When I first walked into the WineSellar and Brasserie ten years ago, I got a quick introduction to trophy wines. They were kept in a raised bin next to the cash register near the entrance, so that you couldn't help noticing them as someone rang up your $11 Presidio Pinot Noir. Araujo, Harlan, Bryant Family, you name it. They sported aftermarket price tags -- long since sold out through normal retail channels, the prices on these wines kept pace with what they were going for at auction. I saw current releases priced at $500, $600, even over $1000. At that point, the wine was almost irrelevant -- you were paying for the privilege of ownership. And the WineSellar was happy to advertise that it had these bottles to sell.
That was ten years and one economic boom ago. Now, says new WineSellar manager Mike Rohner, "What most everyone wants to spend on a bottle of wine is $8-$15. We're fortunate to have clients who will buy the $100-$150 bottles, but as far as increasing numbers, I can carry every trophy wine out of Napa and it still won't increase the traffic through my door. If I start carrying wines that people have never heard of, wines that people taste and say, 'This is better than every $8 bottle I've ever had,' I will be able to get more people in here."
To that end, Rohner has continued expanding the bargain section -- which now holds the ground nearest the register -- championed by David Derby before he left for the Wine Lover and, eventually, Orange County. He has also gone hunting in those New World regions -- Argentina, Chile, and Australia -- that have taken hold of the market once dominated by California fighting varietals. It's a crowded market down in bargainland, so Rohner is angling for the obscure and interesting. "I think having multiple labels of Torrentes, actually being able to talk about the styles of Torrentes, makes us relatively unique. It's not just 'a Riesling-like grape.'"
Selling something as unknown and unheralded as Torrentes requires hand-selling, something Rohner learned about in his early days with the shop. His wife Kristen was repping a wine book that started carrying the Grapes of Spain portfolio. "There were about 100 Spanish wines, none of which had ever been reviewed, and none of which had representation down here. I got to taste them all on the first wave. My wife tried to get them sold everywhere, but some of them were costing as much as $70, and that's just an impossible sale unless there's a review connected to it." Derby agreed to carry a few of the wines Rohner showed him, and "over the first month or two, every bottle that we sold we had to put in somebody's hands. We started building a grassroots loyalty to this book, because nobody could find them anywhere else."
The trophies, already removed from that front-row position, may soon leave the main floor altogether and depart for a room of their own. "The good thing is that it's 55 degrees back there. We'll show the wines the same respect the clients would show them. The steady 66 degrees out here is not going to kill any wine, but some people will say, 'It's a $400 bottle; I'm not buying it from anywhere except an ideal environment.' So I want to get those wines back in there" and keep the trophy hunters happy.
Besides the bargain section, "The Wednesday night tastings were where we really started trying to bring in a younger crowd. It's $5, casual, no reservations needed. They went from maybe 15 people the first couple of weeks to 50 or 60 now -- when it's a label that matters to people. I have Seghesio coming on February 2; I'll probably have 60 or 70 people. Sometimes we choose labels that matter to us, and we know that we're not going to get 60 people. But at least we're getting to bring in some cool wine and share with people who have never tried it before. For Michaud out of the Pinnacles region, I'll probably have 20 to 25. It's a shame, but I'm ecstatic that I'll be able to have their whole lineup and a rep talking about the wines. They're unbelievable."
And if you can create a regular at $5 a tasting and $12 a bottle, you're more likely to be the place your customer goes when it comes time to splurge. "I think everybody hopes to earn more next year than they did this year. I truly believe that everyone who is buying in our value section today wants to be buying a trophy wine someday -- whether they want to do it on a consistent basis, or whether they're just curious. 'I wonder what the Ramey Jericho Canyon tastes like. I've heard it's great. Do I have a hundred bucks to spend so I can drink it tonight? No. '" But someday...
And when someday comes, Rohner wants to make those dream bottles a little less fantastical. "I guess I'm looking to get rid of trophy pricing. I understand the law of supply and demand. I know that when David Arthur releases a microproduction of Elevation 1147 and I get only six bottles and everyone is sold out, retail-wise, in a week or two, I can pad the retail price up to $250, $260." Again, it's that privilege of ownership. "But I can make my standard margin at $150. It will get priced somewhere in between -- nobody is going to take the absolute minimum just to keep the lights on, but do you have to charge $250?" Some retailers, says Rohner, "don't mind staring at their six bottles until the wine is gone from the auction sites and everywhere else. But I don't necessarily want to hold on to wine. I don't want to stare at bottles simply because they're that special. I don't necessarily want to send the whole six-pack home with one person either. If a wine is supposed to be that great and that rare, I'd rather have six people enjoy a single bottle."