From Zero to Stunning

When Paul Krikorian took over the wine program at the La Jolla Country Club in 2003, "The 2000 Bordeaux were just coming out." His friends at Wine Warehouse helped out with allocations, and he bought heavily: Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Monbousquet, the sorts of wines that rate over 95 points from critic Robert Parker. Elsewhere, " '01s were coming out, and there were still some '99s. If it's not great, we don't buy it." The Club's cellar, tucked into the back of a walk-in cooler behind the laundry room, went from zero to stunning in short order.

"I pride myself on being able to get those trophy wines," says Krikorian. "The nice thing about the club is, they give me the latitude to use my judgment. When I think it's a good purchase, I get carte blanche." And years of buying have given him access to a lot of those good purchases. "You have to be smart -- and nice. If the reps don't like you, it doesn't matter how much you buy. The special wines move just fine without you." You never hear about them, or you hear about one- and two-bottle allocations. "But to get quantities..."

Krikorian gets quantities, and quantities of very limited stuff. A brief perusal of the boxes and bins turns up Vega Sicilia's Unico, Pinot Noirs from Sea Smoke, Penfolds Grange Shiraz, Caymus Special Select, the Parker 100-point Cab from Quilceda Creek, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Solaia, Biondi Santi...

How? Several ways. First, support the brand. "I won't buy good wine to get great wine, but I will buy very good wine to get great wine. It's a give-and-take thing; when it's doable, I think it's only fair. I've got the 99-point Run Rig from Torbreck, and the 96-point Factor." To keep everybody happy, "I bought three cases of the Torbreck Woodcutters. Now, that's one of the finest values out there." Very good to get great.

Second, produce more sales. "It's like golf. There's a small percentage of people who watch golf, but they're affluent and they spend money. The La Jolla Country Club is a prestige account. You get your wines in here, and there's going to be a ripple effect. These are the people with the means to buy. They'll have a party and they'll say, 'Hey, Paul, where do I go to get such-and-such?' I'll call the rep, find out where they're selling it retail, and the member will buy five, ten cases."

Third, create a market for associated goods. Producing retail sales accounts for wines available by five- and ten-case lots. But if you ever see Bryant Family on a retail shelf, you probably don't see more than one or two bottles. Bryant Family doesn't need help selling its wines. So why do they put themselves into a private restaurant that isn't likely to show up in the papers? Krikorian might be supplying the answer when he says that his membership is part of "the people who support their livelihood up in the valley. I get a lot of people who travel up to Napa; I pretty much set them up through the relationships I've developed over the years. They go up and join wine clubs, buy wines from wineries, and the people up there take great care of them."

Getting the wine is step one. Then comes selling it. Krikorian started with price. "I've priced everything super-fairly -- once you get above $45, everything is priced about retail. There are two things behind the pricing. One, this is a nonprofit club; we don't need the exorbitant markups. Two, I've always fought for limited markups and increased sales. I want to sell wine; I don't want to stock wine. I sell Bryant Family Cabernet for $400 -- those are $700 down the street, and $1200 downtown. There's a conscious decision to keep margins as slim as possible and put the wine in people's mouths. There will always be more great wine; when it comes along, put a reasonable markup on it and sell it. I just think you're better off selling the wine and having happy customers. It takes the tension out of the air. People are starting to realize, this is the place to splurge. Members are bringing friends who are wine connoisseurs, saying, 'You won't believe the list we have over here.'"

Among the connoisseurs, there are differences. Krikorian tries to pay attention. "Some people like ratings. Some people like a particular style. Some people want the latest. My job is to keep them on the cutting edge; they have the means to have whatever they want, and they're looking for something new and different. Trophy-hunting is an after-the-fact game" -- the press has hit, the prices are up. The trick is to get the wines before they're trophies. "You have to be palate-driven. Part of the plan was getting ahead of the curve. You read all the magazines; you know who the good winemakers are, how long they've been at a place, if they're coming or going. Something like Lynch, made by Heidi Barrett. The phone will ring: 'We've got this wine made by Heidi Barrett. It's never had any press, but I think you should taste it.' I'm a certified sommelier, a professional taster. We know if a wine has longevity, if it's going to be a star. Every Monday, I meet with a group of six sommeliers from downtown La Jolla, and we sit around and taste blind. Just to keep our palates sharp, so we don't become too dependent on salespeople and the press."

It isn't all trophy wines, of course -- no list is. Even the comfortably monied have everydays. "You get to know your customer, and you get to know the price point. Slowly, you gain their trust. Maybe 50 percent of the people now don't even ask for a wine list. They just ask for me to come over and pick something out for them. 'Just a regular night for us -- pick out a nice Cab.' Or, 'It's my wife's birthday tonight -- we're looking for something special.'

"You get to know them by letting them get to know the wines. People are still learning what they like; they don't have time. I do the work for them; I do the research. I do a lot of personal tastings at the table, an added feature to the dining experience. 'Is there anything on the list that piqued your interest -- something you'd like to try, even if you don't want to purchase it?' People love to taste wine, and it's complimentary. I'll bring three Pinots to the table -- we'll do light-, medium-, and full-bodied. They've just learned three new Pinots. I'll bring an Albarino to the table, talk them through the tasting: 'Are you getting apricot blossom, a little creaminess?' These are bright people; they get it -- the creativity of it, the artistry."

Evidence of trust: Krikorian has been able to sell undercard varietals such as Malbec, Aglianico, and Riesling by the glass to a crowd that, three years ago, was pretty solidly in the Chardonnay camp. (It probably doesn't hurt that a glass translates to about nine ounces.) The end result: "Wine sales have been climbing dramatically. Most nights, everyone will have a glass of wine on their table, or a bottle."

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