Joe’s Liquor’s Wine Destination is a Family Effort
Paul Robichaud admits it’s an unlikely combination: an encyclopedic knowledge of tools and a deep appreciation and understanding of fine wine.
“Not everyone understood how you could be in the tool business and know about wine,” he says. “It was hard to explain to anyone.”
But the pairing made him a fixture in his neighborhood of East Somerville for a generation as the owner of a tool shop and a neighboring liquor store. His family is counting on extending his legacy with their new venture—a larger liquor store that aims to impress with the family’s knowledge and broad selection of wines.
It’s a chilly December afternoon, and the sun is already setting as Robichaud, 70, surveys his revamped retail space along a busy stretch of Broadway. His eyes settle on a white sign at the back of the store with red hand lettering that reads “ROBI TOOL SALES.” The sign is a reminder of what the space used to hold: Robichaud’s decades-old tool store that survived the arrival of Home Depot in the neighborhood. Recognizing that he can’t put in the same long hours anymore, Robichaud decided to close the doors at 168 Broadway last January.
But the old space didn’t stay dark for long. In its place, Robichaud has transplanted his other business, Joe’s Liquors, from across the street at 160 Broadway.
The relaunch mixes the familiar and the new, and that’s how the family wants it, Robichaud says. For one thing, it will keep the same name, Joe’s Liquors—an homage to Robichaud’s father, Joe. Robichaud is adamant that’ll never change, despite the new emphasis on wine.
Regulars of the 21-year-old liquor store will still find Robichaud near the counter, ready to talk about the latest case of Bordeaux he’s acquired (his favorite blend) and sporting the cap of one of his three children’s alma maters. But they’ll more frequently be guided by two of Robichaud’s children, Colleen Robichaud-Mountzouros, 27, and PJ Robichaud, 31, who are taking on larger roles at the new store.
“We don’t want to be the local nip and beer store,” says Robichaud-Mountzouros. “We want to be the nice store that all the locals want to come into.”
Whereas in the old location you’d have to know there was a room dedicated to wine and seek it out, in the new location the bottles are displayed on handcrafted wooden shelves and along easily accessible aisles. The layout is less of a labyrinth and will help highlight what’s available, says Robichaud-Mountzouros.
Robichaud-Mountzouros learned about wine from an early age, always taking sips of what her parents were drinking, and year by year, developing her palate. She’s also taken wine courses through The Court of Master Sommeliers.
Her father had a much more on-the-job wine education as a 21-year-old assistant to the wine stewards at Anthony’s Pier 4, which in its heyday was one of the most successful restaurants in the country, Robichaud-Mountzouros says. Because cork technology was not as advanced in the early ’70s, waiters would taste every bottle before serving it to customers.
“I would taste sometimes 200 different wines in one night,” says Robichaud. “It was a crash course in the greatest wines that were made.”
While there’s always been a selection of customers in the know who come in seeking the older, more expensive wines that Robichaud collects, the base of customers interested in mid-priced wines has grown in recent years. His children have helped him adapt to the new demand.
“Dad had this opinion that the only wines that sell were under $8 or over $50, nothing in between,” says Robichaud-Mountzouros.
Robichaud-Mountzouros has a broader taste than her dad does, she says. At the expanded shop, there are $500 bottles of wines and $10 bottles, too. There will be weekly tastings on Friday evenings, and often on Saturdays as well. And she’ll shepherd customers based on their interests, encouraging them to branch out and try new bottles.
Robichaud-Mountzouros is confident in her suggestions because there’s not a bottle in the store she can’t personally vouch for, she says.
“I try not to drink the same thing twice. And that’s my advice to customers … As you get more comfortable, go more broad,” she says.
Robichaud believes that what kept his tool shop alive and well in spite of competition from big box retailers like Home Depot is also what will keep Joe’s Liquors afloat.
“With the big boxes, with every strength you have a weakness. Their weakness is a lack of knowledge. There’s room for someone who really specializes,” he says.
Bigger wine stores also have the pressure to move product faster, he adds.
“If there’s a great vintage, I’ll buy what I can and I’ll hold it back and try to build a library of the great vintages,” says Robichaud. “People come, and they’re amazed at what we have.”
As a small store, Joe’s Liquors can buy smaller quantities of rarer, more interesting wines, he adds. “What we’re interested in is the uniqueness of the products that we sell. Many times they’re not widely available.”
Robichaud has a deep and long-held interest in Bordeauxs and Champagnes. He also knows his Sauternes—and his passion is reflected in the wines he collects and sells.
The store carries bottles of 2000 Bordeauxs, which Robichaud-Mountzouros describes as “one of the best, at least in my lifetime,” as well as bottles of 2001 Rieussec, a Sauterne that was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator in 2004.
Robichaud reads French newspapers and studies factors like the weather and the local economy to decide which wines to buy.
“My dad has this uncanny ability to choose wines that are going to be extremely long living,” Robichaud-Mountzouros says. “That’s something you have to learn from experience. You can’t learn [that] from a book.”
“With Sauternes, we have one of the best collections you’ll find outside some of the biggest hubs in the world,” she adds.
To be known as a destination for specialty wines in the greater Boston area while at the same time remaining friendly and welcoming is the sweet spot where the Robichaud family wants to land.
“We want to make sure we’re welcoming our neighbors. We want to hear about their kids or their sister’s new house,” says Robichaud-Mountzouros.
While Robichaud isn’t going anywhere, he knows he can’t work all day, seven days a week anymore. But he’s confident his kids are ready to step in and that he’s handing them a solid business. For her part, Robichaud-Mountzouros acknowledges she has huge shoes to fill and many, many more stories to amass.
“It’s been a journey, but I’ll be honest, it’s been fun,” says Robichaud.