AS DAN MCCARTHY likes to tell the tale, at the 10th hour on the 10th day of the 10th month of 1980, he popped open a bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne to celebrate the opening of his new wine shop, McCarthy & Beck. The empty bottle was kept as a memento for decades. It stood on a shelf high above the sink in the tiny bathroom at the back of the cozy shop — until the day an industrious employee unaware of its history recycled it.
Business partner Oliver Beck soon bowed out, and the store at the corner of Ravenna Avenue and Northeast 65th Street was briefly known as McCarthy & Co., until Jay Schiering, who had regularly roamed the aisles as a customer, decided to switch from one type of terroir (geology) to another (oenology). He became McCarthy’s business partner in 1984, and the name above door has been McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants ever since.
Schiering’s dry wit and thoughtful demeanor complemented McCarthy’s ebullient personality and gift for gab. After opening a second location on Queen Anne in 1990, they presided over separate fiefdoms — Schiering in Ravenna, McCarthy on Queen Anne — linked by joint Saturday tastings, a customer newsletter and The Vintage Select Buyer’s Club. (A lifetime membership fee of $100 affords members the best discounts and access to allocated wines.) The shop garnered national recognition. It was Food & Wine magazine’s 1998 “Retailer of the Year” and among GQ’s “50 Best Wine Stores in America” in 2004.
Recently deciding they were ripe for retirement, McCarthy and Schiering went looking for a buyer. They struck a deal over the summer with longtime customers Gene Yelden; Spencer Jacobs; and their respective spouses, Cathy Duchamp and Leah Jacobs.
The foursome shares a friendship built around their passion for wine. Over time, all expect to be involved in the business, but the men have the reins for now. Yelden oversees day-to-day operations. This is his second career; he also holds a Ph.D. in laser and plasma physics and electrical engineering. Jacobs, a charismatic Brit, brings years of entrepreneurial and executive skills to the partnership. Between them, they have little retail experience but a wealth of wine knowledge that deepened along with their friendship over many years of showing up almost every Saturday for McCarthy & Schiering’s complimentary tastings.
They got to know a significant percentage of their future customers that way. The wine community in Seattle is surprisingly small, says Jacobs. “On a typical Saturday, there are four or five of the store’s biggest clients tasting wine.”
Having longtime customers take over the business promises continuity, but change is inevitable. When Yelden and Jacobs restarted Saturday tastings in July (paused by the pandemic), they poured Greek wines, which was pretty much unheard of in the past, they say, and a huge success. “Greek wines offer tremendous value when you look at the quality of what you can get in the $12 to $15 range,” says Jacobs.
The biggest priority for the new management team is introducing data management technology for tracking inventory, point-of-sale transactions and customer relations. “Jay and Dan ran it in traditional old-world style. Most of the details were in their heads,” says Yelden. “Things are one step up from hammer and chisel.” They joke with vendors that they’re going to modernize “at least up to the 19th century.”
In addition to keeping the name, the new owners retained the management and staff.
“They have been in the shop more than a decade each. They know the customers and what they want,” says Jacobs. They are very mindful of providing “personal service,” whether the customer is looking for a $12 pizza wine or a $2,000 burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, widely considered one of the world’s greatest wine producers, and among the most expensive.
The shop has long had “a huge upper-end clientele that chases that kind of stuff,” says Schiering. In the past, just three customers might snap up the shop’s entire five-case allocation of Romanée-Conti, worth about $65,000 wholesale. The profit on that one wine would equal what the store would make from selling 200 mixed cases hand-assembled for the holiday season.
McCarthy and Schiering were early and ardent supporters of Northwest wines, too. Customer Tim Kirley recalls being referred to the shop by a friend when he was new to Seattle and looking to stock his wine cellar. Kirley was prepared to write a big check for the white burgundies he and his wife, Megan, had grown fond of while living in London. Schiering told him they certainly could do that but suggested, since he would been out of the country for a while, that Kirley try some (far less expensive) Oregon pinot noirs. Impressed on many levels, Kirley went home and told his wife, “I found an honest wine merchant.”
In August, the Kirleys hosted a private gathering on the lawn of their Highlands home to celebrate the careers of McCarthy and Schiering, and to introduce the new owners. “This is about family,” Tim Kirley told the crowd of about 80, which included winemakers Ben Smith of Cadence and Will Camarda of Andrew Will. Poor health kept McCarthy from attending, but Schiering recounted the story of the Roederer Champagne opened that inaugural day and announced a surprise.
Roederer was about to release a new multivintage cuvée called Louis Roederer Collection 242. Few, if any, U.S. consumers had tasted it yet, but they’d managed to procure a case for the event. The number 242 indicates that the youngest vintage in the blend is from Roederer’s 242nd harvest. In the future, the company says, these numbered releases will replace Roederer Brut Premier, marking “the end of an era for Brut Sans Année in Champagne.” It was a fitting way to toast the end of an era at McCarthy & Schiering as well.