The Right Thing

There are three Starbucks Coffee stores on Fifth Avenue between Laurel and Washington. There is another a few blocks down at University and Richmond. That's a lot of beans, but it gets beanier. There's a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf splitting the distance between two of the Fifth Avenue Starbucks. There's a Peet's Coffee & Tea at University and Fourth. And there's a Diedrich's Coffee bumping up against that University and Richmond location. Corporate-chain coffee is king.

That may be part of the reason why WineStyles founder Brigitte Baker would not be at all upset to have her chain known as the Starbucks of wine shops. Because Starbucks didn't get to be Starbucks just by selling coffee. It sold a lifestyle. "Years ago, Americans didn't sit in a cafe and have a latte," says Baker. "We'd get coffee in a Styrofoam cup and take it on the run." Starbucks changed all that. "In Italy, you can't even get coffee to go." Baker thinks of France, "its joie de vivre. Taking a little time out to enjoy life. I think we're finally starting to do that in our country, and I think that's why Starbucks is a big success. Everybody sits at Starbucks and meets their friends there."

And if they'll meet for coffee, then why not for wine? "I think drinking wine is sort of a reflection of a lifestyle. I think wine is the next thing. Spas are trending up. It's really about taking a moment to enjoy your lifestyle, and I think the timing is perfect. It's a destination, a place people want to come to, not just to shop, but also to sort of hang out. I think people are getting sick of the whole Costco/Wal-Mart mentality. They want to go back to something like the Cheers song -- 'where everybody knows your name.' I think it's nice to walk into a place where you get to know your customers and they become friendly with you. Then they invite their friends, and it just becomes like a fun neighborhood spot. Even though we're a franchise, I never want it to feel that way."

James Castillo, WineStyles' area developer for San Diego County, also runs the Encinitas franchise with his wife Mary. He seems to be proving Baker's point. "This is the first franchise in San Diego, but I've already sold two more. We could easily do ten in San Diego County. These are neighborhood stores. A population of 50,000 could support one. We do our tastings every Wednesday night. We've had 50 or 60 people. We did BBQ wines, and we put out a big plate of messy barbecue, and people liked it. We're going to start duplicating the tastings on Saturday nights as well. My business partner is going to be opening up a store down in EastLake. He's got several hundred square feet outside of his shop that he's going to fence in, and he's going to do a full wine bar. People who come through the door want to be here. They're happy to be here. I think of shopping as having to go out and buy a pair of shoes -- I hate it. I dread it. This is the other side of that. This is shopping that people like to do."

Part of it is the product, but part of it is the atmosphere. WineStyles aims at an appealing decor -- attractive but still casual, a standardized look reminiscent of an Old World winery. (Baker thinks the look may account for some of the franchise's appeal to owners. "Part of the American dream is to have your own business," she says. The thought of owning a winery may be a sort of ultimate fulfillment of that dream -- the business-as-lifestyle. "That's unattainable for most people, but this is a little piece of something that you can actually do.") The store also offers a user-friendly setup, with wines grouped by flavor profile. "The ironic thing," says Baker, "is that people don't really have to have a knowledge of wine" to open a franchise. A standard bottle shop depends, at least to some extent, upon the staff's knowledge -- of the wines and of their customers' palates. But at WineStyles, "The idea of our stores is that you can really guide yourself through," even if you don't recognize a lot of the labels. "Of course, our training includes wine education, but it's a basic wine education, because that's all you really need. We never want to turn into wine snobs. We're trying to be the antithesis of that. The key thing is that they have to have a passion for wine."

Baker grants that her model isn't likely to drive a monster discount warehouse like the Wine Exchange out of business anytime soon, but she adds that she's not necessarily going after the same customer base. "Usually, the core wine consumer was thought to be 40 to 60, but we see the trend getting younger and younger. The people who are just getting into wine and making it part of their culture and their lifestyle -- they're the ones we're capturing."

Again, Castillo backs her up. During the initial discussions of demographics, "We were talking about primarily 40-year-old women who were primary decision-makers when it came to lifestyle stuff -- wine and things like that." Two years later, "That's a nice part of our demographic, but the overall demographic is younger. I love my 25-year-olds. They're just learning, and they come in all the time. They're more sophisticated than we were at that age -- they don't want to just sit back and knock back tequila shooters. What I really like about them is, there's no pretense. They're anxious to learn, they're really pleasant, they're fun to have, and they add some life."

Adds Castillo's wife Mary, "We should have known it would happen. Our son is young, and he's in wine clubs. Our daughter as well."

In short, Baker believes she has seen the future. "People say, 'Oh, my God, Starbucks has all this competition now.' To me, that's a good sign, because that means you're doing the right thing. I see the same thing happening now -- there are other wine franchises or corporate businesses opening, and I think that means we're on the right track."

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