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10.2009

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Liza Weisstuch

The email that arrived just before the July 4th weekend had an urgent command in the subject line: “Get It Before It’s Gone!” The personalized digital message announcing that several cases of Chateau Pesquie Terrasses Rouge 2OO7 had just landed at BRIX Wine Shop went on to give a brief, accessible description of the wine and its pedigree, cite its praises, offer a few tasting notes, provide the price and web ordering instructions, and remind readers that this wine went fast last time BRIX had it in stock. It was signed “The BRIX Chix”, a term co-owners Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally use to refer to themselves colloquially.

Email blasts to customers and easy to navigate, well-designed websites are just a few tools that liquor store owners are using in today’s competitive market to retain a loyal customer base and remind – if not entice – them to visit regularly. More and more, owners are investing time, energy and, often, significant expenses to establish a presence online, arrange regular in-store events, festivals, dinners, and tastings, and even on build-outs that make a store more of a buzz-worthy destination. These are ways to not only suggest au currant items or hidden gems to shoppers or notify them of a forthcoming event or arrival of a rare product, it’s a means for retailers to offer customers something they’ll appreciate long after the bottle of bourbon, Bordeaux or craft beer is empty: education.

“We need to educate our consumers. It seemed that’s where the trend is going. More and more people are into wine and discovering more varietals and countries,” said David Gordon, Vice President of Gordon’s Fine Wines and Liquors, which has two locations in Waltham and one in Watertown. Gordon’s sends out regular emails entitled “The Daily Flash”. Each message offers recipients a run-down of the tastings and classes happening at their sleek Wine and Culinary Center at the Main Street location in Waltham or a notice of seasonally appropriate wines or bottles that are on sale. Emails regularly contain straightforward, brief tasting notes and perhaps a brief anecdote, often written by Michael Murray, the company’s associate wine director. Each “Daily Flash” is also posted on the store’s Facebook page. “We try and find the very best values in new and exciting wines for people. We’re perceived as having a personality and the customer is entertained, engaged by what we’re writing,” said Gordon. “It’s about educating and informing and having a personality as well as giving a personality to the wine. The policy here is that we try to be as transparent as possible. We don’t hesitate to write about a wine that got 83 points from Robert Parker that we think shouldn’t have gotten that score. We like it and price it right. We’ll stand behind anything we offer out.”

For Len Rothenberg, the owner of Federal Wine and Spirits in downtown Boston, education is only part of the service provided by his weekly emails, which are sent out to several thousand subscribers and routinely include a run-down of and tasting notes from the prior week’s Wednesday, free in-store wine tasting. Rothenberg is the primary author of the newsletter, which also includes segments penned by Peter Hemenway, who helps run Federal’s wine program. It’s also available as a printed handout for first-timers visiting the Financial District store. “A big part is that I actively resent having to want something because a wine magazine recommends it. To the extent that people look to you as a source of information, the newsletter solidifies a customer base. What justifies our existence as a business? Giving value to the customer. The logic of wine magazines with scores is big for supermarket wine stores,” said Rothenberg, noting that that kind of published material is often what ends up on shelf-talkers. “Everyone is using the same information, so it’s a matter of who can deliver the goods for cheapest. It ends up being that we wouldn’t succeed because we’re a small store, we can’t win that game. I try to write about wine with a different perspective. I find myself being more like a number of sommeliers at restaurants in terms of my palate than other retailers. When you read a lot of anything, you become more sensitive to nuance, to the tasty lick in a guitar solo or nice phraseology in a sentence, and less interested in the obvious, so I talk about those things.”

He said that by self-selecting wines he likes for tastings, he can get a better sense of the customer base, and vice versa. And wine selection is something that Rothenberg takes very seriously – seriously enough that you could call it a science for him. Rothenberg, who comes from a strong background in grassroots promotion, having run a folk club in Harvard Square in the 197Os, has a database he built in the mid-199Os from a spreadsheet of tasting notes he started in the late 198Os. Today it’s a record of his notes on about 4O,OOO wines. He says he tasted 35OO wines last year alone, and the catalog of notes lends him and, of course, the store, credibility. “I can say to people when I tell them Pinot is best, that I tasted 35 Pinots from that region and that vintage. I hate the idea of points, it debases the language of wines. I came up with ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘very good’, ‘excellent’, and ‘superb’, a schema that gets recorded as a number. It helps me when need I need, say, a Pinot at a certain price point. And when we pick a theme for tasting and look at wines that are applicable. It’s an aide-mémoire.”

