Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"More Than A Beverage, More Than A Beverage To Me......."

“You knew this would happen. I move south and I just can’t seem to make it up here anymore.” The words of a longtime, long time ago customer that stopped by the shop the other night. A kind hearted surgeon that was a once or twice a week drop by that would drop anywhere between $80 and $250, depending on the day of the week, on high-end Chardonnay. He’d been in line waiting and I saw his head craning a bit, just checking out the changes in the shop since he was there last, maybe looking for a face he knew, that’s when I tossed out the, “Well how the hell how you been?” big smile on my mug as I emerged from the tasting room where I had been checking my wines for that evening’s class. I could literally feel him softening when he saw me, like there was some kind of relief in seeing a face he recognized while revisiting a space he had been to hundreds upon hundreds of times before.

We got caught up, the two of us genuinely happy to see one another, our one-liners fast and furious almost as if it hadn’t been three years since we saw each other last. He was sighting his move to Laguna for his absence, me poking fun and accusing him of slumming by stepping foot back in Long Beach while I rang up his Maldanado and Rombauer Chardonnays. “So, what you got going tonight?” he asked with a toss of his head in the direction of our tasting room, playful smirk on his face and wind-blown hair falling flat and slightly oily across his brow. “Oh, not much, just going to be pouring the wines from the guy that has been called, on several occasions, the Master of Chardonnay” smirk now gone and an inquisitive, fiercely curious gaze was upon me. “Oh really?” he prodded, “And who is that?” next thing I knew the wines that I had just run through, merely buried my nose in, swished around in my mouth and spat, they were now tingling up my spine, urging me to share them with this man, this passionate Chardonnay lover, my own excitement about what I’d just tasted and how perfectly suited they were for him, bubbling out of me. 

I rattled off Dominique Lafon’s many credentials, explained how his wines are some of the most sought after, coveted in all the world, (so much so that his wines now come with a shiny little counterfeit strip along the foils) of wine and then, then I thought of this long ago customer’s average bottle budget and said, “And you know, he has a property in the south, in the Maconnais, where he is making some kickass wines for like a quarter the price”. After the, “Pick me one, no, pick me two” outburst this old familiar face was looking down at me, big meaty hands wrapped around his two bags of wine, his gaze causing me to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and then he spoke again, “This is why I came here. Why I need to come here more. Thank you” I was sufficiently puddled and bolstered with confidence as I bid my farewell, (and yes, there was a “come back and see us ya hear”) to him and readied myself for an evening of wines that even after nearly sixteen years in this business left me almost speechless and dizzy with intoxication, not from alcohol but from their sheer beauty.

“I’ve known people that have been in the wine business for decades that haven’t been able to do what you’re about to” I said, my rump resting and hands gripping the tasting bar behind me, “And there’s a reason for that” I went on to explain to the not-sold-out class that you almost never see a lineup like the one we were pouring that night. A night devoted to the wines from two of France’s most iconic estates, those of Domaine Didier Dagueneau and Domaine Comte Lafon. “Sure people have maybe tasted some of these wines over the course of their wine tasting/drinking/education but to taste this deeply from these wineries in one setting, well it just doesn’t happen. You see, retailers don’t have to pour these wines, they sell on their own so pouring off a bottle or two doesn’t fiscally make any sense whatsoever. Look around you, we have what, maybe 24 people here? Now take a look at your tasting sheet and quickly add up what it costs to pour one bottle of each of those eight wines….yeah, almost $850 right? Well because of the number of people we have here tonight we are opening two of each. Everyone paid $45 to be here, which I understand is a good chunk of change but if we do the math again, 24 people, $45 each… get my point. We start out in a massive hole as far as profit goes and as much as we want and need to make money, a class like the one we are doing tonight, it’s not about money. It’s about education, sharing our passion with you, helping you understand why we lose our minds over these wines, why they’re different, and more expensive than most. We want you to be able to read these names, in our publication or someone else’s, and have your heart thump around in your chest, your mouth begin to water as you remember the wines you taste tonight. We are retailers, but we are also teachers and tonight, tonight is about education.” 

