Women’s History Month – In Conversation With Meg McNeill
The page on the calendar may have turned, but we had such a great response to our Women’s History Month interviews in March that we still have a couple of fantastic ladies to showcase throughout early April. This next profile took us to Dandelion Wine on Franklin Street on a quiet Monday night, to meet with the inimitable Meg McNeill, who was nominated for these reasons by her friend, Rachael:
Meg is an all-around wonderful person and especially awesome Greenpoint woman! She’s thoroughly involved in the neighborhood and Greenpoint community. From servicing it directly and providing us all with wonderful wine at Dandelion Wine, to supporting neighborhood businesses and friends, attending her friends’ music and art shows, to bringing a positive ‘tude to nearly every situation. PLUS she just became a Certified Sommelier, which is no small feat. All-around stand-up lady.
Meg opened a bottle of wine for us, set out some She Wolf Bakery bread for snacking, and a fascinating conversation followed with a very smart, warm, and funny neighborhood fixture.
GP: What first brought you to Dandelion, and when?
Meg: Dandelion was actually the first place I came when I moved to Greenpoint. Totally by chance. It was the middle of July, super hot, about five years ago. I was walking around and looking at neighborhood businesses, and I came in and bought a bottle of rosé from the owner, Lily. I didn’t have air conditioning, and I just wanted something to cool off with. So she sold me a Spanish rosé. I live above a bar on Manhattan Avenue, and became friends with one of the bartenders in there, and at some point while I was still working in the city, he was working here at Dandelion as well, and let me know that Lily was looking for someone to hire to manage social media and help her out managing the shop. She was just getting busier and busier. The timing worked out so well. I’ve been here about four years now; the store’s been here almost six.
GP: You guys have such a great visual presence on Tumblr – was that something that you helped launch when you came on staff?
Meg: Absolutely. We had kind of a basic website before, and switching to Tumblr made it so much easier for each of us individually to be able to contribute to the website and post things at a moment’s notice. That’s one of the best things about the interface – it’s really user-friendly. None of us are programmers at all. I asked my friend Steve from college to help; he’s an amazing graphic designer who also lives in Greenpoint, and is my nominator Rachael’s boyfriend. Lily and I met with him and just spouted out things we wanted on the website – including things like “water tower! corkscrew! flowers!” – and he made it all happen. I feel like we were one of those nightmare client stories you hear from graphic designers; like, “Do all this, and we want it tomorrow!” But he totally pulled it together for us. And our Tumblr’s been great ever since. We can post from our phones, we can post whenever we have something new, or an event to share.
GP: When you started at Dandelion, did you have some existing experience and interest in wine already?
Meg: I did, from bartending. I moved to New York after art school at Savannah College of Art & Design, right as the financial crisis was beginning, and I think I had stars in my eyes when I moved here, like, “Everything will just come together!” And I kind of realized quickly that things weren’t just going to fall in my lap. Luckily I had waited tables and bartended during college, and was able to get a job doing that here. One day, a wine director I worked with stopped me in the middle of inventory and said, “You know, this is also a job. You like this, and you could do this as a real thing.” I hadn’t ever really thought about it as a career before, but I was getting more and more interested in taking classes and spending extra time learning about our wine list. That’s what jumpstarted the interest for me.
GP: When you met Lily, did you bring that up, sort of like, “I want to help with social media, but also learn everything I can about wine”?
Meg: A little bit, but we just also hit it off really well. We met at a time that the shop was getting really busy, and she was realizing that she needed a little more support. So I was the first full-time employee. I’m still the only full-time employee! It ended up becoming such a great working relationship. And a great friendship, too. She’s like a sister.
GP: Rachael shared with us that you recently became certified as a sommelier; tell us about that decision to dive even further into your expertise and mastery of wine. How much work did that entail?
Meg: It was a lot of studying, and a lot of drinking! I just finished the second level, and there are two more after that, which I may or may not keep pursuing. I think I was just looking for a new challenge, and a new way to measure what I had learned. It was also a way to be forced to learn about the things I’d been less interested in. We’re very lucky here because we get to bring in whatever wines we like, and stray away from things that aren’t quite our particular taste. So this was a good way for me to learn about regions I was less familiar with, and to quantify the knowledge I already had. And I learned how to express what I learned about in a more eloquent way to our customers.
GP: I actually just got to experience hearing you interact with a customer on the phone when I first walked in, and you seemed like such a natural; I could see the sparks going off in your brain as you thought about what to recommend.
Meg: It’s really fun, because so many of our customers are amazing cooks. One of my favorite parts of working with wine in a restaurant was pairing it with meals. And here, I still get to do it, because people are making such incredible things at home, or bringing wine with them to parties. That’s been one of the fun parts for me – how creative and open-minded our customers already are.
GP: Do you find that a lot of people come in after the work day and say, “I’m making XYZ for dinner, what would go well with that”?
