Mark Censits wants you to leave his wine store, Cool Vines, confident you’ve bought just the right spirit for your needs. And he wants to make it easier. Those were his goals in designing both the locations the local entrepreneur runs in Jersey City: one in the Powerhouse Arts District and the other near City Hall.
“The wine piece of it came from my own personal, frustrated journey of trying to understand this very obtuse and complicated consumer product category,” Censits said. “I think a lot of people felt the same way.”
Instead grouping wines by country of origin or grape variety, Cool Vines organizes and labels its wines by “taste profile” – using terms related to the color (red, white, rosé and orange), the method of production (still, sparkling, sweet, fortified), style (Modern, traditional) and body (light, medium and full). For wines that can be dry or sweet (eg. riesling) they code them as dry, off-dry or sweet.
“We don’t expect a customer to walk in and know the difference between the Loire Valley and the Rhone Valley in France and make a selection” Censits said. “My goal was to create a space where people could come shop for wine and feel safe that we had already done all the homework.”
Staff members are involved in tasting and picking wines, and they’re trained to guide customers to the best choices for their preferences or occasion.
The wines Censits carries come from around the world and range from $10 bottles to handcrafted varieties for $30 or $40. A typical bottle costs $15.
It was after working for large corporations that Censits decided to shift gears and create his own, more community-focused, business.
“I was working in the corporate world and decided it was time to do something more from the heart and something that was local, and I really wanted to do brick and mortar,” Censits told the Jersey City Times. “I was in consulting before this and it was so intangible, so doing something that was a place in the community was part of it as well.”
He opened the first Jersey City Cool Vines location in 2014, at first operating in a tiny space across the street from City Hall, then in 2016 moving into the current Grove Street location, which houses a specialty food market.
Next came the Powerhouse location at 350 Warren St. The Modera Lofts apartment building, a former warehouse that escaped demolition, called to Censits with its wood beams, loft ceilings, and exposed masonry. He opened a Cool Vines outpost on its ground floor in 2018 that contains an art space, a café that is also BYOB, and a section for accessories and gifts.
Censits has gone on to open locations in Hoboken and Newark.
Censits lives in Jersey City, one of his sons runs one of the stores, and his daughter, a designer, has worked on fixtures and store designs.
Gourmet food, which first debuted at the Grove Street store, is part of Censits’ plan to make the stores a “full suite of kind of similar lifestyle products with wine still at the core, but a lot of other things that complement the wine world.” To Censits, “design” is the operative word.
Centsis said most of the stores’ customers care about the source of the product, from both an environmental and a social standpoint.
“Now we’re paying attention to minority-owned and women-owned wineries and trying to spotlight them,” Censits said.
Wine and liquor delivery, a service Cool Vines already provided before the pandemic, became a core part of the business when Covid-19 restrictions on restaurant dining were put in place in 2020.
“We really had to beef it up, and so we expanded our territory. We ended up including Bayonne and Hoboken,” Censits said. “We had the car going out every day whereas before that it was just Wednesdays and Saturdays we did deliveries.”
Censits said during the height of Covid restrictions, “if you wanted alcohol, you couldn’t go out to a restaurant or a bar, so people were doing a lot more takeout. They were eating in their rooms and drinking good wine.”
After a period of the store feeling “sterile” with most of its customers requesting delivery, Cool Vines community events are now back on. The stores hold wine tastings every Friday and beer tastings every Thursday.
In addition to Covid-related challenges, Cool Vines also struggles to make its presence known outside the Grove Street location, which attracts people wandering through the shopping district. The Powerhouse store is in an arts district that’s “burgeoning in terms of apartments but not really yet terms of a lot of commercial activity,” Censits observed.
“Getting the message out of who we are, what we do, how we’re different, and why we think we have something unique to offer is still remains a challenge,” he said. “Giving people a reason to stop by and check us out is it’s still something that we have to work at every day.”
The store has a social media presence, posting about tastings, events and unique offerings on Instagram, but “people are so inundated now with information from social media and online media.”
Monthly live music events are sometimes paired with art exhibits at the Powerhouse store, where Art Wall JC, a non-profit program of Powerhouse Arts Festival Corp., puts up work by local artists. The events are free.
The next Art Wall opening will feature the work of Lucy Rovetto and take place Thursday, April 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. followed by live music from 8 to 10 p.m. Complimentary wine will be provided.