Was a pretty quiet class I have to say. People completely engrossed and seduced by the wines in front of them….I too found myself silent, enraptured, dominated by a lineup of wines so brilliant that they literally took my breath away. By the end of the evening there was clapping, loads of “thank you!!” and that smallish crowd descended upon my French department and decimated it. I was speaking to a young gentleman at the end of the night while I was ringing up his rather hefty purchase. Discussing the wines, both of us glowing from the whole experience, “You know, I had read about Dagueneau lots of times before, just never had the opportunity to taste them before tonight. Thank you for doing this” he said as he handed me his credit card to pay for his over $300 bill. He gave me a shy grin and said, “Yeah, going to have to work extra hard next week to pay for this but…..well if there had been any Lafon Meursault Charmes left I’d have bought that too, so I guess I’m getting off easy.”  A rather remarkable comment and perfect end to an extremely enlightening night, for all of us. 

Sunday morning I woke to find a link in my message box, the same link that has gone freaking viral and is on every wine person’s Facebook feed or blog, the Costco story. For those of you less obsessed there is a link at the bottom of this post, but the gist of the (taken somewhat out of context ) piece that has everyone’s panties in a wad is that they wine buyer for Costco said wine is just a beverage. There was some toilet paper comment, that was lobbed out by the person giving the interview, and man did people take that and run with it, but she (the Costco lady) was basically saying that Costco is about the bottom line and wine is just one of the many thousands of products they peddle. Pretty passionless no doubt but shocking? Hell no. You mean to tell me that Costco only cares about making money?! Get Out! Oh and, duh. 

Look, Costco has always been about huge volume and cheap prices, always. The fact that anyone thought they gave a rat’s ass about wine needed only go to one and see the piles of rather soulless and often factory produced wine, or try and get someone to answer any questions about the wines they stock. Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly has been Costco’s model on everything from wine to the afore mentioned toilet paper and for a wine to show up at one of those establishments there needs to be enough of it to stack high in the first place. Pretty easy to figure out right? And for those wine folks that are still under the somewhat delusional impression that a wine like Caymus Special Select is something, “special”, well they can pop a bottle or two in their cart along with that 15 pound jar of pickles and happily be on their way. Wine is just a beverage to Costco, but for some of us…’s way more than that.

Three Wine Country employees, (okay one was the owner) have been to Dominique Lafon’s cellar, watched him pull wines from his barrels, explain the soil and winemaking process……. stood there as he examined our faces, answered our questions and smiled when we took those deep sniffs, long palate staining sips and scribbled our impressions on notepads. Had dinner and spent the night at Dagueneau, sat around a dinner table tasting, drinking, eating, laughing with the people that made those wines, shared those stories and memories with the customers that would come in to buy them. We don't sell vats of mayonnaise or boxes of frozen taquitos, we can however turn you on to wines that we've spent years of our lives learning about, share our passion with you....remember your palate and help you explore your own. 

For us wine is not a bottom line nor is it just a beverage. It’s about people, the ones that make and buy's about the enrichment of all our lives and I for one am honored to be a part of that.


Marcia Macomber said...

Yea! Love this post.

I'm sure the gal at CostCo has received her share of ribbing for her Romney-esque TP comment.

One of my favorite things is going into one of my favorite wine shops where the owners/employees know me well and simply asking them to pick something for me. (Of course, I provide context: the specific food it's to accompany, or the varietal I'm on a quest for.)

They KNOW from our long history what styles I like (or not). Never had a bad selection made for me. And without question, they've always been outstanding. Go, girl!

Amy in Dallas said...

Watching The Today Show yesterday, a "Money Expert" suggested people buy wines and spirits from Costco to save money, like 15%-30%.
It's an area of my budget where I'm supporting good people and small business. No room for Costco here.
Support small business or save a few bucks?
Mixed messages in the media abound.

Randy said...

Wonderful post, Sam.

I saw something very helpful at Costco the other day while I was buying big bananas for my 88 year old mother (She refuses to buy the littler bananas at Trader Joe's). There was a chart posted over the wine selection helping to explain the 100 point scoring system. It makes it easier to find the best industrial wine in their store.

Incidentally, there are very few wines at Costco that you'll also find at The Wine Country, and fewer still next week when we dump a bunch more of 'em.

Samantha Dugan said...

That is a true value, that knowing your customer and assuring that they do have a positive wine moment, of a good wine they a big box or small independent. I do however think that smaller stores are better equip to have a staff that will take the time, and that is where....for wine drinkers like you and me, the little guys do in fact win. Ever walked into a BevMo and asked someone a question? Holy fuck....

My Beloved (and dude I miss you so much) Amy,
Yup, all the talking heads will advise that we cut corners on every fucking thing and in the end, for those of us that derive pleasure from the things we put in our mouths, we may be saving pennies but losing passion, adventure, elation. Don't know about those others but I know you and I, fuck the talking heads....lets pop some grower Champagne, (um, where are those at Costco?) and feel really damn good. I love you.

