Anyone who knows me knows this much: I never get to the airport early but last week I was pretty anxious to get out of town, so I found myself at SFO (San Francisco Int’l Airport) with an hour and a half to kill before take-off. With a stack of old New Yorkers in my bag, I opted to forego the usual trashy magazine browsing and instead see what was new at Napa Farms Market. After cruising by the cheeses, I entered the shared border with Vino Volo, an airport wine bar chain based in San Francisco. It was here that I noticed something a little surprising: Pacalet Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Philippe Pacalet makes some of the most unique wines in Burgundy – love them or not – and this precious juice is fairly scarce. When his wines first hit our shores a lot of buyers were afraid to carry them because they were so different.[i] You were and still are most likely to see them in places with a penchant for natural wines or Burgundy specialists.
Vino Volo’s national sourcing manager selects a lot of the same wines for all of its locations so it is not a venue where I would have expected to find small production, naturally made wines from Europe. While it’s not all about Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, I wouldn’t say its wine list is pushing the envelope. So what was Pacalet doing at SFO, or putting it another way, is it a bad thing that Pacalet, and a few others of a similar ilk, are now available through Vino Volo? And, not to equate Vino Volo with box retailers, but there was also a Pacalet sighting at Costco in San Francisco last year (although the California importer, Return to Terroir, did not sell it to them), but why should anyone mind?
Yet, buyers at boutique wine shops, wine bars and restaurants can get pretty perturbed when they hear about allocated wines they’ve supported for several vintages turning up at chains, especially discounters (which being an airport retailer, Vino Volo most certainly is not).
There are a few sides to this. If you pride yourself on carrying artisan wines that are only available for niche retailers, and then something you’ve been working with for a couple of years shows up on the shelves in a less discerning venue, it can put your reputation at risk, not to mention the producer’s.
This is one of the reasons why Aran Healy, who owns Ruby Wine, does not work with distributors who sell to Whole Foods, his biggest competitor in Potrero Hill. Healy believes that while Whole Foods does a good job selecting wine for a grocery store it is not providing its customers with the education they need to appreciate most of the wines he carries, which are 99% organic and made with minimal intervention. “With these wines they need to be talked about and shared and explained with the customers and I have a firm belief that not all wines should be taken off the shelf without knowing something about them.”
However, Devon Broglie, MS, the Associate Global Beverage Buyer for Whole Foods, argues that the Whole Foods wine departments do provide knowledge and education. “Our specialists pride themselves on being intimately familiar with every wine they carry, with the same pride and integrity that an owner of a wine shop would. I think that is what is unique about Whole Foods. They are engaged with the products they sell.”
Even among small retailers, it is not a black and white issue. Like Ruby, Lou Wine Shop & Tastings in Los Angeles specializes in natural wines. For owner, Lou Amdur, It makes him “uncomfortable” to hear from wine reps about other venues that are carrying the same wines “but,” he also acknowledges, “that’s a function of my own vulnerabilities. I cling, pathetically, to the fairytale that I’m special, that everyone is a star, even while knowing full well that I did not grow the wine, and I am simply a conduit, a middleman.”
So what is wrong with making wines – no matter how esoteric or unconventional – accessible to more people than the usual suspects of wine geeks in urban areas? As an importer or distributor are you not doing your client, the winemaker, a disservice if you don’t try to expand their market?
Also, while several merchants might have been supportive of a winery when it first hit the market, does that mean that they should perpetually be allowed to have the same quantity they received in past vintages, when the demand has grown?
Richard Aspillera, the Associate Manager at Vino Volo at SFO, discovered Pacalet through friends in the wine industry. Since each location can fill “open slots” at its discretion, he got in touch with Return to Terroir and brought some of their wines into the bar. “We strive to find small production, natural, organic and sustainable wines that get people excited to bring home with them. We can’t speak for our other locations, but we do find that our customers are looking for wines that fulfill that criteria.” And, he sees where this trend is growing. “Customers are more informed today than ever, and they do come back looking for these particular selections at our store.”
“If a chain can make a good business case for selling natural wine, more power to them,” Amdur says, yet he admits, “I do see natural wines that I work with on close out at a chain or online retailer, and I know these wines are delicious, sound, and not faulty, so my only thought is that the venue didn’t know what to do with that wine.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Healy says, “I’m all for natural wine being available for everyone, but with wines that are made of a certain caliber, there has got to be a little more discretion.” Not familiar with Vino Volo, he doesn’t feel he can comment on whether or not it is a good fit for the wines he buys but what irks him is when he sees natural wines going to venues that look upon them as trophy wines rather than appreciating them for the painstaking efforts that went into their creation. And, taking this a step further, Healy would say that is not doing a service to the winemaker at all but a sign of disrespect.
