Different Strokes for Different Folks

(Originally published December 2000)

In case you haven't noticed yet, Hanes reviews and recommends wines. These recommendations may then be followed or ignored. If you wisely choose to follow them, you will then seek to purchase the recommended wines out in wine stores. As a result, it makes sense to spill some ink on why some wines are so hard to find which ineluctably leads to the question of just what a wine store is or is not.

The quality of a wine store is relative to the sophistication of the customer. There are different types of wine stores, and they all seek to stock and sell different quality levels of wines and satisfy different customer profiles. Given these observations, a customer first needs to figure out what level of sophistication she or he has, and then try to match it with the appropriate store for the appropriate purchase. This is useful because, while many stores attempt to be many things to many customers, wine selection and pricing will vary dependent on the level of prestige the store seeks to establish for itself. Moreover, few stores can afford to stock a sizeable percentage of the thousands of wines that come out on to the market each year. So, you, the customer, can end up with the wrong wine at the wrong price if you don't try to better understand the nature of wine stores.

First, we tackle the issue of customer sophistication. There are those folks that are thrilled that they can now, in addition to White Zinfandel, find White Merlot in stores and buy this wonderful new offering by the case. Hanes is assiduously working to eliminate this plague from the planet but hitmen do not come cheaply, even at bulk rates. Then there are the casual dry table wine drinkers who swill wine once or twice a month and never remember what they like. These are the customers who will relentlessly stalk down innocent store salespeople for recommendations only to, once the salesperson is out of sight, put the recommended bottle down and purchase instead a bottle of Coppola Rosso or Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

A notch up from that, we find the regular wine drinkers, the people who know what they like, have had a well aged Bordeaux or two and can recognize when a wine of quality rises above the industrial grade fray. They can tell you what they like in a wine, a heavier or lighter body, more or less fruit, aggressive or softer tannins. When you recommend a wine and they like it, they come back and buy more and may ask for further recommendations.

Beyond that you have the wine geeks and seasoned pros, the people who carry issues of The Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator into stores to reference the scores as they browse, who compile databases to inventory their personal cellars and know as much, if not more, than the retail workers who service them. They can find the overlooked "cherries" in any store as well as the best everyday wines with minimal help from the store staff. These are the customers who develop personal relationships with store management to ensure access to the "back room" and the hardest to find wines. These are also the people who resent the two seconds they have to expend hitting the delete button on The Hanes Wine Review when that damnable spam appears in their e-mail inbox every month...

OK, so these are the basic, broad customer profiles. A retail wine operation that has done such a similarly stellar job of market segmentation realizes this and must decide which type of customer they most want to go after and serve. Now the truth comes out. Maybe one out of every 3,482,704 wine stores really thinks about their customer base in such a way. The ownership/ management's rationale for opening a wine store runs the full gamut from "we flipped a coin to decide between opening a wine store or laundromat and wine store won" to "I want to proselytize the Good Word about the ineffably majestic marvel we undeserving humans call Grand Cru Burgundy." Thus, you, the customer, should understand the different types of wine stores and why they are as they are. For expediency's sake, Hanes will only break wine stores down into three broad categories. But one should keep in mind that various shades of sub-categories exist as well.

The vast majority of wine stores are truly liquor stores. They exist to salve the lives of the battered masses, providing a local delivery channel of spirits for those seeking generic vodka in plastic two-liter bottles or a fifth of rye to make it all just go away. Their stock of wine is most likely not that well thought-out and is invariably purchased at the best price available from among the competing distributors. There will be a larger selection of inexpensive (under $12) wines, an OK selection of mid-priced wines and a small scattering of $40+ wines for those "special occasions." The inexpensive wines will be mostly from big producers with easily recognizable names and it is also likely that the store will carry a particular winery's entire product line (their Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc.). The prices will be fair but present no great savings (chances are the store does not buy in large enough quantities to get a significant cost break from the distributor). The few high-end wines being carried will most likely be astronomically priced and have been sitting on the shelves for some time, raising questions about whether or not they have been "cooked" in the store by exposure to higher than safe temperatures. Allow Hanes to say, yes, these wines have been cooked and should be avoided.

Chances are you will shop in a store like this fairly regularly. You're running late from the subway to a party or home and forgot to previously buy a bottle. You'll pop in and recognize some labels, sniff around for something you've had, and then probably settle on a bottle that will please but rarely, if ever, "wow" a crowd. But, hey, that's not what this store is for -- it exists to serve the purpose it just did serve, last minute or cheap everyday wine purchases. Because they stocked three or four bottles you would have conceivably purchased, you'll feel like you really chose a wine that day.

