AUBURN — The staff of the new Underground Bottle Shop knows many of their customers will walk in with no idea what wine, cider or spirit they want to buy.
And that excites them.
Gathered in the East Hill shop's lantern glow Thursday morning, jazzy piano lacing the air, manager Rob Hickson and sales staff Eden Mayora and Anastasia Benson said the best thing an Underground customer can tell them is "I don't know anything about wine."
"Because these aren't wines you can find in every single wine shop, you're going to come in and you're going to actually need our help," Mayora said. "Which is good."
"You have a handful of nerds at your command," Benson added. "We're here for you."
The Underground, which opened Jan. 27, carries wine, cider and spirits that, almost entirely, can't be found anywhere else in the Auburn area. But being adventurous can still be affordable: Many of the shop's bottles, whether it's a cider from the Finger Lakes or a wine from the tiny Côtes du Rhône region of France, sell for less than $15. Along with regular tasting events, The Underground's accessibly priced selection positions the shop to both expose and educate palates, its staff hopes.
Hickson, Mayora and Benson are founding members of a weekly Ithaca-area wine tasting group and friends with Underground owner Mike Mellor, who was in France when the interview took place.
The three share decades of industry experience. Hickson and Benson have worked a few Finger Lakes harvests, and Hickson and Mayora have sold fine wine in retail and restaurant settings for several years. Each has tasted and knows the flavor profile of every bottle the Underground carries, they said. Benson even leaves for Boston Sunday for her first sommelier certification exam.
As the shop's name suggests, the Underground stocks mostly lesser-known producers that are small in scale, and use sustainable and organic practices. Locally, the shop's brands include Heart & Hands Wine Co. in Union Springs, Grisamore Cider Works in Locke and Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett.
The wines, which evenly range worldwide, also come from countries like France and Spain. The former's highly regarded Burgundy grand cru vineyards are represented at the Underground alongside tiny family-owned estates like Francois Chidaine in the Touraine region, the staff said. The latter, Hickson continued, is represented by iconic, old-world producers whose output dates back to the 1800s alongside wines from Spain's Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, that were made from its native listán negro grape.
"Within the sections there are safe, tried-and-true styles of wine," Hickson said. "But within the countries we have these more obscure areas that even the nerdiest of nerds might not have had exposure to."
Whether it's citrus, black pepper or jammy berry, the wines of the Underground chart an expansive map of flavor, Mayora said.
"You can get flavors in some of these wines from different regions that you wouldn't necessarily find on their own, or as expressively demonstrated, in mass-produced, more homogeneously likable wines," he said.
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In the case of the shop's ciders, which come more concentratedly from the Finger Lakes, it's sometimes "the guy that pruned the trees" who drops off the shipments, Benson said. But the Underground also carries French ciders from Normandy, as well as Spanish sidra, whose classically tart character might appeal to fans of sour craft beers. Those and the shop's other ciders will explode the conception of the beverage among those only familiar with Stella Artois Cidre or Angry Orchard, the staff said.
The shop's relationship with local cider producers is evident at the Underground's eight rotating draft taps: The shop will often feature custom blends from local cideries, like the one it's currently pouring from South Hill Cider in Ithaca. Though staff can't serve by the glass, they can give customers two or three tiny samples before filling a 32-ounce growler. Customers can bring their own growlers, staff said, or buy an Underground-labeled one for $5.
Free samples will also be served from 5 to 8 p.m. every Friday at the shop, once a month as part of downtown Auburn's First Friday program. Hickson said the four-part tastings will focus on wine at first — often two reds and two whites — but will soon fold in ciders and spirits. They'll often be themed by grapes, regions or importers, he added.
The Underground will also host events with producers that fall outside the Friday tasting schedule, staff said. A guest pourer from South Hill will be joined by one from Barry Family Cellars in Burdett and an importer with Polaner Selections at the shop's grand opening celebration, which begins with a 4 p.m. ribbon-cutting Friday, Feb. 10. Tastings start at 5 p.m.
Inside the exposed brick downtown space, prepared by the Bartolotta family's R&M Real Estate Group, the staff of the Underground hopes their selection slots right into Auburn's burgeoning craft beverage scene. Though they're eager to curate the shop's wine, cider and spirits, they're ready to accommodate shy browsers, too: All of the shop's bottles come tagged with tasting notes.
WHAT: The Underground Bottle Shop
WHEN: Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: 29 E. Genesee St., Auburn