A rabbit hole may lead one to a subconscious wonderland inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures and nonsensical logic puzzles. Suzy McDonald’s rabbit hole, however, is intimately routed to wine.
McDonald, a native of Bayport and owner of Down the Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique in Sayville, spent her adolescence governed by structure as a competitive figure skater. After suffering a hip injury while training in Russia, however, she replaced five-hour days of on-ice training and an intense travel schedule with a job at Amanti Vino, a wine boutique in Montclair, New Jersey. The owner, Sharon Sevrens, previously ditched an unsatisfying career on Wall Street for professional exploration and, eventually, opened Amanti Vino. The transition inspired McDonald, who constantly “felt deprived on a strict diet and crazy training schedule,” to reexamine her own path. A longtime aficionado of wine, she returned to Long Island in 2006 with an enlightened palate and a new objective.
“I could have returned to training, after the recovery, but I wanted to do something fun and make my own hours,” says McDonald. “There was always a shortage of wine shops on Long Island that sold small vineyards and oddball stuff. Fortunately, I found the perfect place to open my own.”
The “perfect place” was a narrow storage room within the Sayville Chocolatier, a Main Street–located chocolate shop owned by McDonald’s friends Mary Ellen and Ron Verbarg. Though only 110 square feet and originally an alleyway, the space’s resemblance to a mystical, wisdom-imparting corridor or, well, rabbit hole, resonated with McDonald, who wanted to present her business as a gateway to wine, and wine as a palpable culture. She opened Down the Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique in 2007 and has created an intimate environment for education, as customers are immediately greeted upon entering by McDonald’s affable smile and a glass of the day’s sample.
While wine is primarily classified by appellation and varietal, McDonald organizes her rotating inventory of 100-ish artisan liquids by taste sensation. The descriptors—“spicy,” “earthy,” “herbal” and “fruity”—provide an intuitive experience for the customer, who may lack confidence, education or both, while selecting wine. If one prefers a fruity profile, for example, McDonald may suggest Domaine du Bagnol Cassis, a delicate French rosé with notes of wild strawberry, rose hips and sea salt.
“The interaction is guided by the person’s taste buds,” says McDonald. “If you don’t regularly study or taste, the world of wine can be confusing. I want the experience to be friendly and directed by the consumer.”
Every wine is also accompanied by custom tasting notes, which provide “an encapsulation of what the experience could mirror, like walking along the Seine River,” says McDonald. The evocative descriptions are appropriate for Down the Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique, an establishment where curious minds, and palates, can wander and thrive.