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Have you researched your local "boutique" wine store?

For many years it seemed that the business model of the local wine shop was pretty standard. Then, with the growing popularity of wine came more and more wine stores, namely the "wine superstores" like Total Wine & Spirits (East Coast) and Sam's (Chicago), as well as "boutique" type wine stores like Winestyles (national) or Cork & Olive (Florida). This question is about the latter.

The business model of the boutique "chain" concept seems to turn its nose at the wine warehouses and traditional wine stores in favor of stores where "real people" go to buy wine, typically priced under $20 a bottle. Also, some of these shops include in their business model the pretense that you or I could buy a bottle in their store that was not available elsewhere. That, I believe is true. That being said, if it is not available anywhere else locally, how do you know you are paying a fair price? Herein lies the rub....

This past weekend, my fiancee and I stopped by the local Cork & Olive store in Tampa. Their store consists of a small selection of wines, mostly under $20, composed mostly of foreign, lesser known (or unknown) producers of wine. I've been to their store before but never purchased anything, but this time we were there to use a $75 gift certificate.

The positive part of the experience is that they always have plenty of bottles open for a free tasting. The negative part is that with all of the unknown labels, I got a bad feeling, based only on one wine, from MAN Vintners of South Africa. When I live in New Orleans, I bought it regularly for about 5 bucks a bottle, but locally, they sell it for between $12 and $14, depending on the type. Most of the bottles in the store were in the $12-$15 range. This past weekend, we ended up spending $85 and got six pretty decent bottles, 4 of which we tried on the spot. Only $10 out of pocket, so not bad.

However, when I started researching these wines, they were mostly obscure and low quality producers that are not widely available. I don't feel ripped off, since we tried several of the wines, and most of it was paid for by gift cards. However, I feel like the store is intentionally duping the uninformed consumer into believing they are buying a "special" or "boutique" wine and getting a great value. In reality, they may be buying an overpriced bottle of swill that that they couldn't get anywhere else in town, probably for good reason. It seems a lot of the hype and marketing in these so-called "boutique" wine stores is about consumers feeling like they got a "special" wine and avoided the traditional wine store.

Anyone else have any thoughts on the subject? Or have you actually taken the time to research some of the lesser known wines in the boutique stores? I may have an isolated incident with one particlar chain of stores, but I wouldn't bet on it.

-Kevin

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  1. As a preface, I admit to knowing nothing about state laws on distribution of alcohol, and next to nothing about the supply chain from winery to distributor to retailer to consumer, aside form general economic principles.

    In New York, there are so many wine stores, and many with comprehensive websites listing their inventory, that even obscure bottles are generally available in more than a handful of stores that I imagine they'd competitively priced. If i'm looking for a bottle over $30 or so that isn't widely available (i.e., right now I'm looking for the John Duval "Entity" Shiraz from Barossa, according to WS, 750 cases imported; another the NV Aubry Brut Rosé ), I will almost always shop amongst the stores' websites. On one site, I saw it for $40; at another, I saw an offer of $35.50 for a half case. The difference of 11% is probably as big a difference as you're likely to see for a medium range wine in this geographic market. Neither of these stores are what one might consider a "boutique," but I think prices being mostly a function of local competition applies to bigger retailers and boutiques alike. Sorry, don't know if that answers your question?

    And before I make any purchases, I generally look up them up in Wine Spectator's website (hey, it's not entirely useless!) to give me some idea as to what the wine's "accepted" price is. WS's prices I feel are already on the high end, so I generally would not purchase these wines from any stores whose retail price is much more than 5% of the listed price at WS. At 10%, I'm generally passing entirely, unless as a specific gift purchase. But looking over the store's inventory and comparing them to the prices at WS helps me gauge whether that store's prices are any good, or if there might be relative bargains with regards to specific regions and wines. I make a note of it for furture reference.

    1. Kevin,

      I'll confess I have heard of Total and Sam's, and Crown Beverage and ABC -- but not Cork & Olive, so I cannot speak to their selection specifically. But there is a world of wine out there, beyond the famous wines of (e.g.) Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, Rioja. There are outstanding wines available from regions like Irouleguy, Apulia, Wachau, Alentejo . . . there are wonderful wines produced from grapes like Torrentes, Tannat, Tinta Roriz, etc.

      It seems that you are saying "mostly obscure," "low quality" and "not widely avalable" are all equal, all somehow inerconnected, and that is the only way a so-called "boutique" (small?) store can carry anything "special," which you seem to imply is anything cheap that consumers have never heard of (i.e.: not widely available, obscure and of low quality -- otherwise the "traditional" [big?] stores would carry it).

