Sea of Labels

It started 1000 years ago, in Luxembourg, in the basement of the house belonging to Brigitte Baker's grandmother. Way back then, "There were alcoves carved out of the limestone," says Baker, arched alcoves just the right size for a triangular stack of horizontal wine bottles. One millennium later, copies of those same alcoves started serving as the point-of-sale display for the bottles at the very first WineStyles (there are now 60 stores open with another 50 or so in the works). "I wanted to duplicate something that looked really authentic and Old World. The idea was to transport people to another time and place when they walked into the store." Reason number one for the "Style" in "WineStyles."

Except it wasn't called WineStyles yet; it was called Bacchus. Let's back up a bit, or rather, jump forward from that 1000-years-ago origin, all the way up to 1998. "My husband and I had a barbecue," recalls Baker. "We invited all of our friends, and everyone who came brought a bottle of wine. And every single person made the same comments: 'I'm so intimidated.' 'When I go to buy wine, I'm lost in a sea of labels; I don't know where to begin.' 'I think I like Chardonnay, but then I buy a Chardonnay and it doesn't taste anything like the last Chardonnay I had.' 'There are all these magazines about wine, but when you're shopping, there's no information at the point of sale.' And because price points are all over the board, people were misled into thinking that if they spent $40 or $50, they would be guaranteed a good bottle -- and that's certainly not the case." This was eight years ago, mind you. Things may be a bit better today. But despite the efforts of countless wine educators, wine writers, wine marketers, and perhaps even wine drinkers, wine is still not entirely free of that Intimidation thing, that Confusing thing, that Uncomfortable thing.

Baker was no expert. What she was was comfortable. "Both my parents are from Europe. All my relatives still live there. I spent quite a lot of time in Europe, and so I was sort of cultured with wine. I thought, 'How can I get my American friends to have that same comfort level?'" She conceived of a shop that would sell less-expensive wines -- "If it's under $25, it's a fun thing to enjoy every day" -- but still wines that had that "boutique-esoteric" quality. She didn't want to compete with Vons. A shop that would include shelf-talkers with every bottle. (Beverages & More does shelf-talkers, "but isn't it funny that they just do it sporadically?") "In the beginning, a lot of times, if the wine was written up in a magazine, I would actually put the wine critic's quote." But after a little time and experience, "I started writing my own notes." A shop with a pared-down inventory to reduce that "sea of labels" feeling: "Instead of having 100 or 200 mediocre Chardonnays, we'd have 10 great ones and somebody there to hand-sell the wine."

Oh -- and someplace easy on the eye. "My husband said to me, 'The shirt you're wearing, or your watch, or your shoes, were all probably made in an ugly factory. But I'm sure you bought them in a very nice retail outlet. Wine is the only consumer good that I can think of that's the exact opposite. It's produced in a beautiful factory -- the winery." But then it's sold in a warehouse. Alcoves, anyone?

And then she took a page from the Progressive wine-list movement in restaurants and decided to group her wines by style instead of region or varietal -- reason number two for the "Style" in "WineStyles." By this point, she had gone beyond merely conceiving of such a shop and was "walking the streets of Manhattan Beach, California, where I lived," looking for a location. She found a shoe store that was closing down, and a week later, she signed a lease -- blissfully unaware of what it meant to run a business, let alone a wine business. "I was a model for many years and worked in retail production. I certainly did not have a business background or a wine background.

"It's like you're selling your soul to the devil or something," she says of the response to her attempt to open an alcohol-related shop. "I had people protesting me. I had to go to city hall and go before the planning commission. I was an entrepreneur. My partner jokes that an entrepreneur is someone who has no idea what they're about to face, or they'd never do it." To add to the stress, "The day after we opened, I found out I had cancer. We had moved my mother across country to manage the store, and we had to pay our contractors and inventory and rent and we had 30 days. We had $100 left in the bank, and I said, 'Oh, my God, this had better work.' Knock on wood, it did."

During the first year, "I was in and out of the hospital. But my mom kept saying that people kept coming into the store and asking, 'Is this a franchise? Because if it is, I want one. '" Eventually, Baker franchised under the banner of Wine Made Simple. But, she says, "I didn't know what I was doing, and it became too much." She released her franchisees, "but people kept calling. I knew I had something."

She sought help at a franchise convention. There, she met her current partners, Bob Spuck and Bob Florio. "They said, 'Let's do it. But change the name. Most Americans don't know who Bacchus is, or how to spell it.' So we changed the name to WineStyles. In March 2004, we had our first Discovery Day, which is when people come and decide whether they want to buy a franchise. Everyone who came bought one. The first one we sold opened in November of 2004." Zero to 109 in two years. "It's been quite a whirlwind."

She doesn't write the shelf-talkers anymore or even buy the wines -- she has a wine director for that. And her partners handle the business/franchise side of things. "As the founder, it made sense for me to handle the PR. Plus, I like to do it." She's gotten good at the barbecue story.

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