What Sharon Sevrens has done for oenophiles in Montclair, NJ, could be compared to what Danny Meyer did for Madison Park with the opening of Eleven Madison Park in 1998, followed by the Shake Shack in 2004; or to what Thirty Acres has done for Jersey City...Sevrens' Amanti Vino has made Montclair a destination.
When Sharon arranged for Maria Sinskey to cook a dinner last year, a massive snow storm fell upon Montclair. And though there was 8-10 inches on the ground by the evening's end, "Everyone [over 120 guests] braved the weather to get here," said Sharon, herself amazed by the life that has sprung from the seeds that she planted.
With a seriously committed customer base, Sharon has turned her wine store into a one-stop wine empire, with WSET courses held in the classroom upstairs, in-store wine tastings, four clubs, a Weekend Wine Education Series, a Master's Seminar, and a host of winemakers' dinners at local restaurants that in addition to Maria Sinskey has also included Joey Tensley and Andrea Franchetti. "The people really enjoy it," said Sharon of the events. "We've a group of maybe 200 people who always attend." And because Sharon personally knows them all, she can cater each of her events to a specific audience.
However, one needn't necessarily enter the store to be on the receiving end of Amanti Vino's services. Sharon also happens to cater to diners at Montclair's over 30 BYOB restaurants, a result of the archaic laws that restrict the number of liquor licenses per township in the state of New Jersey. Not only is she familiar with the menus and is able to suggest wines to inquiring customers at each restaurant, but she also posts lists of suggested wines at each restaurant that she updates every few months so that Amanti Vino can hand deliver wine to diners at a phone call's notice.
Sharon Sevrens with a Jeroboam of Tenuta di Trinoro Le Cupole 2004
From a successful career in investment banking, Sharon transitioned when the store opened in 2005. When she'd heard that a local Whole Foods was relinquishing their Montclair liquor license, Sharon inquired about the price. Four months later, much to her alarm, Sharon received a call from a woman who said, "Congrats Sharon, you won!"
"At this point, I didn't know I was opening a wine store," said Sharon and laughed. "I have a MBA in finance. I should know better than to do this." However, since the original asking price for the license was $500,000, she couldn't pass it up when it was offered to her for $150,000. And since she and her husband had spent a number of weekends over a bottle of wine wishing that someone would open a shop in Montclair, she knew that Montclair had to be it. "The town was [already] full of foodies," she said. "They were hungry for it."
With an ear to the vine, Sharon closely caters to her clientele. "We have a very loyal customer base who are very vocal," she said. After the recession hit in 2008, the $40-60 price point disappeared, and she brought in over 200 wines that sold for under $25. "When I first opened people came looking for scores, which I don't have, so now they've come to trust their own palates," explained Sharon, a development that's certainly been aided by all of the tastings that she hosts. And since Sharon puts her staff members through the WSET program, "they enjoy their jobs more and everyone moves [up]." Her current sales managers started as a delivery boy, and the staff is invited to join the store's annual event– "Come Fill Amanti's Holes"– where they spend days tasting wines to help determine what belongs on the shelves. "But don't write that," said Sharon who then blushed and busted with laughter.
An unusually quiet moment at Amanti Vino as seen from the classroom
To be sure that she hasn't overlooked anyone's preference, Sharon also hosts beer dinners and classes, alongside two beer clubs to accompany the store's curated selections. And in October, Amanti Vino held a benefit Oktoberfest at the Wellmont Theatre for 400-500 guests.
"We just like to have a lot of fun," said Sharon. "It's a business and our goal is to sell wine, but I'm interested in how we get there, to keep it interesting and fun."