Meg: We definitely get a lot of that. From fish tacos, to really ambitious things, like, “We’re making homemade dumplings!” There’s also plenty of, “I’m ordering Thai food from OTT.”
GP: A customer just came in and while you rang him up we overheard you talking about an upcoming concert you were planning to go to – that’s a perfect tie-in to how Rachael highlighted the various ways you support your friends in the art and music communities. Tell us about that!
Meg: I’ve always been interested in music, and hearing what’s new. Trying to scope out new bands to love, as many of us do here in North Brooklyn. One of the ways I’ve found some cool bands is definitely through friends and co-workers. One of the guys who works here, Nelson, is in a band called The Finks, and they’re rad, so it’s been fun to go see them play. And Greenpoint has been gaining some great spots lately – Academy Records just moved over to Oak Street. I used to make record-shopping rounds to Williamsburg and back, and now I don’t have to go as far! There are so many good record stores. It’s like my Saturday morning routine; to hit Co-Op 87, and then Permanent and Academy. The record store clerks in our neighborhood are like record sommeliers; I can say, “I like Sharon Jones, what else do ya got?,” and they’ll tell me something amazing. It’s like how people come to me and say, “I like pinot noir, what else is there that I might be interested in?” And I might want to guide them towards gamay, or nebbiolo.
GP: I’m staring at all your records in here behind you; you guys are always playing awesome music. Is it completely employee-curated? Whatever you feel like listening to at the moment?
Meg: It is. I would say 3/4, maybe 5/6, of what’s here is from my collection. I bring them back and forth from home. Sometimes I buy them and bring them straight here, or other times I bring something in from home and take other ones back to my apartment with me. We posted recently on our Facebook to all of our customers, asking if anyone is handy enough to come build us record shelves. Right now they’re in old wine crates! Totally overflowing.
GP: So we’ve heard where you like to record shop. What are some other favorite places or things you like about the neighborhood?
Meg: You can find me several nights a week at Alameda. All the bartenders are friendly, and they have great food; I’m a vegetarian, but they have so many good options for both me and my meat-eating friends that we go there a lot. Nick, the chef, is a buddy of mine. Good wine, good vibe, they play fun music, and it’s so pretty in there. Perfect package! I also went to The Bounty recently and loved it; it was great. I really like Five Leaves too – so cozy. In the summer I can bring my dogs there with all the outdoor seating.
Before I lived in Greenpoint, I was in the city for two years, and I didn’t make any new friends. I didn’t really think twice about it at the time, but looking back it’s funny to compare that time to now. I lived in far west SoHo, had some college friends in the city, and friends from other parts of my life, but I didn’t make any new lifelong friends. Greenpoint has totally changed that. In the mornings walking down the street here I feel like it’s the beginning of the Disney movie Beauty & The Beast; Belle is walking around just being like, “Bonjour! Bonjour!” as there’s people she knows walking by carrying bread and babies and books. Sometimes I feel like that in Greenpoint!
People here are really open and invested in the community, both emotionally and business-wise. I moved all the time growing up, to a lot of different states, so New York in general is the first place I really got to choose to live on my own, and Greenpoint is the first place that has really felt like home. I’ve really put roots down here, and I feel like I belong.
GP: Can we ask you about some of the women in your life who you look up to?
Meg: My mom is amazing, and has always been incredibly encouraging and really independent. I feel like my mom can’t do anything wrong! She’s like Superwoman. I also have amazing girlfriends, like Rachael, and a couple other friends in the neighborhood as well, who inspire me every day with the things that they’re creating and the ideas they have. It’s rare that I’ll get a phone call at 9am from one of my friends and it’s not something amazing. There were years where it would be like, “Guess what I did last night?” but now it’s more like, “Guess what I thought of last night?”
It’s a weird and awesome transition; when did we stop just dreaming of doing all these things and actually start doing them? We’re becoming the people we wanted to be. Working for Lily here at Dandelion has also been such an inspiration. She’s an incredibly strong woman, incredibly assertive, and observing that has definitely changed my own interactions with people, whether it’s holding my own in a professional environment or in my personal life. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and it’s amazing. She opened this business all on her own, and it’s been so fun to join her and be along for the ride. She’s also made me feel like it’s a real possibility that I could also own my own business someday; it’s not so scary, having seen her do it.
GP: You really have such a knowledge base now to take forward with you. Would that be something you’d be interested in as part of your long-term plan, maybe opening your own spot?
Meg: I think so. I’d want to stay in Greenpoint. I would think about doing something like a wine bar. It’s what I would love to do. If I could open a tiny little spot, curate it on my own, and work there, and get to hang out with my friends and have that also be my job, and it wouldn’t be in competition with the store that I love so much, then yeah! I would love to be able to add something to the community.
