Andy Lampasone sits on a gold mine of wine at Wine Watch, his boutique wine emporium in Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Village.
Emphasis on gold mine: The most expensive bottle, a 1995 Petrus Pomerol Bordeaux blend, costs $35,000.
Lampasone caters to South Florida’s serious wine enthusiasts inside his 6,000-square-foot shop and kitchen, a squat warehouse stocked with some 30,000 wines. Murals of dark wine cellars and sun-dappled Italian vineyards are splashed across the building’s exterior, but don’t bother looking for “Wine Watch” signage. Lampasone spends little on advertising, relying instead on word of mouth and online sales, he says.
“It’s 64 degrees year-round in here,” Lampasone deadpans from his chilly wine boutique on a recent Thursday, his head wrapped in a black-colored beanie. “Even though we’ve got established clientele and hard-to-find wines, it’s pretty intimidating in here for first-timers, so we give out a lot of advice. The big chains don’t go after these wines.”
How intimidating does Wine Watch look inside? Answer: Think Napa Valley tasting room on steroids. Customers first enter what Lampasone dubs the “wine cave,” a dimly lit grotto stocked floor-to-ceiling with thousands of bottles. Wines from Robert Mondavi chardonnays to Oregon pinot noirs sit in recessed cubby holes along the walls, painted stone-gray so the room feels like a dark catacomb. (“It’s mostly foam, zip ties and paint,” Lampasone says with a laugh.)
The room beyond the “wine cave” is the wine bar, a warm, eight-table dining hall with an L-shaped bar. The room is wallpapered in a tapestry of vintage wine labels, and its all-wood ceiling is built from a mosaic of recycled wine crates.
For novice drinkers craving a few sips (as opposed to, say, a $1,000 chardonnay), don’t fret: Wine Watch lists a menu of wines by the glass at the bar (the list is online), ranging from reasonable ($7.75 for a French rosé) to eye-popping ($135 for Krug Rose Brut Champagne). Not sure what to order? Tell the server what you like to drink, and they’ll guide you from there.
Founded by the late wine expert Jim Turner, the 35-year-old shop has been owned and operated for the past 20 years by Lampasone, who moved to the warehouse when Wine Watch’s lease expired in May across the street at the old Progresso building. The larger digs have afforded him more space to host intimate, tapas-style wine dinners and rare winetastings – glitzy events where global vintages are often uncorked by master sommeliers invited from far-flung countries.
Most visitors are wine lovers from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, often hunting for rarer reds and whites than the bottles on Publix’s wine aisle. Out-of-towners are also common, he says.
“We get a lot of long-distance travelers at our tastings,” says Lampasone, a former sommelier at Café Maxx in the mid-’90s. “One guy from Norway who saw a $5,000 bottle of 1795 Tarantas on our website saw we had a tasting of it coming up. It was cheaper for him to fly here, get a ritzy hotel and buy our tasting than it was to buy the actual bottle.”
There are three to four winetastings per week, intimate sit-downs of 15 drinkers that sell out the month before and range from $55 to as much as $1,000, Lampasone says. His wife, Toni, cooks the dinners – the menu changes weekly – while Lampasone recommends the wine pairings. Dinners are Thursday-Saturday and start around $125 (this week’s menu lists mushroom carpaccio, caviar, short rib and butternut squash ravioli).
Chich Carrion, one of Wine Watch’s longtime employees, says Lampasone is an encyclopedia of wine (“He knows everything,” he says), but it’s his charm and wine-pairing advice that brings customers back.
“He know their palettes,” Carrion says. “People say, ‘This is what I like,’ and he knows exactly which bottle to grab off the shelf.”
Wine Watch is open 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at 837 NE Third Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. To reserve tastings and dinners, call 954-523-9463 or go to WineWatch.com.
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