One of my favorite pastimes as a wine educator and buyer is to find the cool local shop when I'm traveling to a new city or country. You won't find me hitting the likes of Costco, (America's LARGEST wine seller by far), Trader Joes, or Whole Foods to get what I'm looking for. And honestly, even I don't know exactly what I'm in the mood to buy until I get there!
It's the same reason I can get lost for days in a fabulous tiny book store. I'll sit on the floor in a corner with my guide dog, and stack interesting titles beside me, perusing the inside jacket of each carefully bound piece of literary treasure, hoping to find the book that really 'speaks' to me. Wine does that for me when I venture into a small wine shop where the proprietor has personally tasted and selected each and every bottle on the shelf.
I feel like I'm being hosted at someone's HOME when I hit these stores. The retailer reflects his or her personality and style through their thoughtful selection of some of their favorites from across the globe. It's like looking at a Shutterfly Album of someone's travels. Proudly atop each shelf or section is a photo of the proprietor with the vintners, farmers and vineyard owners that share their wines, and their lives with us through the power of the bottle.
So when I walk in, to be greeted by the owner himself, or his or her fellow oenophile and right-hand gal, I get a flutter of excitement to see where they're going to take me. It's like a guided tour of their palates, and the lovely thing about this experience- NO TWO ARE THE SAME. I love that I can get to know this person almost immediately on a very intimate and personal level- their style and their passion.
I try to go in with no preconceived notions, with the exception if I have a specific meal I'm shopping for. While I've tasted tens of thousands of wines over my 18 year career, there are still hundreds of thousands of new wines for me to discover and get excited about that may or may not come across my desk. Venturing into a boutique retailer is truly the best way to 'discover' and learn about new wines, or regions that I'd perhaps long forgotten about in my focus on my personal 'go-tos' as we can sometimes do.
While shopping in a big discount store may be impressive in stature and sheer volume of their selections due to a big buying budget, a lot of the more interesting and smaller wineries simply don't land on those shelves. A) they can't supply enough wine to fulfill a giant store needs to properly stock their shelves on a national or state-wide level and B) there is a lack of educated staff to properly explain the wines and what makes them exciting. Big box stores want to keep you drinking the same thing, year in and year out. New is not how they build a successful business model. Safe staples is what they do, and certainly they sell them at rock-bottom prices.
While I love saving a buck or two just as much as the next person, sometimes spending an extra dollar is worth the price of admission. One, I don't have to fight for a parking spot in some giant, scary parking lot, where I need to dodge crazy drivers and wayward shopping carts. Two, I want to meet the owner or the buyer and make sure they know ME and what I like to drink. I want to be welcomed into the store by a friendly, "Hello Amy! How was that Sancerre you took home last week?"
I want the salesperson to go "OOOH! I'm so glad you came in today! I snagged three bottles of Bergstrom Pinot Noir and stashed them in the back for you, because I know it's your fave." I want to walk in and taste some wines they have open or are featuring. I want to be invited to upcoming winemaker dinners at my favorite local restaurants, tasting alongside friends and other loyal customers. I want to feel special.
One of the other benefits of stumbling upon a great local merchant is the level of personalized service. Will Whole Foods donate a basket of wine for your local Lion's Club Fundraiser? Would Total Wine deliver that special client gift that just HAS to go out today before they leave the office? I don't think so. Will the salesperson spend 30 minutes with you explaining the different styles of Riesling throughout the various regions of Germany? I think not. Will they spend time carefully gift wrapping 120 individual bottles of wine at Thanksgiving to give out to all of your clients? Definitely no. And when your daughter gets married, who is going to be sure that you have all the ice, vodka, Champagne and soda for the occasion, even throwing a last minute addition into their station wagon as guests arrive? I can assure you it's not the 'BIG guys'!
So you can spend $12.99 on your Kendall Jackson Chardonnay at Total wine, and be a faceless, nameless statistic, or with your $13.99, be greeted by name, learn a little each time you shop, be assured the wines have been perfectly vetted and stored, and be treated like family, with a real connection to your personal tastes. PLUS you can receive free delivery each week of the wines that you are 'in-the-know' about that NONE of your jet-set friends has even heard of. All of this from a family business and a guy or gal who knows you, appreciates you and wants to make you happy. Shop Small. It pays!