Cautionary Tale: The Uncorking of Famed New York Wine Shop, Sherry Lehmann
Wine is more than just a beverage; it is art. We like to refer to it as glass art around our wine shop. At the corner of Park Ave and 59th Street in Manhattan, there was a wine shop that stood as the standard for service and selection–Sherry Lehman (SL for short as part of their logo read).
Over the years, this FAO Schwarz for oenophiles developed a loyal client base and garnered a sterling reputation. However, as with all stories, there came a turning point. Writers, from books to tv, will say that success is cumbersome because at some point the winning has to stop if there is going to be a story to tell. There is all this groundwork to get the reader invested in the journey and if the fall is not carefully choreographed then the arc loses fullness. There is no parbaking for writers or more appropriately wine. Let's delve into the rise and fall of Sherry Lehman based on a perusal of Google reviews and news reports.
In the early days, Sherry Lehman's rise to prominence was fueled by its unwavering commitment to providing an exceptional wine-buying experience. While their selection was vast, the store was a shrine to First Growth Bordeaux, including the five chateaux that comprise the category, i.e. Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Mouton Rothschild. The rarity and eye popping prices of these uber wines were always something to marvel at and aspire to when you were just picking up a bottle of Meiomi because they had that too. To mention the first growth stash and not remark about the $100,000 double mangum 1975 bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild signed by Andy Warhol that they had for sale would be an epic fail. This two to three sentence stroll about the bordeaux has me imagining the most enthusiastic of bordeaux lovers running out of SL shouting on the crowded sidewalks of New York as the many buses hiss by–it’s about the bordeaux, it’s about the fucking bordeaux!
But it wasn’t just about the bordeaux. It was about the Dom Perignon champagne that they would deliver on ice in Dom Perignon tin to events at Bergdoff Goodman around the corner. It was about Hollywood, the associate with the awesome nickname, who knew everyone by name and could recommend the perfect wine for any occasion instantly every time. Hollywood’s job was surely made easier being surrounded by the premium point of sale that was carefully curated throughout the store especially in the windows. Their Veuve Clicqout and Louis XIII window displays were always approaching if not surpassing the inspiration in the windows of the high fashion stores in the city. The regular wine tastings also contributed to SL lore.
However, shit happens. The following is a sample of how SL’s Google reviews have read for the last few years. “Avoid this place at all costs.” “If only I could leave zero stars.” “They never delivered my wine.” I have been waiting for a refund for two years.” “I had to email them 40 times.” “Scam.”
Suffice to say that as the years passed, some customers began to notice a deterioration at SL. The shelves were no longer well stocked with each and every label out. The inventory grew sparse. In their defence there was champagne shortage during the Pandemic, around when someone took to Google to complain that the whole store was out of champagne. But in lieu of prosecco they can stock their shelves with prosecco. Maybe they did. However, the belligerent tone in which the emptiness is described indicates that it was just not limited to champagne. Empty shelves send customers the worst message you could ever send in the hypercompetitive retail world–the message that we don’t care. They did not care what you thought about their physical storefront and the same applied to their online store.
As a wine shop with a heavy focus on sales online, we suspect from the Google complaints that they were ghosting inventory. What this means is that they did not own the bottle of wine at the time of your order. This is tricky if you are not constantly monitoring how much your vendors have on hand. While it may only take a day or two to get the wine after the purchase, if the vendor is out of stock then you cannot fulfill the order so it needs to be canceled and thus the customer is disappointed. Disappointment is one thing but Google reviews and news reports indicate that SL was defrauding customers by never issuing refunds in numerous cases.
Sadly yet unsurprisingly, what was once a snow globe of a wine store that would bring joy to so many for over 85 Christmases was raided by a mult-agency task force on Jul 21, 2023. From the unmarked vans that pulled up to conduct the raid, it was hard to tell who was who. But from agency jackets and official statements, the F.B.I., N.Y.P.D. and U.S.P.S. were represented. Not long before the raid, SL was already in financial troubles with the State of New York. They owe $3 million dollars in sales and use taxes stretching back to 2020 and were placed on cash on delivery status by the New York Liquor Authority for being delinquent to a number of suppliers. According to a report, some suppliers have stopped doing business with the retailer for some time and another is on record as saying that they will only do business with SL after their check cashes and is in their bank account for at least two days.
Many attribute the fall to shifts in the store's management and an increasing focus on mass-market wines, which alienated the store's legacy audience. But the legal problems certainly have nothing to do with focusing on wines with the most views and likes on Instagram and TikTok. Management is to blame but we will not hypothesize why they did not pay their bills. That does appear to be the underlying problem of it all though.
In the annals of New York's wine history, Sherry Lehman will always hold a cherished place. The authoritative Wine Spectator once called them “the Queen of Wine Shops.” Its rise was based on the old fashioned principle of caring about what you sell and the people who you sell to. I raise my glass to Hollywood who clearly understood this ethos.