The email grew out of a newsletter that Rothenberg started faxing to customers en masse in the mid-199Os. Technology, of course, made his modus operandi easier to execute by orders of magnitude. “My customers work downtown but live all over greater Boston. I’m in competition with almost every store that takes wine seriously within 495. It’s tough to find out what’s going to work and capture people’s interest, but I like the challenge,” he said.

Richard Cardoza is President and the owner of Cardoza’s Wine and Spirits, which has three locations in Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Fall River. He also owns Cork Wine and Tapas Bar in New Bedford, the town where his grandfather, the company’s founder, opened the original Union Wine Shop in 1933. The Dartmouth location was rechristened Cardoza’s Wine, Spirits and Food Emporium when it moved to a new, larger, kitchen-equipped location in January 2OO8. Cardoza has taken advantage of the internet to excellent effect in terms of developing his customer base. Customers can sign up for a card that’s scanned when they make purchases, which helps him target relevant clients when he sends out notices about new arrivals or the various wine dinners, tastings and fund raising events he orchestrates. “I know who my customer is. To get them to sign up for a card, they get points that they can use to go to Cork and have dinner or buy food at the new store. In just maintaining a customer base it’s a benefit. The business is 75-years-old. It’s never been about instant gratification, it’s always about the long haul.” Each of his managers have Facebook and Twitter groups that they each manage. They can broadcast events they run to their own personalized customer groups. With a shrewd sense of consumers’ perpetually increasing reliance on the web, Cordoza hinted that he’s working on an ambitious web video project that would essentially serve as a channel for people to watch wine makers discuss their products.

According to Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, emails are sent out to over 6OOO people and have an open-rate between 3O% and 4O%. He says he keeps it to a minimal one email per week so as not to be invasive. “I think of it like a good relationship. The newsletter is more about events and information than new products or what’s on sale. If I do get a new product, I may have an introductory price. Or it’ll let people know about tough-to-get stuff that I get in or when I expanded our line of bitters. And I highlight some of the other departments we have, like hot sauce and gourmet specialty foods. It’s a good way to cross-promote.” Maloney has done a notable job leveraging the web. For the last four years, he and Sondra Vital, his IT director, have cultivated the Loch and Key Society (lochandkey.com), an online community replete with a chat room where members can share their opinions and insight about whisk(e)y. “It’s a free thing that creates excitement about whisk(e)y,” he said. “Loch and Key members are from all over and it brings out a whole camaraderie with everyone. Most guys who belong to this forum belong to several others. They go out and say what a great experience they have here and get word of mouth going. People know it’s the store’s website. It creates excitement. We’re trying to get people fanatical about our store. And they’re loyal and have fun here.” Loch and Key members, who aren’t necessarily all customers since they don’t have to live in the area to chat online, are in fact so fanatical that 18 members joined him this past May on his pilgrimage to Kentucky to choose barrels at distilleries that were then custom-bottled for the shop. (Everyone pays their own way.) Eleven members are accompanying him on a trip to Scotland in September which will involve visiting seven distilleries and the Speyside Cooperage.

The email list and Society forum are efficient and effective ways for Maloney to promote Whisky-A-Go-Go, the annual mini-festival he’s hosted at the store each February for the past four years. In an effort to bring in different whiskies each year – new and exotic products or hidden gems – he can spend several months planning, but it’s an effort that pays off, he says, as the sales are good that day and he gets customers coming in three months later because they heard about the festival and express an interest in coming the next year.

For those that have the room – and resources – creating a space dedicated to events or private tastings is a big draw. When BRIX opened a second shop on Broad Street in early 2OO8, the build-out included a professional-caliber kitchen as well as a sleek tasting room equipped with an LCD television rigged for wireless. It can be rented out and it also serves as a space for BRIX by Night – intimate, private tasting events that consumers buy tickets for ahead of time. They typically feature a winemaker, notable chef or rare wines. Blanchard’s in West Roxbury unveiled an expansion last Thanksgiving that essentially doubled the size of the store. The addition includes more retail space as well as the Vintage Room, a space that holds 4O people. It’s used for tastings several times each month.

For David Gordon, whose stores’ newsletter have been sent out regularly for years, the Wine and Culinary Center that opened in September 2OO7 “seemed like the logical next step,” he said. “It’s a large financial undertaking, but something we all felt passionate about.” Several times a week they hold classes that cover wines, spirits and beer – everything from “Wine 1O1” for beginners to more specific offerings, like “France, Broken Down: Bordeaux”. Because the space includes a professional kitchen, they also offer a variety of cooking classes and demos. “We try not to have an off-season,” said Gordon. “We work hard to do events, probably three out of seven days a week. A lot of it is food-related.” When they’re not holding classes, the space is often used for corporate team building events.

