A new find in fine wine

Paul Vernon’s Top Ten Wines gives
connoisseurs a wide choice in costs and flavors
Wednesday, August 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

With about 700 different wines to choose from, Columbia’s newest wine shop is a connoisseur’s dream.

Although Top Ten Wines opened only two months ago, its owner and sole employee Paul Vernon is a veteran wine expert. Vernon is the former owner of Cherry Street Wine Cellar, and his new shop at 207 S. Ninth St. features a multitude of bottles, ranging from about $7 to $600.

Because he has no overhead costs or employees to pay, Vernon said, he can keep low prices. About 90 percent of Top Ten Wines’ current sales are bottles that cost $9 to $15. Top Ten Wines opened officially in the second week of June, and Vernon said he likes the location on Ninth Street because it is close to MU. The neighboring theater and jewelry and flower shops create a nice atmosphere, he said.

“It’s kind of a romantic situation,” he said.

Vernon owned Cherry Street Wine Cellar for 10 years, but his interest in wine began in 1987 when he was a senior at Rollins College in Florida. His degree is in political science, he said, and his hobbies include cooking and biking. Vernon is also a judge for the Governor’s Cup wine competition, which is a contest to honor the best quality wine produced in Missouri.

Vernon said he came up with the name of the shop to match consumers’ desires for rated wine lists. If he could name the store over again, he said with a laugh, he would probably name it Top Five Wines, because people tend to ignore the last few wines on his personal list.

The current top three wines on his “Red Values Under $20” list are Catena Cabernet Sauvignon, Hess Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Langmeil “Three Gardens.” The current top three wines on Vernon’s “White Values Under $20” list are Vega Sindona “Cuvee Allier,” Thornbury Sauvignon Blanc and Pikes Riesling.

Five years down the road, Vernon said, he would like to be selling more wine, but that is not always in his control.

“A lot of it just depends on the economy,” he said.

Other Columbia wine merchants agree with Vernon that the city is fertile ground for the wine market and that people’s perception of wine is changing.

“We’ve been here for 30 years,” said George Liggett, owner of The Nostalgia Shop, a wine store in Columbia. “The demand is great, and this is a great community.”

Liggett also said Americans are starting to appreciate wine more.

“It’s not just something that you go out to drink to alter your consciousness,” Liggett said. Americans are beginning to make wine part of their “dinner table” culture, much like Europeans, he said.

Vernon prides himself on “doing his homework” on wines, and said Top Ten Wines’ diverse inventory and the fact that he does direct importing from other countries makes his store unique.

Vernon, who believes that a large majority of the wine produced is rubbish, has plenty of advice for consumers: It can be hard to find high quality wine and there is a slim chance of encountering vendors who know their stuff. A qualified vendor can tell consumers everything they need to know to make an educated purchase.

“The way to find good wine is at every level to develop a relationship with the wine merchant,” he said.

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