Meet Our New Wine Experts: Tracy Maxon and J.J. Berlingo of Varmax Liquor Pantry


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Roger Maxon opened Varmax Liquor Pantry on Putnam Avenue in Port Chester, on Easter weekend in 1980. It was a small shop that stocked a few popular labels — Gallo, Mondavi, wicker-basket Chianti — but it was probably better known for the whistling and meowing African Grey parrot in the corner than for its wine selection.

Over the past 34 years, the store has expanded six times, and today, its inventory appeals to casual shoppers popping in for a bottle of wine and wine snobs alike.

“As people’s palates grew and people learned to appreciate (wine), we kind of grew along with it,” says owner Tracy Maxon, Roger’s daughter, and the store’s sales manager.

The shop now employs a well-educated wine team that keeps up with the trends by taking classes and doing tastings. And when a new bottle comes into the shop, all five members must give it their OK. “It’s very democratic,” says Tracy. “We taste things, and if we all want to get behind it together, we will.”

It’s that expertise that led us to selecting Maxon and wine and spirits consultant J.J. Berlingo to be our wine experts-in-residence for Summer 2014. For the next 12 Wednesdays in Life&Style, they’ll choose our LoHud Wine of the Week and include tasting notes and suggestions for pairings. (Click here to see their first recommendation, a Karine Lauverjat Sancerre Rosé 2013.)

We’ll also feature the wines on social media using #lohudfood, so you can follow along and ask Varmax your own questions. At the end of the 12 weeks, we’ll review our Mixed Case and recap their choices.

And we’ll turn to Varmax for suggestions for pairing wines with meals. We’ve already asked them to recommend some of our favorite summer sippers: Rosé wines. (Look for that story in a couple of weeks.)

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“We have a lot of fun tasting (rosés),” says Maxon. “We have fun picking out about half of them new every year. We have a couple that are just $7.99, but you taste these wines, and you say ‘This is as good as a $15 rosé.’ And that’s where we love to find the sweet spot.”

Maxon is also a big fan of riesling during the summer.

“I just love tasting the differences in vintages and classifications with the German wines,” she says. “There’s just so much there that I could sip that all summer long.

“They have more complexity than most whites, to me,” she continued. “They’re good for food, good for drinking outside, just so much flavor.”

There are 18 members on staff, and they help stock the 8,000-square-foot emporium with about 5,000 different labels, all divided by country and region, and then by varietal within that. Well-priced bottles are in the center of the store — an easy grab-and-go.

“With both wine and spirits, we have the standards, we have the brands that you recognize,” says Maxon. “And we also have things that you’ve never heard of that we really have fun recommending.”

Lately, Maxon says, there’s great quality and value in Chablis. “They’re clean, fresh and lively. We’ve really expanded.” Same with Pouilly Fuissé.

But the recommendations she and the team make change all the time. “It’s different every day,” she says. “You’re talking to people, and you could be going from Bordeaux to California in 10 minutes. So it keeps your mind sharp — plus it’s fun. You get to taste wine! You can’t beat that.”

And as for Roger and his pet bird? Tracy says her dad is still around, “but he’s out on the golf course.” And the parrot? His name is Toto. He’s still sitting in the cage in the corner, whistling and meowing. Go over and say hi. He’s awfully friendly.

If you go …

Varmax Liquor Pantry, 16 Putnam Ave., Port Chester. 914-937-4930, varmax .com. Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday.


About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

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