But, not all boutique wine store buyers agree. “It doesn’t bother me at all as a retailer knowing the same wine is at K&L or somewhere else for a dollar less because I know how hard it is for the producers to sell their wine in general,” says Ian Becker, the Wine Director for The Absinthe Group, which owns Arlequin Wine Merchant.
And this brings up pricing, which is another concern because large retailers and chains with hefty buying power can undercut smaller shops. Becker continues, “I used to be concerned and think you don’t want to have supermarket wines in your store but then I’d go to Whole Foods and see the same wines from Beaune (Beaune Imports) and Kermit (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant) and wonder why the pricing was lower than ours but over time I realized we’re not really competing with them because we offer a different kind of service.”
As is true of Ruby and Lou, Arlequin’s customers have the more intimate experience of a top-notch wine shop with proper storage, experienced staff and not least, the opportunity to taste or drink a glass of wine while they shop.
There is not a right or wrong, just opinions and beliefs that influence the way people do business with suppliers and choose wines for their stores. Having traveled and worked with Healy, I know how much effort he has put into making Ruby a premier wine shop, in the way that Amdur has with Lou, Becker has with Arlequin and countless other wine merchants have over time. I can also appreciate, first hand, how frustrating it can be when as a buyer you take a risk and put a lot of effort into working with something esoteric or cutting edge, only to find that they are then placed nearby with a competitor, especially one that you may not feel shares your standards. But, I also applaud Aspillera for broadening Vino Volo beyond the “same old.” The suppliers are in the middle of this, so I’ve asked a few of them for their thoughts.
Nadia Dmitriw, Partner, Joli Vin Imports
“When we start a relationship with a new producer in France and choose to represent their wines half way across the world in California, that person’s individual story is just as important and interesting to us as how the grapes are farmed, how the wine is made and how the wine tastes. We have a natural affinity with shops that share that philosophy and will help us communicate that information to the consumer. And, as Aran Healy points out, in some cases, taking an esoteric wine home without being informed about it can ultimately be a disservice to the producer, the wine, and the consumer.
That said, we also work with many wines that are quite simply well made, delicious wines (that also happen to be smaller production and farmed organically and made with minimal intervention) and they can be completely enjoyed on their own, independent of whether someone is familiar with the back-story or not. And for those wines, I do see potential benefits of working with larger retailers who could help us gain a wider audience while providing more and better choices to that audience.”
Josh Eubank, Proprietor, Percy Selections
“With respect to the broader question of compatibility of artisan winemakers with big box stores (or chain grocers), I think it comes down to a political choice. I would propose that the way value is produced by a small, family-owned winery is fundamentally different than a corporate chain like Whole Foods. Which is to say that for most artisan vignerons, the price of a bottle is a direct reflection of the cost of land and labor power.
Politically speaking, it makes more sense for these type of wines to be purveyed by independent and decentralized cavistes than by conglomerates of investors.”
Matthew Plympton, Partner, Revel Wine
“It is a fine line that we as wine sellers walk when it comes to who we sell wine to. I certainly don’t want to jeopardize our own relationship with these boutique shops in SF, but we need to find more outlets for where we sell these wines as the producers’ case productions grow.
While we rely heavily on the Ordinaires and Ruby Wines of the region to get producers like Lo-Fi, Roark, Forlorn Hope up and running, at some point we need more supporters, especially at retail, for diversification of the market. Since there aren’t any natural wine shops outside of urban areas like SF, Oakland and LA we need to look to companies like Whole Foods and VinoVolo to help with getting the wines in front of consumers who may not even know those shops exist.”
Raphael Knapp, Proprietor, Return to Terroir
“I did have doubts when one of our reps told me about the possibility to sell to Vino Volo because it was not a traditional client for us. I made the decision to sell for several reasons.
1) I don’t believe in preaching only to the choir. Keeping the best wines to a small list of happy few is nonsense to me.
2)The buyer came to us with an interest in natural wines. I decided to reward his passion for natural wines. We need more ambassadors of natural wines to make our world better, not less.
3) We made sure that the wine wasn’t going to be discounted. We are very strict with that policy and have cut off clients who didn’t respect our rules.
4) People always complain about the lack of choices at airports. Wouldn’t be great if you could find some of your favorite natural wines at the airport, instead of the usual ocean of mediocrity?”
[i] Pacalet’s red wines are whole cluster fermented, a method that is much more common in Beaujolais, where he is from, than in Burgundy.