      While I have no doubt that not every wine carried in every store will be to your taste (or anyone's taste, for that matter; we each have our own likes and dislikes), I have found wines of far HIGHER quality and personal enjoyment abong the "obscure" and "not widely available."

      This is not to say you cannot come across a bad or an overpriced wine in ANY store, but I've long found better wines, better prices and a better selection among the small[er] specialty stores like Vintage Berkeley, Oddlots, The Spanish Table, Paul Marcus, The Wine House -- and even stores like Kermit Lynch (the "grandfather" of specialty retailers), North Berkeley Wine Merchants, and other high-end ($$$$) stores which carry a fine selection of wines in the under $20-25 range.

      That aside, I do have a question for you, Kevin: what do you mean by "researching these wines"? Do you mean looking up to see what scores it got from Robert Parker of the Wine Spectator? Or do you mean looking up the winery's website to learn more about the wine(s)? Or do you mean checking out something like www.wine-searcher.com/ to see what various retail prices you can find the wine being sold for? Or do you mean tasting the wine side-by-side with similar wines and letting your taste buds decide which is the best-tasting wine to you?

      Thanks in advance for the answers.

      Jason

      8 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        it sounds to me that kevin's issue is the wine store taking advantage of consumers by overcharging for wine few people are familiar with, not for selling obscure wines in itself. i have definitely noticed this practice all across the industry, actually in every industry. businesses make money where they can. you can't get away with selling yellowtail for $20 because everyone knows how much it should cost, but maybe you could sell a $9 corbieres that few people if any know for double its value. and some auto mechanics will charge you $200 for a screw if they think you have no idea what you're doing. i think the solution is simple- be a more educated consumer, do your research like kevin did, and find retailers you trust. there are ethical wine sellers, just like there are ethical mechanics. there are many really great boutique retailers that will expose you to amazing wines that you would otherwise probably never hear about. this business model has proved to be successful, so of course there are imitators emulating it who are just looking to cash in on the trend. i don't think it takes a very discerning eye to tell the difference, yet they're still going to fool a lot of people who aren't aware this is going on in the first place. my one caveat is to be aware that prices can vary tremendously from state to state, so in doing price comparisons, take that into consideration.

        1. re: zin1953

          Hey Jason, I am still reading, but been super busy and haven't been able to respond. I appreciate your detailed responses and since you have no information about my knowledge or experience, it's hard to understand where I am coming from.

          I totally understand that there are a plethora of reputable wine stores that carry lesser known or unknown wines from across the world, but I have a hunch about this particular store. I have previously had a great relationship (and still do) in New Orleans with a store that carried plenty of lesser known wines, but the staff was knowledgable and I trusted their advice. And I always felt I got a fair deal. In the case I talk about in this post, I found a wine that sells for $6 a bottle at a trusted store, but twice that price at this "boutique" store. In addition, I felt many of the wines I tasted were pretty weak. And last, the staff seem to be novices at wine (they know far less than I do) and the turnover is high. That particular store is now hiring, since a lot of the previous employees were students that had moved home for the summer. Not my idea of knowledgable or infomed staff.

          ------"That aside, I do have a question for you, Kevin: what do you mean by "researching these wines"? "--------

          As you mentioned, there are plenty of ways to research wines and I'd bet a majority of the posters here prefer to do some sort of research before buying a $20 bottle of wine. Whether it be a trusted staff recommendation or one of a friend, a magazine rec, or even a tasting; not many people walk into a store blind and pick a random bottle; there's usually some methodology.

          My primary reason for posting was to find out if I am mistaken about the feeling I get about this store, or if possibly I should look at the situation from a different angle. I will no longer shop there because I don't trust the place; I prefer to shop at a place that knows more about wine than I do. My biggest concern was for the people who walk unknowingly into a store, assuming they are getting a good wine for $15, when a trusted wine store would sell a comparable wine for half the price.

          Hope that makes sense.

          -Kevin

          1. re: UptownKevin

            I can relate to a similar store, where I once lived. They advertised themselves as a "boutique shop," but what they offered were "close-outs." This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, so long as the buyer is not seduced by the whole package. This was a stand-alone shop, and not any sort of chain. They defined a niche and filled it, with a bit of loose advertising. Prices were equal to "retail," when the wine was being released, but they were picking it up at "fire sale prices," and making a tidy profit on it. Heck, they did offer impossible to find wines, as most had been taken off the shelves, and much of it was good. The "deal" was a bit less than most of their clients knew, but if both parties were happy, and a winery/distributor moved a bunch of wine that was not selling, maybe everyone made out fine. It is all in the marketing.

            BTW, which shop in NOLA, Martin's Wine Cellar?