The next level up is harder to define. These stores are a little larger, the stock better thought out and diversified and the staff may actually have a clue. These are your basic "wine stores" -- usually owned by a real life enophile (i.e., wine luver) who attempts to sample the store's wares for quality assurance purposes. If you talk to the owner or manager (usually one and the same), you can easily fall into conversations on the beauty of 1991 Dominus or the merits of 1997 Barbaresco wines. Every wine producing region in the world will be represented with some obscure management favorites thrown into the mix. The store is maintained at a desirable temperature, prices are reasonable and there is most likely a 10-15% mixed case discount. Free tastings may occur on occasion. Ownership here almost always appreciates their knowledgeable customers. These stores provide a valuable neighborhood function, providing selection and advice beyond the local booze store at either the same or slightly better prices. The downside to this category of stores? They rarely reach the minimal threshold of higher end customers to support ownership aspirations and thus, for reasons mostly financial, will not always have the rare and highly sought after wines many folks seek nor will their selection of lesser priced wines be that broad (for example, they probably won't stock more than 4-6 California Merlots in the $12-$20 range). Also, many of the wines may be a vintage or two old due to the fact that the store's clientele just never got with the program and jumped on the bandwagon of relatively unappreciated wines from the Loire or Veneto wine regions, purchasing the product the wine geek owner just had to buy because it tasted so good, no matter how unlikely he could move it.

Now, you'll rarely go wrong in stores like these but if your brother-in-law must have a bottle of nothing but Opus One for his birthday, it's not likely you'll find it here. They will have a couple of commensurable wines but not that specific one, they just don't have the cash and clout to acquire and stock the full selection of $100+ California Cabernets. If you are looking to buy a very specific wine of high pedigree or micro production you need to find yourself what Hanes would call a "wine emporium." These stores are easy to find because they often provide cheesy self-descriptions like "we're a wine emporium" which should tip you off.

Not too many markets can support more than a couple of wine emporiums but luckily New York City is large and wealthy enough to have quite a few. The stores will feature fancy wood paneling and racks, fussy salespeople and management, an overall cool temperature plus a few locked and temperature-controlled wine display cases for their selection of older fine vintages and most prestigious trophy wines. The store's selection will be impeccably chosen and run from "names you must know" to wines from tiny little wine regions few have ever heard of. The clientele will include local Captains of Commerce, long-time collectors, couples getting married and looking for rehearsal dinner wines, and those old ladies who live in the huge white-brick buildings on the Upper East Side and shop with their poodle in their arms as the salesperson gets "the sherry Mrs. Richardson likes best" from the back. Prices are not cheap because to most of the customers it just don't matter -- what matters is getting what you want, when you want it. You want that Opus One for your brother-in-law? Oh, did you want the 1994, 1995, 1996 or 1997 vintage? We have them all... A variety of services such as offering Bordeaux futures, giftbox delivery, professional storage, alliance with a wine auction house, a staff to handle corporate accounts, etc. are quite common.

If you can afford to drop some major dead presidents in such a store, you'll get what you're looking for and they'll call you to let you know the new vintage of Petrus has arrived. Shopping there occasionally will get you occasional access. If you have searched near and far looking for a specific wine, the staff there can find it or explain why it cannot be acquired in painstaking detail. If you just want a bottle of Talus Chardonnay, chances are high your inquiry will receive a wrinkled nose and a reply of "Umm, no, I don't think we carry that."

There are reasons to shop at any of these type of stores and, as important, reasons not to shop at them. Hanes advises that you become familiar with at least one or two in each category that you can habitually browse or shop at. This will further aid your understanding of why some stores stock some wines and not others and thus save you some time, effort and money down the road. If you had a bottle of wine you loved while dining at The Olive Garden, you don't go to a blueblood store like Sherry-Lehmann looking for it. Conversely, if you had a fancy business dinner and fell in love with some expensive Barolo from Italy, you don't ask for it at the place around the corner with the plexiglass divider between the customers and the booze. You don't need Hanes to tell you this. But, alas, he has seen enough exasperated faces from folks who just don't understand why they cannot find that wine they had in that restaurant in Atlanta last month, you know the one that said "Château" on it. Honey, was it red or white, I can't remember...