I'm with you darlin', lets dump 'em. There might be a person or two that walks out without buying anything because we don't have Dom or Patron, Franciscan or Ferrari Carrano but I have a sinking suspicion that they would not understand that we have to charge more for those "premium" (and yes, I'm snickering) brands because we don't buy in the same volume as Costco, and they would have either busted our chops for a discount or price matching before walking out the door empty handed anyway. Not the consumer we buy for....or really understand. Lets buckle down and do what we do sweetheart.

Thomas said...


Please, of please, don't get trapped in the vortex. The wine buyer never equated wine with toilet paper--the only mention of toilet paper came in a question from the interviewer.

This is like playing that "telephone" game when we were kids.

On the subject at hand, I have to say that while my winery and my wine shop that followed it specialized, the way that Sam's does, in particular wines, the fact remains between 90%-95% of the wine-buying public, wine is a beverage for which they refuse to pay a lot of money, or to spend their time waxing philosophic over.

I delineate the wine market this way: 90-95%% are the "vinted and bottled by or cellared and bottled by" crowd 5%-10% the "produced and bottled by or estate bottled" crowd.

Costco and places like it are not intended for the 5%-10%. Still, if you know what you want on the high end, at some Costco stores, you can find it and pay a lot less for it.

I believe the wine buyer that was interviewed just reflected what her job entails.

Samantha Dugan said...

Looks like we are agreeing once again....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

I've never even set foot in a Costco, and I sure as hell wouldn't go there to buy wine. But the folks that do buy wine there would see me as a wine snob, as would the millions of people who buy their wine at Trader Joe's and BevMo. But buying wines at those venues and thinking you love wine is like eating at PJ Chang's and thinking you're a foodie. Luckily, though, most of those folks don't care either way.

We're lucky there are places like Costco. Dageneau and Lafon can't make enough wine to satisfy Costco customers. You sure as hell don't want BevMo competing with you for grower Champagnes. But it's the dreck they sell at Trader Joe's that sends a few intrepid souls out to wine country and great wine shops like yours to pursue their passion, and once they meet an ambassador for wine like you, My Love, there ain't no goin' back.

It's simply a measure of the vacuity of wine blogs, in general, (not yours, Baby, yours is the best)that the toilet paper analogy posed by the interviewer went viral. Actually, I like the analogy. I need both toilet paper and wine, though, if given a Sophie's choice, I'd quickly sacrifice the Charmin.

Thomas said...


While you would be hard-pressed to find the esoteric wine products that you can find where Sam works, if you are in the market for respected DOC wines, and other high falutin's, they appear on shelves at some Costco stores and at prices unheard of elsewhere.

In other words, if you know what you want of the "famous" labels, you may be able to find it at Costco and for a good price. You ought to take a look.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I haven't been in a Costco in over 15 years and used to wait in the car when my mother went on her weekly trip there. Something about that place gives me the willies. Always has. The thing that killed me with this story was everyone's outrage and shock, like Costco ever gave a shit about anything but the bottom line. Then everyone saying she said wine was the same as toilet paper proved how little people read, in fact I went back and read the damn thing again just to be sure I wasn't the nutty one As both Thomas and I pointed out, it was the person doing the interview that mentioned toilet paper but give the masses something like poop paper to run with and run they will. Ugh.

The point I was trying to make, (probably poorly as usual) is that they can't do what we do, nor can we compete with their prices and I think, fuck I hope, there are enough of both kind of wine drinkers to serve both kind of wine shops. Oh and, when are coming to visit me? I miss you so.

Thomas said...

For the record, places like Costgo and Walshit (or Sam's Club) never get the benefit of my shoe leather, but we aren't talking about us, are we?

Samantha Dugan said...

More than a few of "Us" started as "them" though right? Maybe not you and I but I'm sure there are a lot of our customers that started out buying their wines at Costco, in fact I'm sure some of them still do buy a few things there as I know they shop there for other things. Everyone has to start somewhere I just hope stores like mine can continue to eek through while we wait for the light to go off....

Thomas said...


With my store, the lights did go off ;)

Selyndria said...

That LaFon made turning 50 the best year and fancy dinner party ever. I was not a Chardonnay fan. Still am not, but I am a huge Dominique LaFon fan... thanks to you.