Tuesday, January 25, 2005

What Makes a Good Wine Shop Good? (PB)

First I want to say I found one yesterday in Freeport, Maine. In this town—the home of L.L. Bean, there are three wine stores. Each has it’s own personality but the Freeport Cheese and Wine shop on Bow Street has it all!

The store is not large but the selection is intelligent. Wines are displayed on the walls and in wooden cases on the floor. And--this is the best part—nearly all the wines were reviewed and the price with the review is posted on a card over or behind the wine. Someone knowing nothing about wine could walk in and walk out with a selection you would know something about without knowing anything about it and there was no risk of embarrassment taking a bottle to the check out only to find the price was way more than you cared to spend. The proprietor—Eric Fullagar—and I talked for over half an hour. He tastes many (all?) of his own wines, is very knowledgeable, and very down to earth. If you’re in the Freeport area, this is THE place to check out!

So what makes a good wine shop good?
A fair answer must take into account regional differences in population and economics. While visiting in Florida, I had three wine shops all within a stone’s throw of one another, one with an inventory of wines by country whose country’s selections were larger by themselves than some of the entire shops I have available to me living in a not-to-densely populated part of the country. But selection is important, as is price, clearly marked bottles and information about the wines displayed. While it seems like having your product priced would be an obvious principle of marketing, you might be surprised at how often I find shops with either confusing pricing formats or even more frequently, no pricing at all. Maybe the shopkeeper believes that a typical person will ask “How much?” and then a conversation can ensue about the wine. But I think I am fairly normal—some would dispute that—and I simply will not ask. So if a wine is not priced, I’ll walk out and write the shop off, as someplace I won’t frequent.

So what do I look for in a good shop?
Selection—I can get the everyday supermarket wines at the everyday supermarkets. Duh. I don’t need a shop that repeats the essential selections of the local grocery stores.
Price—I hunt for bargains of course—who doesn’t; but I want at least competitive pricing. I am amazed and somewhat perplexed how one shop can sell a wine for $8 and another, the same wine for $11. All I can figure is the proprietor doesn’t know his competition.
Information—This is one of my personal “important items” in a wine shop. I have been studying wine for close to 30 years and I always find wines with which I am totally unfamiliar. What hope is there for the average person walking into a wine store and making a decent selection? The Wine Enthusiast, the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator, to mention the big three, are rating wines by the thousands every month. If a shop owner isn’t a particularly experienced wine aficionado, they can at least post some of the readily available reviews. Reviews sell wine I can assure you!
Great Staff—No one I know likes to feel like a complete ignoramus and we wine enthusiasts can make someone feel real stupid, really fast. It is not generally intentional (though sometimes it is) it is just that we love talking about what we are enthused about. Our enthusiasm can be intimidating. A shop owner needs to be sensitive to that.

If you find a place with all these elements, even if the wine is priced a bit higher than some of the local competition, it is worth the added expense—trust me.

So as I was about to leave, I asked Eric to select me a bottle under $20 of something special. He talked to the air a bit and then made his recommendation. At $16, I took the bottle of something French I can’t pronounce. I am eager to taste what he picked out for me and when I do, you’ll read about it here! Now enough reading—go raise a glass…


jens at cincinnati wine said...

I will keep this in mind next time I am in Maine next summer. I agree with the pricing comment, but I disagree somewhat on the "shelf talker" comment. The short version is we need to move beyond numerical ratings. An informed owner, who has tasted all the wines and will spend time with you, is much better than an 87 rating from parker/spectator/tanzer. Cheers!

PB said...

Thanks Cincinnatiwinegarage: You are right to be sure, but if you are like me, (actually very shy) I still prefer to read something and then if I want, I can ask. But asking isn't my first inclination and the resident wine expert isn't generally around 24-7. Thanks for visiting!

NW said...

I think the point is, you are both right! A well-studied and helpful proprietor is a tremendous complement to the posted scores from the big, recognized publications. Hey, when in a new shop, feel free to wander through the selection and then turn to the clerk for help. Hopefully, they are passionate just like you...

Eric Fullagar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Have to agree. Eric runs a great shop and his selections aren't out of reach for the neophyte wine lover. No pretention in his shop, just incredibly good wine, beer, and cheese.