Every other week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a wine shop owner. This week, we’re featuring Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes The Wine Company in White Plains, New York.
Oenophiles love his store. Every few weeks, there’s another post on some wine message board about Daniel’s latest deal or the quality of customer service offered by his employees. His newsletter is legendary – not just for the wine specials, but also for the sport references, jokes, and no-holds-barred commentary on wine regulation.
Daniel is also very active in the online wine community – he tweets prolifically @grapestwc and comments on many wine blogs. Check out our interview below the fold…
How did you end up owning a wine shop?
Tough to answer in just a few sentences, but I will try. Knowing nothing about wine, a friend convinced me to give up lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer, so I did. I got connected with, at the time, a large London wine broker, with a store (Grapes) in New York. They needed someone to run it, from a business side. They had good folks doing sales. So, I started to work for them. Got to know the business, partnered up with the owner just 14 months into my business agreement, and bought them out in 2005.
What makes your store unique?
The selection of wines, as well as the prices that we offer to our exclusive private client list make us very unique. We strive to offer excellent customer service and I have a very capable staff to prove it. In addition, we carry virtually no standard brands, which some customers always look like a deer in headlights upon entering. That is why we have the capable staff. Our wine racks were custom built in the store, as if it is an in-home wine cellar. We are constantly being told that we have the nicest wine store that people have ever seen. That was the goal when we constructed it in 2008. In addition, we have climate control storage for virtually all of our wine. We take what we do seriously. This summer, we will not be buying any wine from wholesalers that do not deliver in temperature controlled trucks. Many suppliers are upset by this decision, but it is the next logical step in showing our clients how much we care.
What are the biggest challenges in owning a wine shop?
Keeping up with what is hot. Most store owners do not. They just stay with what is easy. I prefer to educate myself everyday. We are constantly changing out inventory, which sounds surprising with over 2000 selections, but we are always looking for what is better than what we just sold.
How do you stay up to date on wine news and trends?
Lots of reading of information online, like blogs and twitter, as well as talking to other folks in the business. If it is important in the wine business, I want to know about it.
What wine regions or varietals are you most excited about right now?
Tough to say. A “region” never really excites me. A great vintage of a particular region might, like 2009 Beaujolais, and I never drink Beaujolais. The 2009s are amazing. In the end, it is in the bottle that matters.
Where do you look for new wines – and how do you decide which ones to sell?
I look for new wines from suppliers, as well as actually visiting wine regions. I get great benefit from visiting actual wineries and wine regions. I have been able to cover most of the winemaking world this way. I try to stay ahead of the curve. We sell most of our wines based upon tasting them. And I try to have my entire staff taste with me. While we do not always agree, if a few of us like the wine, it will find a home in the store.
Tell us about some of the best perks you’ve taken advantage of as a retailer when traveling to wine regions.
There are no real “perks” when travelling to wine regions. You wake up early in the morning, and taste wine throughout the whole day, and then you start again the next day — if you are serious about it. This is a job just like any other. While I recognize that people think drinking wine all day can be a lot of fun, I can say that my wife went on a few trips with me, after I first got into this business, and never went back. Too much “work” for her, I gather.
Do you stock old and/or rare wines? Which currently stocked bottle excites you the most?
Yes, we do stock many older and rare wines. We currently have 1 half bottle of 1996 JL Chave Vin de Paille for sale. Probably the rarest wine in the store at the moment. We have an amazing selection of half bottles and large bottles. We built special racking just for magnums, because we sell so many great magnums. We have about 50 selections of half bottles of red wine, ranging in price from $7 per bottle to $200 per bottle. Customers love coming into the store and buying great half bottles of wine.
Are you a collector? Tell us about the wines you bring home.
I would not say I am a collector, by any means. I enjoy drinking wine, mostly with meals, and my “collection” represents a lot of that sort of wine. I migrate towards Burgundy, but my cellar certainly has plenty of wines from Rhone, California, Italy and Bordeaux. Rarely do I drink a wine twice. Just too much great wine out there to do too many repeats.
What’s the wine that got away? In other words, has anything ever passed through your store that you wish you had held onto for yourself?
If I had a nickel for every wine that got away…
What was the last wine you opened for a special occasion?
I am lucky enough to drink great wine often. Not just on special occasions. That being said, for special occasions with my family, I usually migrate towards Burgundy. My wife loves Burgundy.
How can a customer signal that he or she is knowledgeable about wine, so you steer them to something a wine geek would appreciate?
That is a tough question. We are constantly trying to steer clients “to think outside the box.” It is difficult, as people certainly have their comfort zone, but the world is awash with great wine, and people should open up to the idea of trying new stuff. Of course, we are not going to sell a an aged Barolo to a guy that loves Sine Qua Non Syrah. Generally speaking, that sale will not work out well.
If a customer presents him or herself as not knowing that much about wine, do you steer them to interesting and unusual or recognizable? Why?
Not necessarily. But I think that most of our selection is interesting. An open-minded customer is our best friend. Wine knowledge is a tough thing to grasp. It took me 3 solid years, tasting wine, and reading about wine everyday, to really feel like I “knew” about wine.
Any tips for finding a good bargain?
These days, it is very easy to find good wine bargains. Of course, I am partial to our email offerings, which are daily, and offer some of the best deals in the wine business. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other great wine merchants doing just as good or even better job than us. Get to know your favorite wine merchant, and you will be happy with the “bargains” that they provide. With wine search engines and information all over the web, it is easy to find out if what you got is really a “bargain”
Do you advertise scores from publications like Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, or Wine Enthusiast when bottles you stock do well? What’s your take on the current push back against scores?
On our email newsletter, we advertise scores, while I take many opportunities to mock them. I have been in this business for 10 years and have never put a score on a wine. In our store, we have no shelftalkers. We also have no floor stacks of wine. So, if you are curious about a wine, you will have to ask a member of the staff for information. Which is what we want. I want a customer to ask questions. Sy Syms was right, when he said, “an educated consumer is our best customer.” As for the current pushback on scores, I think it is good for the business. While there are certainly great palates out there, reviewing and scoring wines, wine consumers should not buy solely based on one critic’s score. No two people in this world align their palates perfectly.
Do you have any special events – like weekly tastings, winemaker dinners, or classes? How much do they benefit your business?
We do in store tastings every Friday and Saturday, as well as a Thursday Night Tasting Club that meets once per month, usually with a winemaker or importer that we love. In the past we have had events with people from Feudi di San Gregorio, Pepper Bridge, Paitin, Isole e Olena, and importers like Ken Onish and Harmon Skurnik. Those events are free (the TNTC events include food). Once per year, we do a spring portfolio tasting. This year, it is on April 28th. We pour about 150 wines, and raise a lot of money for charity on that evening. We also do about 4 wine dinners annually, with winemakers. We have done Jones Family, Palmer, Margaux and Continuum verticals, as well as a host of great dinners with people like Todd Anderson. Anytime our clients are willing to open their minds and taste, it is a huge benefit to us , and them. Life is too short to just buy that 95 point Cabernet everyday.