'You'll notice these labels don't look like German labels," says Damon Goldstein, walking me through his storeroom at Truly Fine Wine on Morena. What he means is that the labels are relatively simple -- no ornate filigree, no daunting calligraphy-style lettering, no ostentatious family crests. Some of the multisyllabic terminology endures -- Sp...tburgunder Beerenauslese, anyone? -- but there is a new simplicity at work, a new attempt to fit in and reach out. "That's because our average vintner is probably in his mid- to late 30s," explains Damon. "They're young guys, doing things in a very forward-thinking way."
But when Damon and wife Sabrina Bochen journeyed to Germany to find previously unexported wines for their new retail/import/ distributor operation, they discovered that the forward thinking went only so far forward. "I said to them, 'We want to be an extension of who you are in the U.S.' We will always be specialists in German wines; we like the idea of carving out a microniche for ourselves and getting really good at it. I've always had that sort of brand mentality" -- perhaps the fruit of running a franchise restaurant company with his brother for four years. But, he found, "These guys don't market or brand. They just don't really believe in it." Decades of negative fallout from Blue Nun and Liebfraümilch would probably be enough to account for that, but there's also the matter of tradition. "They're very German -- their whole mentality is, 'We've been here for 600 years. We sell out of our cellars, and we sell out every year. Why do we need to sell to the U.S.?' For most of the estates, it was the flatter-factor that interested them. They were so flattered by the fact that some couple from the U.S. would come over to meet them, try their wines, and bring them over here."
Even so, they hesitated when they heard what Damon was after. "They'll sell 50--70,000 bottles a year out of their cellar, but they'll hand sell it, with the average customer buying a case. People have been coming for 30 years. That's how they do business, and here I was, showing up and saying, 'We'll be taking two pallets. I need 50 cases of this, 20 of that.' They were blown away."
On top of that, this eager American was asking for exclusivity. "That was a big step for a lot of these guys. When they do business in Germany, it's a handshake. But my goal is to get these wines reviewed, and I'd like to reap the reward of doing the work. If they sell them to every other importer in the U.S., where does that leave me?" Particularly if another, larger importer decides to eliminate the competition by scooping up everything available for the U.S. market.
The vintners were hesitant. But Damon managed to move a fair amount of product in his first six weeks of business, thanks in part to his felicitous location. It may be small, and it may be set back from the road, but the road it's set back from is the road to Costco. Those initial sales were strong enough for Damon to revise his business plan and for his German suppliers to sign on. Now all he has to do is keep selling.
So far, that means keeping customers happy and hoping for good word-of-mouth. "My customer base in the first three months has provided enough business for us to break even. If I can do that, then I don't need to go out and kill myself to do business with people who aren't that interested." And there are plenty of people who aren't all that interested. "In my first two months, I called about 300--500 restaurants, hotels -- people all across the board. I didn't get a ton of reception. I had a lot of unreturned phone calls. I had people schedule appointments and not show up. I said to my wife, 'This is going to be an exercise in futility.'"
Sabrina would have none of it. "She told me, 'Let's focus on our core -- the customers who come in and just love us. They're trying this stuff, they're raving about it to their friends.'" Find your niche and work on it. "We launched a store at WineCommune. We launched an eBay store. We've got our personal website" -- chock-full of detail about Truly Fine Wine's producers, its particular wines, and German wine in general. "I've got a lot of my customers' contact information, and I'll e-mail and say, 'How are you doing? Are you enjoying the wines? We're going to be doing this German wine tasting. Would you like to come out?' We sold it out, just like that."
The German wine tasting was the fruit of a collaboration between Truly Fine Wine, Chef Axel Bistro in La Mesa, and Lindsay Pomeroy of the Wine Smarties. Says Damon, "I got introduced to Lindsay Pomeroy of Wine Smarties through Jason Schaeffer" -- chef at 1500 Ocean. "He's my neighbor in OB. He knows Sheila Tracy, who's working on the Ivy Hotel project downtown, and she put me in touch with Lindsay. Lindsay was down here a week later for a private tasting." The two found a willing partner in chef Axel, and the three matched up five courses with five wines. Crisp sauerkraut cakes with smoked sausage and rosemary-garlic mushrooms got a half-dry Sp...tlese from the Rheingau; salmon with cucumber-dill salad merited a dry Riesling in the Charta style. Damon suspects that it might have been the first time so many of his customers had ventured so far into East County for dinner, but he's pretty sure they left happy.
It's a start, something solid to hold onto while chasing the dream. "I still cold-call people. I joined the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association. I'm working with the San Diego National Association of Catering Executives. This is a business where you sort of need to be in front of people. Right now, we're probably at about 70 percent retail, 30 percent wholesale. I think that will eventually start to switch over -- my larger intention is to distribute. But in order for that to happen, the wines have to be known. People have to say, 'I saw where the Blees-Ferber got rated in whatever -- where do I get it?'"