Josh and Stephanie Cohen, and Jeff Patten

Alumni export their legal background to the world of wines

By Alec Scott / Photography by Blaise Hayward

“It's something of a … weird white. Do you want to try it?” Josh Cohen says in a diffident voice, holding up a bottle of French wine to show the label to a customer who's come into the shop. His expression says no pressure, just as you wish.

She looks dubious, her Burberry trench darkened by the April shower outside, but she ventures a sip. Some pleasure hits her face.  “Nice,” she says. “Minerally. Nice. But, yes, weird.”

It's late afternoon in the backroom of Flatiron Wines & Spirits, the brainchild of four people, two couples: Cohen, his wife Stephanie, his great friend Jeff Patten (all three graduates of the Faculty of Law) and Patten's wife Natasha. The new shop just south of Midtown is named for the iconic building a block away, and has bottles of some of the more than 2000 wines it stocks in front of exposed brick walls. It is one of several food-and-drink shops to transform a formerly derelict part of Manhattan into a gastronome's destination—a branch of Eataly, the gourmet food store associated with chef Mario Batali, has just opened nearby, as has another of the couples' joint ventures: one of their two branches of the ne plus ultra of kitchenware shops, Whisk.

After graduating at the Faculty in 2000, the three law grads all worked for blue-chip New York firms: Jeff for Sidley Austin LLP, Josh for Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Stephanie for White & Case (after articling, in Toronto, at Fasken Martineau). While providing strategic advice on the fledgling businesses, Stephanie has remained, as she says, in the “law game”—recently going out on her own as an international commercial arbitrator. But Josh and Jeff, friends from Nepean High School who then went to McGill University (where Jeff met Natasha) and U of T Law (where Josh met Stephanie) have both left the practice behind.

“I always wanted to go into business for myself, that was always the ultimate aim,” Jeff says. “If anyone thought I was crazy to leave the relatively sure thing of the practice behind, no one said it out loud.”

During his fifth year at Sullivan & Cromwell, Josh knew he was going to check out. He had steeled himself to tell the partner who sent him the most work when that partner called in a panic, wanting him to do an emergency deal. “I did the deal then told him. Otherwise, it would have looked bad. They were used to people leaving to go in-house at major corporations, to other big firms, or smaller, specialized firms, but not at all used to people leaving to start up relatively small businesses. They were positive and supportive.”

The pay cut for both, initially, was large—though Jeff says the earnings from their businesses, if they took them out, by now would exceed his salary as a senior associate. “But we just take out what we need to live on, no more.” Both couples have kids—the Cohens, a four-year-old daughter, the Pattens, three under six—and live blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, allowing a constant four-way personal and professional to-and-fro between them.

The weekend I'm there, I randomly run into the Cohens in Brooklyn getting birthday party gear for their Madeleine. Their first wine shop Blanc & Rouge is also in that trendy borough and specializes in organic wines, most at a moderate price point. “They loved wines, our customers, but a lot of them had medium budgets,” Jeff says.

“Coming to Manhattan is a big deal,” Josh says. “The Broadway address gives you credibility. Many of our clientele are very sophisticated, knowledgeable about wine, and they expect that extra level from you.”

The buzz around the new shop, barely a year old, is already considerable, with Florence Fabricant, the influential critic at the New York Times, mentioning it within weeks of its opening: “Regions they like include Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Piedmont, the Rhone Valley, the Mosel, Champagne and Northern California.” Since then the Village Voice has named it among its top ten New York stores, and the Financial Times among its top five.

But the shop nearly didn't happen—and the law degrees came in handy. The lease was signed during the post-downturn real estate dive, but then renovations began at the unused building. As the work proceeded, the market picked up and the landlord, one of New York's biggest property holders, tried to exit the arrangement, knowing it could now get more for the same space. “They thought we were just these kids from Brooklyn,” Stephanie says, “That we were going to roll over. They had much deeper pockets, there was the threat of litigation … but it worked out.”

They still call on their legal training to help navigate New York's byzantine liquor regulations, but the main focus has been on learning about wines and building a business with a distinctive approach. Organic remains a forte; long suits are the wines of the underrated Mosel and the so-called California New Wave (see Tasting Notes sidebar). And while they carry many high-end wines, the store's centrepiece is a grab-and-go bin of quality wines for $15 or less.

Their tasting notes are careful, not at all as purple as those pieces of writing tend to be, and there's a refreshing lack of pretension on offer here. Later I ask Josh about that “weird” wine, and then, and only then, he explains that it's a “Bourgogne Aligote Plantation 1902, a very rare bottling of an old clone of Aligote from vines planted in 1902.” And goes on to describe, again with great precision, what exactly that back-story means to the wine's taste.

For him, the love affair with wine began when he visited his grandfather and grandmother in France, and they took him on tastings. “It was special in Vouvray, and so we have a lot of wines from there. My grandfather was a French-Canadian avocat and notary, a Jesuit-trained man, whose work for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees took him there. His love of wine was only one aspect of this wider sense of culture to him.”

The others soon caught the wine bug. Stephanie recalls: “Josh and I studied in Paris on an exchange from U of T. Jeff came to visit for six weeks, skipping three weeks of classes, and we all went to Bordeaux. I didn't drink much wine then.”

Jeff laughs: “We sure brought you around.”

“They were just studenty wines in jugs,” Josh says. “What we could afford then. But still, this is why we're in this business. You remember how it was; it helps make a moment that much … more.” They're silent for a few seconds, eyes going a bit inward, and maybe all of them are conjuring up their separate memories of that shared idyll.

Jeff pulls out first: “One of the perks of this job is going to the places where wine is made, learning about it.” He and Josh are just back from a trip to the caves and chateaux of Beaujolais with the renowned importer Kermit Lynch. “You never think at those moments, 'Oh I could be doing due diligence in a corporation's document-storage room.'”

Tasting Notes

The U of T law grads welcome fellow alumni visiting New York—connoisseurs and those with less developed palates—to their casual Friday, Saturday and Sunday tastings at  929 Broadway ( At the moment, Jeff Patten says Manhattan's aficionados are all about sherry (on the spirit side), certain Rieslings and small plantings from a new school of growers in California, known as the “New Wave.” Josh Cohen later explains the term: “It's not heavily-oaked wine, not those big wines that work well as a cocktail, but less so with food. The new ones are mainly dry-farmed, subtler, not oaky and pair well with food.”

For newcomers to the world of wine wanting to learn, he recommends, oddly, a set of Japanese graphic novels as a way in. “Drops of God is very Japanese, about one's role in the family and overarching duty to one's parents, but it captures something of what is special about wine.” (The conceit: two sons of a famous Japanese wine-critic father compete to show who is more worthy of inheriting his cellar.) “The wine world follows the series, and when a wine is mentioned there, its price can go way up. Small growths mentioned in it sell out almost immediately.”