GP: Before we go, we want to absorb some of your latest staff picks; it’s one of my favorite things about shopping here – all the handwritten recommendation cards hanging off the bottles. Take us through the shelves and point out a few new favorites.
Meg: We just got a rosé in that I’m totally obsessed with, from a California producer named Steve Matthiasson. He’s doing really amazing things in California, in Napa Valley. I’m amped about his wines, and he doesn’t produce a whole lot, so we felt really lucky to get some of it in our small shop.
GP: How do you learn about someone like Steve and make the decision to bring his wine into the store? Is it from paying really close attention to your industry?
Meg: I do read a lot, and go to a lot of tastings, but I also have amazing sales reps who sell us wine, and they’ll come in and taste us on things, and sometimes even bring the winemakers in to meet us personally. The best reps bring us wines that make sense for us. They have hundreds and hundreds of things that they could sell us, and there are definitely times that people have tried to bring us something that made no sense at all, and it’s clear that they’re just trying to unload. But our best reps really know us and can say, “You’re going to love this.” Whether that’s about it being at the right price point or that it’s a visually beautiful label – because that does matter in retail. And so many people in this neighborhood are design-oriented and very visual people. So it’s a natural inclination to want to pick out something beautiful.
GP: Do you and Lily ever source things based on travels you’ve taken to any of the major wine regions?
Meg: Yeah, both of us have taken trips. She went to Spain last spring, and I went to Greece at the end of the summer. Then I worked the grape harvest in the Finger Lakes. There’s a New York initiative in support of local winemakers; they got a grant last year to market New York wines, and they’ve been doing amazing things with it. It was fun; they took up a bunch of buyers and sommeliers and put us to work. All day we’d be working in the vineyards, picking grapes, crushing grapes, and cleaning the tanks with hoses, just whatever they needed us to do. And then at night, winemakers would come to dinner with all of us, with a chef making us dinner. It was so nice that it wasn’t a formal presentation. It was a really lovely way to be introduced to some new wines.
GP: This is making me think about an amazing short story by Roald Dahl about wine. It’s about these sort of know-it-all wine connoisseurs who think they can out-do each other at a dinner party. One man challenges another to a bet about the region, the vintage, etc – it’s a great satire about expertise and bluffing. Have you ever run into those types who are holier-than-thou about wine?
Meg: I think in any industry where there’s a lot to know, there’s going to be people who truly are experts, or people who carry a sense of pride about having learned a lot and gained a specialty. But sure, ego can get involved, but the best people stay humble. It’s easy to get show-offy, especially when wine professionals hang around each other, talking about what they drank last, or who they met. We can all play that game! There’s that thing people do too, when they ask a question, specifically to show that they already know something; they’re ostensibly trying to get information, but somehow they’re showing that they already know more. It’s so terrible!
Wine’s a tricky thing, because it’s so intimidating; there really is a lot to know, and none of us can ever know all of it. It’s a really thin line between trying to educate, and trying to show off or talk over people. People get scared quickly, and when people get scared, they shut down, and I don’t want that. I want people to want to learn a little bit more, be a bit more open, and say, “Okay, I’ve learned this much today – I’ll take this bottle home, I’ll drink it, and tomorrow I’ll come back and learn something different.”
GP: That’s something Dandelion really seems to embody well as a neighborhood store: not pushing too much on your customers, and not trying to up-sell or go beyond their budgets if they’re honest about what they can afford. Earlier on the phone I heard you recommending a $14 bottle to a customer, and I thought that was really democratic!
Meg: Often times people will tell us a budget, but we are in a neighborhood where people aren’t necessarily going to want to spend thirty bucks on a bottle of wine on a Monday night. And that’s another way to get someone to shut down real quick – to try to sell them something totally out of their range. You never want to embarrass or shame someone who’s trying to buy something from you. But our approach has also been a good pay-off in the long run, where people’s budgets for two years might be for $10 bottles, but then when they get that promotion at work, this is where they’re going to come and buy the champagne. We’ve been lucky in Greenpoint with so many loyal customers, and we get to watch their journeys in life through what they’re buying from us. From moving out of their roommate’s apartment into their boyfriend’s, and then getting married, and then having a baby – we’ve seen people go through that whole trajectory, and it’s really special to be part of. Now we’re on some people’s second babies!
Speaking of that, a lot of times I’m able to get a hunch when a customer is pregnant, because she’ll stop shopping here, and then I’ll see her on the street looking sheepish, like, “I know I haven’t been in in awhile…” And then later she’ll come by and say, “So, I have some news to tell you” – and I’m just like, “I already knew!”
Greenpointers, do yourselves a favor and go celebrate your next milestone with a recommendation from Meg – she’ll respect your budget and send you home with something unique and delicious! Thanks so much for sharing with us, Meg. Another few awesome Greenpoint women will conclude the series later this week.