            Hunt

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Ahhh, Bill, I forgot that you've done quite a bit ot travel to NOLA (I see your posts here on CH). I primarily shopped at two places in NOLA, Martin Wine Cellar and Cork and Bottle, in Mid-City in the American Can Company. My friend John C. works at MWC Uptown and before Katrina I managed The Columns as well as lived Uptown. For a short time, I even lived on the corner of Amelia and Baronne, a block from the former location of Martin (it's dangerous being a block away from your favorite wine store).

              I trusted the advice I got from MWC, but as an Uptown store, they catered a plenty to people with more money than I had. However, they always treated me well and helped me find great wine. Cork and Bottle was such a comforting place and most of the wines came from lesser-known wineries. Fortunately, the owner was a hands-on guy and always took care of me. I wasn' t a big spender back then, but I always felt important and never had a bad bottle of wine. Good times....

              -Kevin

              1. re: UptownKevin

                Wow, I do not know Cork & Bottle, even though it is in my b-i-law's business neighborhood. I'll have to give it a go later this month.

                We used to shop the Uptown MWC, when we lived in NOLA, but have spent more time at their Metairie shop, since we moved - decades ago. I love MWC, and have had many wonderful experiences with them. Last trip down, we were doing the "house wines," for a 10 stay in the FQ, with a wino couple. A manager looked in my cart and commented, "since you're buying a bunch of Zins, would you like a horizontal of Turley?" He proceeded to pull out about six SV Turleys from the back and put them into my cart. His next comment was, "these are only for my good customers, so I'll have to go to the checkout with you." When I told him that I was now a tourist from AZ, and only staying for a week+, he said, "no problem. You obviously enjoy big Zins, so they will not go to waste." The average price per bottle was <$35 and we're talking a Duarte, a Hayne and a Dogtown Flats, plus a few others! Wow, what service.

                When I first moved to Phoenix, I went to a big wine shop, that was highly recommended. I had missed buying the Silver Oak '97 Napa, since I was moving, and they had six bottles. I had tasted this at the WS California Wine Experience, and asked the owner to put them in my "stack." His comment was, "can't do it, since these are only for our 'good' customers... " Guess where I never shopped again. Heck, I was spending about $1500 on wine, since my cellar was still in storage and my construction was not yet complete. How I miss the service of MWC!!! Great folk.

                Due to your rec., I will stop in at C&B and buy something from them. Great wine shops are too few and far between.

                Thanks, and hope that you get the feedback, that you are looking for in the original thread. I did not mean to hi-jack it with recollections of other shops and other places.

                Hunt

                1. re: UptownKevin

                  Kevin --

                  In the FWIW Dept., I first bought wines from Martin Wine Cellar when I visited New Orleans back in 1971 . . . IIRC, it was a bottle of 1967 Château Ducru Beaucaillou.

                  I was already in the wine trade in Southern California, and Cedric wanted me to run cases of Coors from California -- where, back then, they retailed for $1.25/6-pack ($5/cs) -- to NOLA where he would pay me $10. Then, he'd sell them for $5/6-pak ($20/case). It was tempting to someone still in college to double his money, but then I started thinking about how many state and Federal laws I'd be violating, and I passed . . .

                  It's sad the Baronne location is closed, but I'll probably pop in the Magazine St. locale when I'm there in October -- just for old times . . .

                  Jason

                  1. re: zin1953

                    I know that this is getting away from the original post's intent, but I have to ask: wasn't it Schwegman's, that first started bringing in grey-market Coors, from Beaumont, IIRC? Seems that they (or another grocer of the time), would run an empty refer-truck to the TX line, fill it up with Coors, and bring it back to NOLA. We're talking early '70s here, so the memory fades badly.

                    One Mardi-gras, I found myself with a case. I planned on consuming it during the week with friends, but word got out on the street, and I ended up selling it all at about $3/12oz can. Paid for the entire week. Also, the cans had a strange little double pop-top - one to relieve the pressure, then one that pushed into the can, no zip-tab. I do not recall any other brewer using that particular method.

                    Soon, I moved to CO, so it was all moot.

                    Thanks for the memories,
                    Hunt

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Now that you mention it, I believe you may be correct about Schwegman's. He was one sneaky SOB in the grocery business, but of course, went bankrupt. That being said, Cedric Martin could have been the first with the idea, and Schwegman took the idea and ran. By the time I was old enough to remember, my dad could easily get Coors, so now my age is showing. Thank you too, for the memories.

                      -Kevin

          2. This is the first I've heard of boutique chains.

            In the Berkeley / San Francisco area, the boutique shops are all independent or very small (2-5 locations) local chains. Same goes for some of our warehouse wine stores as well.

