Wines for the Connoisseur and Common Man

By Beacon Staff

When Whitefish resident Ron Scharfe first had the idea for a specialty wine, cheese and meat shop 10 years ago, he tabled the business venture because he didn’t feel the valley was ready for it.

“With any specialty shop, whether it’s outdoor gear or wines and cheeses, it’s especially important that you have a solid core of customers,” he said. “I didn’t think that was here, yet.”

The valley has boomed, though, over the last decade and Scharfe, with the help of two local food and wine specialists, will open Uncorked in the same business complex as the Blue Cow Car Wash on U.S. Highway 93 in the next two weeks. Nicole Albee will run the store’s meat, cheese and olive bar, while Andrew Topel will act as the shop’s wine consultant.

The trio says the valley’s population upsurge has brought not only a larger base of customers, but also a group that’s more interested in specialty foods and wine. Many of the valley’s newer residents, they say, come from larger cities where they enjoyed similar stores featuring meats, cheeses and wines beyond the standard grocery store fare.

Empty bottles of wine frame the walls of Uncorked near lights hanging in the new wine, meat and cheese specialty store.

The inside of the store combines industrial elements with ornate touches: chandeliers hang at different heights from the building’s unfinished ceiling, gold mirrors line one wall and metal, industrial shelves – similar to garage racks – hold Italian pasta, over 30 types of olive oil and fine sauces. The goal, Scharfe said, is to make customers feel like the store is comparable to what they could find in a metropolitan area. More than 1,000 bottles of wine will sit on wooden racks.

“I think there’s more of a food and wine sophistication in the valley – not in a snobby way, but in the sense that I think people would enjoy having a place to come where they can talk to people about wines and cheeses and meats and try new things,” Scharfe said.

The owners stress, though, that Uncorked is not just for the valley’s newcomers, the affluent or those already well versed in the finer characteristics of their products. Each of the three brings a large amount of experience to their positions – and they’re eager to share their knowledge.

Albee grew up working in her mother’s New York wine, cheese and catering business, and has spent the past 15 years working similar jobs in Whitefish. Topel has worked in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, including running Café Kandahar on Big Mountain.

Inexperienced buyers shouldn’t be intimidated to come into the store and ask for help, Topel said. “It’s my job to match the customer up with a type of wine they’ll enjoy that’s in their price range,” he said. “I’m not the type that if they come in for a $17 bottle of chardonnay, I’m going to push them to leave with a $32 bottle.”

Andrew Topel arranges products on top of a shelf at Uncorked. Topel is the specialty shop’s wine consultant.

With so many wines in stock, Topel said, prices could range anywhere from $6 a bottle to $600. While those pricier options are wonderful, he added that those with less expensive tastes don’t have to suffer bad wine.

“Lately, I’ve been drinking a couple of $6 bottles of Washington chardonnays that I think are a great steal,” he said. The store will also feature 12 wines for less than $12 each month.

Scharfe, who opened Rocky Mountain Outfitter with his brother Don, likened Uncorked’s atmosphere to the popular downtown outdoor gear store.

“There people come in and say they need a hiking shoe – they don’t know what kind is best for them, but that’s why that staff is knowledgeable enough to provide them with that service,” he said. “Here, someone should feel free to come in and say, ‘I need a bottle of wine that goes with chicken and a spicy sauce. What’s best?’ And it’s our job to know.”