EVER SINCE Washington voters threw alcohol sales into turmoil by tossing the state out of the selling end of the business, buying wine has been somewhat precarious.
We’ve gone from having a few hundred state liquor stores to more than 1,000 private businesses selling spirits. Costco got what it wanted: the ability to sell hard liquor and negotiate directly with wineries. And large, out-of-state discount retailers have descended on Washington in force.
All of this upheaval the past 18 months would seem to make independent wine shops an anachronism, a quaint artifact of times before we could turn to the Internet to find every commercial wine made on Earth.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Seattle has a rich tradition of independent wine shops, including Pete’s and its three locations, Pike & Western in the Pike Place Market, Esquin Wine Merchants near Safeco Field, McCarthy & Schiering with its two locations and Champion Wine Cellars near the Space Needle, the state’s oldest wine shop dating back to 1969.
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Going to these wine merchants is not like walking into a bright superstore with its discount pricing and “wine-for-a-nickel” deals. Rather, it’s like slipping on a comfortable coat that embraces your needs as a discerning wine lover. Go into Pete’s at its locations in Seattle, Bellevue and Thrashers Corner and you’ll find an extraordinary level of customer service, as well as wines you won’t find at groceries or discounters.
In fact, independent wine shop-owners are a wily bunch. They were competing with groceries and state liquor stores long before this latest turbulence.
Some wine shops — Esquin being the best example — have expanded into spirits and become more aggressive with online sales. Others, such as Compass Wines in Anacortes, have stayed the course by becoming more exclusive and offering deeper selections than any grocer could possibly dream of providing.
Doug Charles, a longtime Washington wine expert who opened Compass in 2001, has, in fact, thrived in this brave new world. He has done this by creating relationships and growing trust with those who buy and collect wine. He does almost no business through his website. Rather, most of his clientele make requests through email and phone calls with their favorite employees.
His strategy is to sell wines that aren’t available at groceries and discounters. If a winery chooses to sell through the others, he’ll replace them with someone else.
“There’s always another winery,” he says.
That’s not an easy policy, but it’s one that independent wine shops must live with because they simply will not try to compete on price. If you are in a race to the bottom line on price, you’ve lost before you ever cross the starting line.
Do you want wine at the cheapest possible price? Go to a grocery or a discounter. Want expert opinion and unprecedented customer service? Head to your independent wine shop.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.