis Schott. “The reason we use the picture of the winemaker is to clearly illustrate the relationship we’re bringing to the table.” After decades of working in the industry—Stage Left opened in 1992 as a contemporary American, farm-to-table restaurant—Schott and fellow co-owner Mark Pascal have forged plenty of close relationships with winemakers across the world, whose wines they’ve long offered at their restaurant and are now showcasing online.
From the start, Stage Left staked its reputation on wine and curated a list that reflected the food menu’s mission of featuring ingredients from small, mostly local producers. “We were always focused on estate-bottled wines from small producers,” Schott explains. “They were harder to find back then. We earned a reputation for seeking out and debuting a lot of wine producers that became pretty popular in New Jersey. We were the first place on the East Coast to serve Paul Hobbs wine back in 1993.”
As holders of a broad C license, which enables sales of wine in both the on- and off-premise, Schott and Pascal opted to open a brick-and-mortar wine shop, Old Vines, in 1998. That business was closed in 2004 due to demand for extra dining space at Stage Left. But Schott and Pascal continued selling wine to their restaurant customers. The thought of reentering the wine space didn’t cross their minds again until the 25th anniversary of Stage Left loomed ahead.
The new website features a frequently updated selection of 50 to 75 bottles ($13.95 to $220 a 750-ml.), with an even split between American and international wines. Estate-bottled wines from small producers reign, though the co-owners also focus on offering unusual wines from lesser-known regions. Vino Budimir ($44.95) for example, hails from Serbia and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the native Serbian grape Prokupac. As with many of the wines featured on the website, Schott has a detailed memory of when he first discovered the Serbian selection.
“I found Budimir four to five years ago when I went to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the Balkan International Wine Competition,” says Schott. “I probably tasted around 1,000 wines from the Balkans that weren’t available in the United States at the time. I found 25 great ones, narrowed that down to four that I really wanted and chose the best one.”
Schott and Pascal regularly rely on their own tasting experiences in deciding which labels make the cut for the wine list and the website. “We’re going out and finding great bottles ourselves,” Schott explains. “Our skill as curators and hunters really makes a difference. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find the expensive cult wines—you can simply look them up. The skill is in going to Oregon, Washington or Tuscany, and to tastings in New York or San Francisco, and finding what’s great.”
Stage Left Steak’s stellar reputation in the local community has given the website a strong foundation, and Schott plans to regularly email the restaurant’s 15,000 newsletter subscribers with updates about the online shop’s selection in order to drive traffic and sales. Prior to the website’s debut, Stage Left sold roughly $500,000 of wine annually, a number that’s now likely to rise. All the wines will be available for shipping wherever legal. As of now, Schott and Pascal have no plans to open a physical storefront.
“I think it’s going to be people’s secret wine shop,” Schott says. “I hope we aren’t the best kept secret for too long, but we’re letting it grow organically. It’s about having the best selection and making people happy. We don’t need to be mass market—we need to be great.”