Helen’s Bottle Shop — It’s What We Need


This may seem like far too grand a beginning for an article on a little wine shop in Manchester-by-the-Sea, but it is not.  I promise.

My clearly fated journey to Helen’s Bottle Shop began with a New York Times article about natural winemakers.  That brilliant aging California hippies were making wines using ambient yeast with little to no intervention did not surprise me at all.  How many chemicals, additives, and general ick was in conventional wines, on the other hand, definitely did.  It seemed that the big label wine I was drinking was manufactured in every possible way. Consequently, natural wine became very interesting to me.  The natural wine movement is not new.  It originated in the 1960s in the Beaujolais region of France.  The gist is that natural winemakers wanted to return to making the most unadulterated wine possible.  This often means no pesticides, chemicals, or additives and using only natural ambient yeast from the region in which the grapes are grown.  Some have distilled this down to simply “nothing added and nothing taken away.”  How beautifully logical.  I asked a few local wine sellers about natural wines and was met with consistent confusion or the assumption that I just meant organic.  Then, just days later, while picking up my weekly winter vegetable share at Alprilla Farm, I saw a beautiful card with the word “Helen’s” artfully displayed on the front.  On the back it announced a new “bottle shop” opening in Manchester selling wine and provisions.  I could perhaps ask there.  Later that week, while interviewing the awesome bread baker Stephanie Modahl of Bonny Breads, out of nowhere she exclaimed, “Last night, I had the best bottle of wine I have ever had!”.  There it was again.  Helen’s.  I visited the web site and was stunned to see the words “natural wine”.  No.  Way.

Walking in to the ethereal light filled space on School Street one feels at ease.  You want to stay.  You might even miss it a little when you are gone.  This is no accident.  The woman behind Helen’s is Alexis Harwood and she has put a lot of care into curating a space that feels this way.  Not to make you buy wine.  Not at all.  She is far more concerned with your experience;  The experience of finding something that you not only enjoy, but discover.  Alexis greeted me and patiently waited while I gushed about the unbelievable luck of having a natural wine shop arrive practically on my doorstep.  She seemed careful about not getting too into the politics of wine, but really just wanted to know more about what I liked in a wine.  What I liked in general.  She was doing what she loves, she was beginning to help me find my way to my own special wine experience.  She was listening. 

“Wine is not meant to be complicated,” Alexis explains. “  When did we start having to say ‘organic’ or ‘natural’?  Of course it’s natural.”  For her, the idea that you would ever offer something that was not both authentic and ethical does not make sense.  “Is what I am doing so amazing, so special, and unique?  Yes.  But — no.”  Alexis wants to share with you a wine that you enjoy, that comes from winemakers who care deeply about their wines and the land they farm.  She explains that she is incredibly proud to represent these artists, these gifted winemakers, and feels honored to share with us, this world.

One evening I popped by the shop for a wine tasting along with my best friend who was in town for the week.  We met James Mucci who, along with his brother Nick, represents a handful of small Italian winemakers.  While we tasted the six diverse wines James and Alexis had chosen, he shared stories about the farmers themselves, the land, how they had come to make wine, and how he and his brother had discovered them.  On his map, he showed us where the winemakers were, usually just outside of the big, well-known wine regions.  By the end I not only wanted to buy a bottle of wine, I wanted to get on a plane.  I left thinking — wine just got interesting again.

I later had the good fortune of attending a wine dinner at the home of Alexis and Jenny, Alexis’s fiancée and fellow chef.  The evening highlighted the wines of two French winemakers:  Sandrine Ferrugia and Elian Da Ros.  The line up of wines, each expertly paired with a superb dish, was outstanding.  Alexis’s 26 years in the restaurant and wine business were in full view as she and Jenny unfolded a truly exquisite evening.  But not unlike the wine tasting with James, one of the most memorable parts of the evening was Andrew Bishop one of the importers Alexis works with.  Andrew told lively stories of how he had come to work with Elian and Sandrine. He shared their unique stories and how their personalities were reflected in the wines they made. These marvelous details added another delicate layer to these already splendid wines.

It was on my fourth visit to Helen’s, as I was speaking to Alexis about my next wine purchase when the realization washed over me:  This was everything.  Right here.  Getting to know Alexis.  Alexis getting to know me.  Alexis asking questions and thinking hard about what I might enjoy.  Then, definitively handing me a bottle of wine and saying “This is the one.”  We were entering into a relationship.  And it was at this point that the universe unfolded:  It was all about relationships.

It took only a brief look around the shop to so see the extent to which Alexis already understood this.  The daily menu with Alprilla veggies, Cedar Rock greens, Bonny Breads.  James, his brother, and the small Italian wineries.  Andrew Bishop.  Elian and Sandrine.  The walls of the shop lined with bottles each with their own story.  And Alexis using her years and years of expertise to collect all of this together and then, offer it to us.

It is more than wine.  It is the people.  It is the stories.  It is the humanness of it all.  This is what Alexis brings in the form of the most exciting and wonderful wines I have ever had.  They are alive.  They are healthy and wild and gorgeous.  Alexis Harwood offers wines that come from people who care about what you drink, who care about the land they farm, and care about each other.  But moreover, Alexis gives us an opportunity to have a relationship with not only her but them as well.  This is what we need.  This is the ship we are all on.


This piece was written prior to the Coronavirus outbreak.  In these past weeks, Helen’s has personally delivered wines to people all over Cape Ann (ordered via helensbottleshop.com).  The Helen’s Instagram feed is a lovely chronicle of how Alexis has remained robustly involved in keeping us all well stocked with her glorious wines. The relationship continues.

alexis harwood, manchester, sandrine ferrugia, elian da ros, james mucci, stephanie modahl, france, cape ann, andrew bishop, natural wine, biodynamic wine, organic wine