Portland didn’t agree with marketing VP Kathy Bankerd. Her employers at the tech company InFocus had moved her up north and bought her a house, but she still hadn’t sold her home in sunny SoCal. And so, when the tech market softened after 9/11 and the company decided to reorganize, Bankerd took advantage of a sweet package and volunteered to reorganize herself south. But it wasn’t exactly early retirement. Says Bankerd, “I wasn’t quite ready to sit in the rocking chair with the cats.”
Three years later, she opened Carlsbad Wine Merchants. “I’ve always had a passion to do a high-touch business,” she says. “I love the creative part of it — event planning and that type of stuff. And our family has always been connected with the wine industry. So I did a full market analysis and discovered some incredible facts.” Among them: “that women were the most underserviced constituency and that they buy zillions of dollars’ worth of wine.” Well, maybe not zillions. But still.
Bankerd set out to service the underserviced, starting with atmosphere. “Before we opened, I spent about two months in Italy. One of the things I really liked was the way things were merchandized. People were greeted in shops. Every time you bought something, they wrapped it for you. It didn’t have to be fancy paper, but they wrapped it, and they put a bow on it. Simple things that just made you feel good when you got it. I thought, ‘This is really something. They really care that I’m here.’ ” She decided it mattered to “be gracious to the people who buy something from you — thanking them for choosing to do business with you.” It built camaraderie.
Italy also helped inspire the shop’s look. “The shops were small, and I knew I wanted that. I just traveled from town to town, photographing the enotecas. I saw this one shop in San Gimignano that had this mustardy-colored wall, and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ It took me forever to get the color mixed right. And I brought some really beautiful things back from Florence. But then I realized that this wasn’t a market for that kind of high-end giftware. People loved the look of the things, but they wanted them to be affordable. I really worked on bringing gracious living into an affordable price range.”
That translates to scads of wine-related olde-tyme signs: “Wine Tasting Here,” “Wine Improves with Age: The Older I Get, the More I Like It,” “Champagne,” “Bordeaux”…Also, prints of vine-lined fields with villas in the distance, paintings of wine bottles and glasses, wine-related tapestries, wine-themed paper napkins, glassware, decanters, and baskets. “We sell so much — there are empty spots all over the wall. The shop becomes like home to them, and so they start decorating out of here. When people come in, they feel like they’re entertaining in someone’s home” — provided that person’s home doubles as a venue for live music a couple of nights a week.
“We’re giving people the opportunity to come in and be greeted by wine enthusiasts,” continues Bankerd, “so that, contextually, they’re more willing to learn about wine and take some risks. It’s an opportunity for them to taste wine and understand what they’re buying, as well as the opportunity to see some of the things that go along with serving wine and creating a sense of hospitality with it. The shop is self-funded, so we work on a very tight financial plan. That’s why we don’t have a lot of luxury dollars to buy expensive furniture. But I think it’s almost better that way — it keeps the homier atmosphere. People can relate to it.”
Lest it sound as if Bankerd is operating a wine shop/tasting bar with an events calendar forever stuck on Ladies’ Nite, it’s worth noting that when I visited, three young Turks are sitting at the tasting bar, watching pro basketball and drinking beers. Beers served in stemware, but beers all the same. “We started out with some gift sets — German beer with glasses — and they became unbelievably popular,” explains Bankerd. “Then we offered some specialty beers out of Belgium and England in the tasting room, and we started doing really well with it. Now, if the wife is really passionate about wine but the husband is not quite as into it, he can come and enjoy a beer. We do gift baskets, all kinds of things.”
Gift baskets of beer — who knew? “Baskets” — beer and/or wine — “are a good portion of our business. I was inundated with so many orders this year that several of my customers formed a little team and volunteered to come in and help put them together one Saturday. The husbands came in on the following Monday and delivered all 150 of them. That’s the sense of ownership people have gotten with the shop — this is their place, and they want it to be successful.”
(Of course, a wine shop is ultimately going to succeed or fail on the basis of the actual wines on the shelves. But atmosphere and camaraderie can go a long way in aiding the struggle to survive in the shadow of the Carlsbad Costco, which sells more wine than any other Costco in the country. “If Costco wasn’t here,” says Bankerd, “we’d probably be a lot larger. But we still get a lot of corporate orders here. If they send an admin out with a list of wines and the admin doesn’t know about wine and has to make choices about substitutions on that list, Costco is not their place. They’ll come to us and say, ‘I was told to go to Costco, but I don’t even know what these wines are.’ ” Bankerd & Co. can help to fill an order, and they can ship wines with a custom shelf-talker that describes the wine and lists any blockbuster scores it may have received. And if that shelf talker includes a word about the shop and Bankerd’s favorite Italian blessing, so much the better.)
Once you’ve built that kind of devoted following, the next logical step is a wine club — guaranteed consistent sales to a customer base that trusts you to pick their wines for them. The club is humming along at almost 300 members, thanks in part to Bankerd’s tweak on the typical structure. “We have three levels, and I pick around 18 wines a month for people to choose from. There are five options at the Winemaker level, eight in the Smart Buy, and five to seven in the Estate. On the second Wednesday or Thursday of the month, we have a pickup party, with all 18 wines available for tasting. You have to pick your wines from your membership level, but you can taste everything. It’s become very, very popular.”
And recently, it became very, very local. “I was in back, making gift baskets,” recalls Bankerd. “Will Burtner, who runs our tasting room, came back and said, ‘Kathy, I really want you to taste this wine. I’m thinking it would be a good candidate for the wine club.’ I tasted it and said, ‘This is really good. Where’s it from, Paso Robles?’ He said, ‘No — Temecula’ ” — it was the Chapin Family Vineyards Cabernet. “I said, ‘No, no — we cannot give our wine club a Temecula wine.’ ” Whether or not the wine was good, the local stigma made it too much of a risk. “Will said, ‘Kathy, I think you’re wrong. This is really good wine.’ I sat back there and sipped on it a little bit more, and it endeared itself to me. When we did it for the wine club, we tasted it against a Gigondas and a 90-point Malbec. They were both excellent, but the Chapin won hands down. We had people clamoring.”
More next week.