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"First to Fight for Right and Freedom," reads the title of the big military print on the tasting room wall at Carlsbad Wine Merchants. The painting depicts a group of Marines moving along a ruined wall and behind a blown-out car, firing at an enemy off somewhere to the left. Below the image is a brass plaque: “Thank you for your support and friendship, from the Marines and Sailors of Weapons Company 3rd Battalion, First Marines.”

It’s not exactly standard tasting room decor. But it’s entirely in keeping with the character of Kathy Bankerd’s enterprise. Carlsbad is home to a goodly number of bottle shops, all laboring in the shadow of the Carlsbad Costco, which sells more wine than any other Costco in America. (And Costco, of course, sells more wine than any other retailer in America.) To survive, she says, “I knew that there had to be a sense of community. I thought, ‘If we’re going to carry the name of the city, then we should be involved with the city’s causes.’ People really appreciate it. A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, they’re always asking for this or that.’ But I came up with this: every time a charity came and asked us for something, I would give them a private tasting for six, let’s say — and it would have a value on it. That guaranteed us at least six people in the shop.” The tasting brought folks in, but the next step for a wine shop involved getting out: “We do a lot of benefits.”

Which brings us to the Marines. “We’re big supporters of the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund,” Bankerd says. “We’ll help sponsor golf tournaments and fund-raisers. One of the colonels from Pendleton had a big party here for his XO and his command team. But foremost, we sell Jarhead Red” — a wine whose label boasts that it is made by Marines, for Marines. “We’re probably the largest off-base retailer. My partner Larry Kinser was a Marine, and once a Marine, always a Marine.” The print was donated because “we sponsored a homecoming and deployment event for the Third Division — we did what they call Mess Night. In the Marines, when it’s the last meal they have before they deploy, it’s a tradition to have this dinner — and wine, and a cigar.”

The Boys and Girls Club receives similar attention. “Every January, we do a tasting of the top 100 wines from the year before, and a portion of that gets donated to the club.” And when it comes time for the club’s annual gala, the wine on the table is the shop’s house label, Carlsbad Red. “During the month surrounding the gala, we donate a dollar from every bottle of Carlsbad Red we sell back to the club. It’s an opportunity for us to give back to the community. It lets people know that they’re in Carlsbad, that it’s benefiting them.”

The wine’s label was painted by local artist Doris Keats, but the wine itself hails from the north. Explains Bankerd, “It’s not like when a restaurant buys from a commodity house and slaps a label on it. I actually go up there and taste all the barrels.” Further, “We didn’t develop it right away — we determined the varietal based on what the customers were buying.”

What they were buying was Zinfandel. “We thought, ‘How can we find a Zinfandel that would be really to their liking, that they could own and feel good about, and that they could get at a great price?’ We started working with this winemaker in Sonoma, John Eppler, who specializes in Zinfandel. He helped us select some barrels and sent the samples down. It’s a blend of Sonoma Zinfandel and Lodi Petite Sirah — the Sonoma grapes like the little bit of sweetening the inland fruit gives them. We actually did the blending here in the back room. John flew down, and as we came up with the different blends, we had a team of customers here to try them. They tasted them and voted on them, and that’s how we developed the blend. It really was designed to be an expression of the community — to reflect the community’s tastes and lifestyle. It’s become our number-one seller; we sell about 300 cases annually. We did a Zinfandel reserve one year, and now we’re looking to add a Cabernet and a white. People love shipping it to relatives and friends.”

But community involvement was only part of the campaign. Bankerd also had to overcome a relatively remote location, which means she needed to make her store a destination. “Sort of like San Diego Wine Company,” before they moved onto the main Miramar drag. “They were hard to find — but everybody knew where they were,” because the prices were so low. “You have to provide something that people will drive for.” For Carlsbad Wine Merchants, that means a sense of camaraderie, “a spirit of wanting to help people find the right wine.” Some stores, she says, “have good wines, but nobody knows. Somebody says, ‘This gets marked up five percent,’ and out it goes on the floor. Nobody knows if it’s a good wine.” Bankerd might charge more, “but we’ll tell you it’s a good wine, and it’s worth $12, or whatever we’re charging.”

And if you can avoid price wars altogether, so much the better. “A year ago, I opened a second store up in Northern California — my son runs it. It’s called Pleasant Hill, and it’s the same concept. I had a lot of concerns, because the store is right at the gateway to Napa and Sonoma, but people embraced it dramatically. I couldn’t believe how underserved that community was. Within three or four months, his wine club” — subscribers who could be counted on to buy a certain amount of wine every month — “was at 400. It’s that same concept — great customer service, great selection.” And the selection is key. “He’ll taste the wine from a small winery up there that may be selling only to the Northern California market.” If he likes the wine, “He’ll work with them on pricing, and we’ll do a combined buy. I can get a different selection of wines in my shop, and it takes me out of the competitive pool. I have something unique.”

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