Pennsylvania’s notoriously confusing wine laws have loosened up ever so slightly, paving the way for shops like Vernick Wine to sell bottles that you won't find in the city’s state-run wine shops.

By Regan Stephens
Updated November 14, 2019

Seven years after Greg Vernick opened his eponymous Philadelphia restaurant, the James Beard Award-winning chef has expanded his group with three new concepts in the span of about 13 months: Vernick Coffee Bar opened in the Comcast Technology Center last October, with Vernick Fish opening on the ground floor of the Four Seasons hotel in the same building in August. On Wednesday, the group opens a wine shop next to Vernick Food & Drink called—what else?—Vernick Wine.

Greg Vernick
Credit: Steve Legato

Three years in the making, the shop is actually a byproduct of increasing the Rittenhouse Square restaurant’s private dining capacity. When the lease came up on a space next door, the team took the opportunity to expand their offering—Food & Drink can host private events for up to 12, while Vernick Wine has room for about 32 seated diners.

“We had all this negative space that we wanted to be able to take advantage of during off-peak times,” says Vernick. “It was [general manager Ryan Mulholland’s] idea to do a boutique, very well-curated wine shop, that would function during the day as a wine shop, and at night be converted into a dining room.”

The chef was also inspired by a restaurant-cum-wine shop in Portland, Maine called Drifter’s Wife. “The manager’s selling wine, but also greeting you and taking you to your table, and my wife Julie and I just loved it,” he says. “It was a fun, interactive, educational, and delicious way to spend the night.”

Vernick Wine Bar Opens Philadelphia
Credit: Taylor Chlebina

Around the same time the team leased the new space, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) introduced a wine expanded permit, allowing a restaurant licensee to sell up to 3,000 milliliters of wine, or four traditional bottles. Historically, thanks to the state’s strict wine and liquor laws, shopping in state-run wine stores can be a little depressing to oenophiles, or anyone who appreciates a wine shop sales rep who knows their way around a $12 table. Which is to say, state stores, as they’re called by locals, usually have a limited selection and are staffed by state employees who often know little about the bottles they’re selling.

While it also has its own Walnut Street entrance, a door, custom-made by a woodworker in Kensington to look like a Champagne riddling rack, connects the restaurant with Vernick Wine. Local architecture firm Eimer Design designed the space, taking inspiration from its original life as an elegant 19th-century townhouse, adding custom millwork and a mix of hardwood and tiled floors. An ornamental plaster ceiling dates back to the 1850s, and wooden tables and wall shelves display about 120 different bottles.

The bottles, curated by wine director Ray Gazdzinski with help from Vernick Wine manager Briton Alonsoand service manager James Smith, will range from about $15 to $100 each. Nothing in the shop will be available at a PLCB store, with a selection that, according to Gazdzinski, focuses on small producers, and leans toward natural, organic, and biodynamic wines.

“This allows us to diversify our wine list a little bit more, because we have more space,” says the wine director. A few local producers will be on offer, too, like Vox Vineti and Maple Springs. JB Bernstein, beverage manager for both concepts, will be putting together a list of sherry, vermouth, and other fortified wines.

Vernick Wine Bar Opens Philadelphia
Credit: Taylor Chlebina

But the selection won’t be the only draw at Vernick Wine—part of the allure of a shop like this is in the sellers’ knowledge.

“We wanted to make sure that we could bring that experience of going into a wine shop and talking to somebody who’s excited about the wine on the shelves,” Mulholland says. Shoppers can also buy a glass of wine to drink while they peruse the selection.

Besides selling bottles of wine that have historically been hard to find in the city, the space also includes its own kitchen, which will be regularly used by the restaurant’s pastry chef Michael O’lone. With a table that seats about eight diners, the kitchen can also accommodate a private chef’s dinner prepared by Greg Vernick, alongside chef de cuisine Robert Newcomb. Most likely, they’ll start rolling these out as pop-ups advertised on social media.

Also down the line, the wine shop will host winemaker dinners, tastings and classes, and, taking a little inspiration from Napa Valley general stores, sell other to-go provisions. (Think pies and quarts of soup.)

“All the little general stores in wine country are so well curated,” says Vernick. “They're very connected to the community, with warm service. You have these incredible moments there, and we’d like to capture a little bit of that.”