With two locations just outside of Philadelphia’s city limits, 320 Market Cafe is the kind of specialty shop that anyone would be thrilled to have in their neighborhood. There are neatly stacked displays of locally grown produce, breads from artisan bakeries, and a cheese selection that would make any monger proud. Coolers are packed with craft beers, taps primed to fill growlers to go, and then there are the wines.
Look closely and you’ll find bottles from natural winemaking pioneers Arianna Occhipinti, Frank Cornelissen, and Thierry Puzelat alongside newcomers like Fossil & Fawn, Bichi, and La Boutanche. Those with a penchant for drinking natural in Pennsylvania know that seeing these bottles in the retail wild is truly a sight to behold. Something akin to spotting a bottle of perfectly chilled Pét-Nat in a sea of room temp J. Roget.
Without getting too caught up in the politics of drinking in Pennsylvania, the state government has a monopoly over both wholesale and retail sales of anything with an ABV. Long story short, when the government runs the bulk of the state’s wine and spirits stores, the selection is generally going to be more mass-market than hand-chosen gems.
A pair of oases in the Philadelphia suburbs, 320’s well-sourced wine selection is thanks to the work of Jack Cunicelli. His father opened the original 320 Market Cafe in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania back in 1991. “It was a lot of hubris and not a lot of experience,” explains Cunicelli.
Cunicelli’s father was an accountant by trade and an entrepreneur by spirit. His idea was to open a business that his children could take part in. The operation began as a small produce market, sourcing vegetables and fruits from nearby farms in New Jersey, bringing in bread from mom and pop bakeries, and eventually incorporating more locally made products into the shop’s rotation. This sort of careful curation might be par for the course these days, but in the early 90s, 320 was doing something revolutionary.
“I was a suburban kid and seeing the connection to where food comes from, it was like a spark went off and I was really into it,” Cunicelli explains.
Over the years Cunicelli took that passion for sourcing and ran with it. During his honeymoon to Sicily in 2009, he was seeking out small cheesemakers on the north side of Mount Etna when a chance meeting with a group of foragers led him to natural wine, specifically the wines of Frank Cornelissen. “The wines were feral and crazy. I’d never tasted anything like that in my life.”
While Cornelissen’s wines were a revelation to Cunicelli, he had been studying classic styles at the Wine School of Philadelphia but the Bordeaux and Burgundies that he’d been tasting through didn’t speak to him in the same manner.
Cunicelli’s parents were teetotalers, and beer and wine had never been part of 320’s business plan. But when state regulations relaxed and a small number of bottle shop licenses became available to retailers, 320 took advantage first for beer and then for wine.
Being out in the burbs hasn’t stopped Cunicelli from seeking out the importers bringing the bottles that he wanted. A fateful meeting with Álvaro de la Viña of Selections de la Viña over a bottle of Marenas Bajo Velo led to a trip to Spain in 2017. He had the chance to visit Finca Parera, and now liters of bright Fins Als Kullons are available at 320. Through a mutual acquaintance at Zev Rovine Selections, Cunicelli had a chance to spend an evening with his first unmanipulated love, Cornelissen, ensuring that Susucaru and the other bottles that initially ignited his passion will always be a mainstay at the shops.
And while the natural world remains an unexplored frontier for most wine drinkers in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, for Cunicelli it’s an opportunity to open his clientele’s eyes to a new way of drinking.
“I want to sell something that I’m passionate about,” he says. “I’m not judgmental. I’m just passionate about certain styles of wine and I’m not a good liar.”
With the opportunity to sell bottles to go and glasses to enjoy in store, Cunicelli could certainly do a bustling business in Pinot Grigio and New Zealand Sauv Blanc, but that’s never been his thing. This glass list regularly lists fun pours of Pét-Nat and new school California producers, priced more for introduction and exploration than concern for the bottom line.
Whether it’s chatting on the floor of the shops or engaging with customers via 320’s excellent and very active Instagram account, Cunicelli is having huge success bringing natural wine to the state through one on one conversations and connections.
“Connecting and forming relationships, that’s really the most important part of the equation for me,” says Cunicelli. It’s finding winemakers who are conscientious about how they treat the earth and their fruit and customers who share a similar worldview. “Once those things are established, we can have a rapport and a connection, and there’s no way I’m not going to be turning people on to these wines.”
Caroline Russock is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. This is Caroline Russock’s first feature for Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of 320 Market Cafe.