No Intimidation

'About the same time I started drinking wine is about the same time I stopped drinking whiskey," says James Castillo, proprietor of WineStyles in Encinitas. It started, not too surprisingly, in Europe, where he was living with his wife Mary while on assignment. "I was in manufacturing." But after 35 years, "I had to get out of that game. I just wanted to do something really different." He started looking around for a franchise, and he found WineStyles.

Right away, he was taken with the concept — "setting up wine in a non-intimidating fashion that increases the odds that people are going to like the bottle when they take it home. That's huge — huge. We organize our wines according to taste and style, rather than by region or varietal. The reason for that is because there is so much range within a varietal." Your California Syrah is not the same as your Australian Shiraz is not the same as your French Rhone. And even within California, your Santa Barbara Syrah will differ from your Paso Robles Syrah. And on and on it goes.

In order to make things easier on the consumer, WineStyles created its own set of categories. From the company brochure: "The different 'styles' identify the specific flavors, body, and essence of the wine." One side of the store gets reds (including dessert wines), the other whites (including bubbly). The reds are divided between Fruity, Mellow, and Bold. "Fruity," reads the sign over the section. "Fruit forward, jammy, grapey. Flavors of raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry. Salads, pizza, pasta, salmon, chicken." Mellow, meanwhile, gets "round, velvety, smooth. Flavors of cherry, berries, herbs, and earth. Pasta, veal, pork, beef, lamb." And Bold? "Intense, complex, heavy. Flavors of chocolate, coffee, pepper, and licorice. Hearty and spicy dishes, complex flavors, hard cheeses." Whites get Crisp, Smooth, and Rich.

"It works for the novice and the experienced drinker alike," says Castillo. "The experienced drinker knows what he's looking for. Very honestly, you go into a specialty wine shop, or even a big-box retailer, you can get a very nice bottle of wine. But there's some guesswork involved there. There's some luck involved." Here, both novice and connoisseur get an easily grasped helping hand in that initial narrowing of choices.

That helping hand becomes more invaluable when you consider that WineStyles concentrates on a pretty narrow niche of products. Like many bottle shops, they distance themselves from the larger chains by focusing on "boutique labels — probably 5000 cases or less, and in many cases, 1000 or less, though not all from small wineries. We have a wine director, and we have an approved wine list which is now 1200 wines strong." Individual shop owners can put in particular wines they discover, "and if it looks like there's enough volume and the winery is going to be around for a little while, then we have a process whereby we can get a wine added to the approved list. Other stores can then take advantage of it, and stores in the same region can get together and make volume purchases."

But the chain also seeks to deliver "world-class wines for under $25." The low cost helps with the "non-intimidating" approach, but it carries a different sort of price. Finding boutique wines under $25 often means carrying wines or varietals or even entire regions that have yet to achieve popular acclaim. "I've got a Leal Cabernet for $25, for instance, that I'd stand up against a Jordan Reserve at four times the price any day of the week." Fun stuff, but without those flavor profiles, the novice would be pretty much flying blind, and even experienced drinkers might be guessing more than they like. With the profiles, however... "I've had only a few people say, 'I don't recognize any of these labels,'" says Castillo. "When they do, I say, 'Well, that's a good thing.' I find that most wine drinkers today have a little sense of adventure. And since you aren't spending $50 or $60 a pop, it's not going to break your heart to experiment a little bit. And if there's a particular style category you really like, chances are you'll find other wines in that style that you like as well."

To help folks remember just what it is they liked or didn't like, each bottle is sold with a "necktie" — a cardboard tag around the bag indicating which style of wine is inside. "We have people who bring that tag back, saying, 'I can't remember what I got, but it was in here....' And for anybody who signs up, I'll keep a record of what it is you bought."

And just as in a standard bottle shop, you can always ask the staff. "The novice will spend thirty minutes in here, walk and talk, ask questions, and maybe walk out with one bottle of wine. But they're coming back. And the experienced wine drinker might ask, 'Have you had this?' And I say, 'Yes, I have. '" Castillo is quick to admit, however, that his palate is far from the final arbiter. "The one thing that's crucial in this business, especially with your customers, is not to pretend you're something you're not. At the end of the day, I know what I like and what I don't like. There are people with palates a lot more educated than mine. There are people — Alsatian wines knock them off their pins. That's not for me. But I understand a technically good wine. I've got a South African Pinotage that I just can't drink. You like it or you don't. But I know it's a technically good wine, and people come in and ask for it and buy two bottles at a time. We try to satisfy everybody."

The setup of wines aims at making people feel at ease; the decor follows suit. "When you think of wine," says Castillo's wife Mary, who also works in the shop and helps taste wines, "you think of having wine with your evening meal. You have this wonderful thought of the vineyards, of just wonderful living. So what do you do? You go into the store where the wine is on racks or stacked on the floor in cardboard boxes. It's very sterile, very cold. The decor here is meant to bring you into the winery — so you don't lose that wonderful thought. You carry it through with you. We'll have people outside the door, peering in. They don't want to cross that threshold. They're really intimidated. It's so nice to say, 'Well, come in!' We explain a little bit, they see the prices...and it's like this ease comes over them. 'Oh my gosh, we can afford to be a part of this. We can come into the store, we can relax, we can have fun, we can try different types. It's just wonderful to see the reaction."

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