            7 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Where should i go shopping for wine in SF.
              KLwines or Berkeley? I'll be next to both on saturday/sunday.

              1. re: clayfu

                By "KL" do you mean K&L in SF or Kermit Lynch in Berkeley?

                1. re: clayfu

                  Both Kermit Lynch and North Berkeley are closed on Sundays. Both are in Berkeley, not San Francisco.

                  K&L Wine Merchants *is* in San Francisco, and *is* open on Sundays.

                  The answer to "Where should I go [wine] shopping" depends more on WHAT kind of wine(s) you are looking for than anything else. (IMHO, of course.)

                  Jason

                  1. re: zin1953

                    right. i'll be in berkeley on sunday adn SF on saturday. I might go back to berkeley on monday...(i meant K&L sorry)

                    i'm open to all wines, where would i get the best overall experience in a wide range of wines? say.. 40-150$ bottles from as close as Cali to the great wines in Burgundy? A palce with recommendations you can trust.

                    1. re: clayfu

                      I started a new topic on the SF board for Berkeley / Oakland shops:

                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/426559

                      Topic on wine shops in SF proper:

                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/374974

                      1. re: clayfu

                        For Burgundies, go to: a) Kermit Lynch, b) North Berkeley, or c) Premier Cru. (See Robert's new thread for exact locations of these stores.)

                        K&L Wine Merchants has a great selection of California wines and Bordeaux. (Kermit Lynch carries none, only wines they import themselves; North Berkeley and Premier Cru have very limited selections from Calfiornia, carrying -- again -- mostly wines they import directly.)

                        The Spanish Table has a great selection of wines from Spain and Portugal, but that's it.

                        Paul Marcus in the nearby Rockridge district of Oakland has some wonderful wines from all over -- Burgundy, the Rhone, Italy, California, etc. It's not the world's largest selection, but it's well chosen and extremely reliable.

                        Then, don't forget The Wine Club and The Wine House, both in San Francisco. Both carry lots of French wines; The Wine Club has a better California selection.

                        Jason

                        1. re: zin1953

                          Good i have a 5 hour gap between my last interview and my gf's last interview =)
                          luckily my friend is driving me around!

                          hum just realized there's a Wine Club 2.5 miles away from work... ha.

                2. I really think you have to develop some confidence in the ability of your wine merchant to provide you with wines of good quality and price value. You do have to remember that a small, local wine shop is, in general, not able to get much in the way of large volume discounts from suppliers or to be able to work at the lower profit margins of much larger operations. Among the things they may offer, to combat those possible shortcomings, are accessibility, relationship, personal tasting knowledge and wines which have small enough production that they are not available at larger merchants.

                  The reality of the retail wine business, at least where I am, is that large volume stores work on profits between 12% and the low 20% range for most items, as well as having the advantage of lower wholesale cost on items that carry volume discounts. A small shop just can't survive on that small a profit margin, so they look for small quanity, unique wines that represent a 'fair quality/price' value to the consumer. At best, the majority of their wines bring them gross profit in the lower 30% range. Compared with other retail businesses this is NOT gouging, I don't think.

                  That isn't to guarantee that you won't find a wine you paid $30 for at a local shop available at a bigger shop for $25 or maybe less. It happens. The small shop can't always be sure how 'exclusive' his purchases are. And, the hopefully unique product and services that small shop has to offer may or may not be worth the occasional pricing disappointment to every consumer. Hopefully for the small merchant he/she provides enough of value/service/quality to earn your business.

                  1 Reply
                  1. I have not had any experience with "chain" boutique wine shops, so maybe I am missing something. OTOH, I deal with several boutique shops, that offer wines that are not, otherwise, available in AZ, so I purchase from them. I have tried many of their suggestions (if I cannot do a tasting myself), and have purchased many. Have I been ripped off? I have not really worried about these wines being available elsewhere, as AZ has some archaic shipping restrictions (won't go into those, especially as many retailers, wineries and importers view them differently). Now, I have seen shops, that "claim" to be boutique wine shops, that seem to only have lots of wine, that have not sold elsewhere. Costco even has these, from time to time, and often one can find marvelous "deals." I usually do not buy from these. I have also seen several wine "clubs," that try to sell their idea of special, limited production wines, but seem to only have non-classified Bdx., at 5er Cru prices.

                    I care less that the wine is limited in production, rare, boutique, etc., and more that it is good wine. If the price, for my joy, is worthwhile, I buy it and partronize the shop, until they show me otherwise.

                    Probably, I'm just not in the demographic, that your post is addressing, or I have been taken advantage of, and do not realize it.

                    Hunt