Every now and then, some poor soul asks me about buying wine. I usually tell them to ask somebody else: someone who works at a decent wine shop. Someone familiar with the inventory. Someone who will listen and learn about what you like and dislike. Someone who will tell you enough about their own experience of a particular wine for you to make some judgment about their palate. (If you're sensitive to oak, say, it helps to work with a salesperson who isn't numb to its effects.) In short, someone who knows how to tailor the product to the customer.
Jim Peters, who works at Robert Gelman's shop Grape Connections on Scott Street in Point Loma, shares the sentiment. "People know that when they come in, they're going to see either Bob or myself. There's always somebody here to help, and we taste all the wines pretty much when they come in. In a small business, you can't afford to have dogs on the shelf."
"The bottom line is service," agrees Gelman. And because of that, he's optimistic these days about "smaller businesses in general. I think people are going back to that," getting away from "the huge megastores." In particular, he's optimistic about his own shop, which has seen more and more business since moving to its new location over three years ago. "There's enough room for everybody to get a piece of the pie if they work hard at it and stay fresh."
That means reaching an understanding with distributors. "We source from the same people as everybody else," says Gelman, "but I have to be very careful. I much prefer things coming in that you're not going to see other places. Sometimes that's very hard, but they're around." If suppliers are calling on other accounts, "My philosophy is, 'There are thousands of labels in your books -- be creative as a salesman. Show different wines to different people.'"
It also means reaching out to the customer. Every now and then, a yacht-owner will drop in and load up for a long voyage, but Gelman thinks of that as "the cream in the coffee. I'd say that 90 percent of our clientele is from 92106 and 92107."
Gelman moved into the new location partly because it offered a highly visible wall, just begging to bear the Grape Connections logo, to anyone driving down Scott. "Signage is everything, and there's a huge billboard effect here. Right away, we saw a big change." He started posting black-and-white photos of loyal customers on the inside walls. "People like to see themselves on the wall, and since this is a small community, most of the time someone will come in and say, 'Oh; I know him!'" He began holding quarterly blowout sales, with all of the sale wines available for tasting. "During the one we did in September," says Peters, "I was pouring all day long, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m."
The sales were such a success that he decided to make deeply discounted wines a permanent feature of the shop. Says Peters, "We asked our distributors, 'What can you give us that you really need to get rid of?'" He was thinking of "stuff that's maybe a vintage too old" -- say, an '02 Merlot from Pine Ridge that was still hanging around after the release of the '03. That wasn't what the shop got, at least, not at first. Happily, Peters thought to taste the wine with Gelman before putting it on the floor. "We said, 'Take it back!' Now, we taste everything before we buy it. We tell our customers that these are not wines that have been sitting in a warehouse corner for three years." That '02 Pine Ridge? "Absolutely nothing wrong with the wine -- a magnificent wine. It was gone in two hours." It's easy to see why. A 2000 Bernardus Merlot gets dropped from $35.99 to $14.99; a 2000 Paoletti Cab, from $45.49 to $19.99; a Domaine de la Janasse from the Rhone, $12.99 to $6.99. Most of the wines are available for tasting.
Peters came to the shop about a year after it opened, after telling Gelman, "I know a little bit about wine; if you need help, give me a call.'" He learned that "little bit" from drinking and paying attention and from falling in with a good crowd. "When I came here in the fall of '87, I went to a Bordeaux tasting down at the Horton Grand. I just happened to be at a table with Bert Hug of Mille Fleurs. We got acquainted, and I ended up getting into what they called the Lunch Bunch. I'd drive up there two to five times a week for lunch; we always sat at table number one. We brought our own wines. Sometimes, Bert would send me to tastings to take notes for him; I ended up meeting people throughout the restaurant and wine community. I did that for probably six, seven years."
"With his help," says Gelman, "we've built up a very good, loyal clientele that keeps growing every year."
Point Loma is a fairly stable community; Little Italy is still growing like mad. Now it has a neighborhood wine shop too: Tango Wine Company, a joint project put together by four women: Cindy Pond (the principal owner), Siri Fomsgaard, Raquel Giscafre, and Amber Cyphers. "We pretty much know each other through tennis," says Pond. "Siri was a tennis player; Raquel owns the Acura Classic Tennis Tournament; my company was a corporate sponsor. We became friends. We were probably drinking wine, maybe over at Wine Steals, and we all just decided that we loved wines, particularly Argentinean wines and wines from interesting boutique wineries. We wanted to find a place where, essentially, the wines could keep coming through, and new wines and new adventures could happen. A place where we could have fun wine tastings and where people could take the wines home and enjoy them."
A friend told them about a retail space opening up in the India Street Design Center, the group lured manager Thomas Hartley away from Peet's Coffee in Hillcrest, and they set up a website to help build (and research) consumer interest. "In the beginning," explains Fomsgaard, "we had an online survey on the website, and a lot of people took it. We asked what their favorite wines were, and it really helped us to build our initial inventory: how many people said Pinot Noir was their favorite wine, how many people said Cabernet. We were very confident ordering so much Veuve Clicquot, based on the fact that 90 percent put it as their favorite champagne."
(The substantial Clicquot stack gets the front-and-center treatment as the holidays loom -- both because it's bubbly, and because of the accoutrements. "A wine store should be a resource for gifts," notes Fomsgaard, and this year, Clicquot is selling a metal canister for toting a bottle and two flutes, as well as bottles fitted with a yellow neoprene sleeve. "Those neoprene jackets keep your Champagne cold for two hours, and they float," says Pond. "In a Jacuzzi," adds Fomsgaard.)
Besides researching old favorites, Tango seeks to slake the oenophilic thirst for novelty. "Our target audience is generally 35-plus," says Pond, "the person who enjoys wine, who's here to taste new wines. We've got a few people who stop by every other day for a bottle: 'What's new? What do we try now? Do you have anything else from Argentina?'"
Fomsgaard elaborates: "I think what's great about the Argentinean and Chilean wines is that they have a really old wine culture. So you get the European-style wines, but for a lot lower price, and with interesting variations on French and Italian wines. I think a lot of traditional Old World wine drinkers find it very valuable; they're getting what they want for a lower price, and they're opening up a whole new country, with different variations, different varietals. Grapes that were brought from France and Italy and took on a whole new twist."
Pond says the wines appeal "especially to people who are big Cab drinkers but maybe aren't in the mood for a big Cab that day. They've really been enjoying the Terrazas Reservas, different wines that are almost baby Cabs in the Malbec family. You've got so many elevations along the Andes Mountains; you're getting such a variety. We went there last January to understand the vineyards, the way things were going." They find these wines -- rarities in San Diego -- "just by talking to people. We found a woman who owns an eyeglass company up in Santa Monica" who moonlights as a distributor. "She carries eight or ten of these boutique wines just by herself; it's just her love. We've sold more of her wines than anything else. And we sell more Argentinean wines than anything else. People keep coming back for more." (The proximity to Puerto la Boca is a happy accident, but if you buy wine at Tango and bring it to the restaurant, they won't charge you corkage.)
The place is a proper business, but it has a carefree feel. The decor is a work in progress. Friends helped put paint on the walls: burnt orange, white, olive green. One couch in the tasting area is missing its legs; local artist Liz Jardine is still working on the signs that will identify the wine varietals. "We're not in a hurry," says Fomsgaard. "We're trying to keep prices low. As long as the wine is there and it's good wine, that's the main purpose."
"We just want to make it fun," adds Pond. "People drop in. We already know so many people in the community by name."