Ryan Maloney said that he had an idea for the Angel-Share Tasting Room years before it was completed in November 2OO7. For the project, which took five months to complete and includes a temperature-controlled wine room with an interior roofline to give it an outdoors appearance, Maloney worked with New England Design and with wine cellar design company Apex to develop the climate control system. Years before, though, he had his eye on the Italian Enomatic wine dispensing systems that were starting to appear on-premise in New York. When the company developed a model that could dispense half-ounce pours at a time instead of a full serving, he bought in. Since the Angel-Share Tasting Room opened, it has eight reds and 32 whites on the taps and they rotate regularly. Customers can get a tasting card that affords them a limited number of samples. The cards are free, but patrons leave their license at the register. Not only is it a way to card the customer, it’s also a way to supervise their intake. The concept has proven to be a useful system for long-term purposes, too.

“We can monitor what people are tasting,” he said. “We see a lot of things that work. We can see sales increasing on one bottle people are tasting, or we see people tasting something and then it’s not selling. It helps us decide what our customers like. We’ll move off from this or that because people are trying it but not buying it. Maybe the price is too high. It gives a tool to use in selling.” But beyond its use in quantifying sales, the tasting room has served as a means to help consumers qualify their wine preferences. “When people are trying the wines, they’ll say, ‘I like this’. So we’ll tell them to try something and they say, ‘Oh, no that’s not what I like’. They may not like the quality they were actually describing. It’s an opportunity to take out some of the guesswork. We sell wine to people based on their description and if we sell it and they don’t like it and they forget what they bought when they come back, we’re caught in a catch-22. At least we narrow down what they like on the machine. Then we can pick a wine more accurately for their palate.” In other words: education on the sly.

Maloney actually made back his cost on the tasting room, he said, as he had a partnership with Apex. The deal: Julio’s gets a commission for any client who ends up using Apex based on what they saw at Julio’s. “People saw the wine room and wanted to do something at home. We got so many jobs for them, it ended up paying for the room,” he said. “Something I thought would never pay off was the first to pay.” With the Angel-Share Tasting Room a proven success, Maloney undertook construction of the Jim Beam Cold Storage Warehouse, a space near the store’s entrance that’s outfitted like a speakeasy and features period paraphernalia. It was finished this past November and opened by December 5, the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. It’s used for whiskey tastings.

When Richard Cardoza learned that his landlord in Dartmouth was going to increase his rent, he moved that store’s location from a 6OOO square-foot space to a 9OOO square -foot space in January 2OO8 and christened it Cardoza’s Wine, Spirits and Food Emporium. Many of the events are held at Cork Wine & Tapas Bar, which opened in 2OO6 and can operate with an emphasis on employees tasting customers on wines and liquors and directing them to the store to purchase products they liked. The concept was in part a result of discussions years ago with his son, Nick, who was interested in going into the culinary arts. He went on to the French Culinary Institute then jetted off for four years to travel the world. Now he’s back home and serving as executive chef of the company. But expanding the inventory to include high-end food – both in terms of a restaurant and in a store – was, in part, a survival instinct. While he began discussing the idea with his son in 2OO2, Cardoza said, he acted on the idea in 2OO5 . . . “when the supermarket chains decided they wanted the state to vote on 1OOO new licenses that would allow them to sell wine in food stores. We, the Massachusetts liquor industry, defeated that bill, but we all knew it would come back some day. It was back then that I decided to add the food component to our business that Nick and I had talked about, and in December 2OO6, I opened Cork.”

While a separate establishment, or simply a private room for tastings helps, it’s certainly not necessary. Cliff Ansara, Manager of Lynnway Liquors in Lynn, offers in-store tastings every Friday at 4:3O that he advertises in the front of the store. Someone from Trendsetters, a marketing company, sets up camp and offers six options each week. “Customers respond well to that,” he said. “They come looking for an individual and Trendsetters’ rep develops a relationship with them. That’s a good concept for us.” Ansara has found a key way to achieve visibility, and consequently drive people to the store, is to actively forge relationships with retailers in like industries and partner up on events. “I’ll approach a high-end car dealership or art gallery and see if they want to do a tastings. That way my customer base is going to them and vice versa.” He’ll bring in their product at cost with the only stipulation that they provide food. “It’s not as successful as tastings we do in the store, but it means getting good referrals. It really comes down to being visible – one minute we’re doing a tasting, the next minute we’re helping an antique dealer.”

Breathing new life into a retail space or ramping up communication with customers longstanding and new, can, in the end, give sales a boost. Perhaps the reasoning behind this was best summed up by David Gordon when he said, “In general, it’s always important to make yourself stand out. Basic retail is a pretty boring business. Open the thing, close the thing, so you’ve got to find a way to jazz it up, make your store stand out and make it inviting.”

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