Being that the salary from my position at a wine specialty store helps to keep a roof over my head and wine in my belly, I must admit I am a little bit biased. Biased or not, I feel compelled to come to the defense of boutique wine stores.
Although in general the store I call home (Bin 905 Distinctive Wines and Spirits) has an oustanding customer base, I field complaints on a weekly basis from a small minority of customers claiming that our wines, spirits and beers are expensive. While I will admit that a bottle of wine at a boutique or specialty store may cost you an extra dollar or two, to condemn those stores for a small price difference without considering all of the factors that play into this is simply ignorant.
Specialty stores have higher costs…this is just the facts of life. A huge chain grocery store, such as Superstore or Costco, can get away with selling wines and spirits at very low margins. Believe it or not these stores even sell some of their higher end products at a 0% margin…basically meaning for something like a bottle of Dom Perignon, the store is not making a cent off of that sale. This is a phenomenon called the “loss leader” policy. Basically the big chain store sells these big ticket items at little or no mark-up to bring you in the door, counting on the fact that you will also buy a case of less expensive wine or some beer while you are there. They count on sheer volume of sales to make their money, plain and simple. There may even be some semi-shady practices that go on, such as importing agents paying the chain store for premium shelf space.
So why shop at a store like Bin 905 or any specialty store for that matter if you can get wines and spirits at wholesale prices elsewhere? Here are just a few of the benefits of boutique shopping, along with some factors that affect the cost of wine.
First and most importantly is service. Well the staff at your local “big chain” liquor store may be efficient, they likely know little or nothing about wine. So if you have a question, or need some advice, too bad. Unless you have had a product before you are basically taking a gamble and picking random bottles off of the shelf. Way to save that 50 cents champ. Boutique stores pay higher wages to attract staff with more knowledge and experience. I have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on my wine education and the majority of the staff at good quality wine boutiques can say the same. Quality stores strive to ensure they maintain enough quality staff to provide prompt service and to answer any questions or concerns.
The best boutique stores will also spend tens of thousands of dollars a year opening wines for the staff and customers to taste. This means the staff can provide first hand experience of the style and characteristics of the wines on the shelves to ensure that you are more likely to spend your hard earned cash on wines you will actually enjoy. This is especially important when you are splurging on a nice bottle of wine for a gift or a special occasion. There is nothing more dissapointing than a highly anticipated “special” bottle that turns out to be a flop. As boutiques are all about customer service and providing the best possible experience, rather than simply watching the bottom line, I can tell you that staff at the best stores are not afraid to tell a customer if they think a bottle isn’t worth the price, won’t fit a customers taste or if it just plain sucks.
Boutiques are also the best place to find outstanding value wines. Now I know I admited earlier that specialty stores often take a higher mark-up, but the best stores are always on the cutting edge of wine. Knowledgeable and passionate buyers and staff seek out the hidden gems from obscure appellations and regions, un-heralded grape varieties and small artisan producers. After all, I can tell you first hand that the wine geeks behind the counters love a good buy just as much as anyone else. So find out what the staff is drinking and you will find some seriously good buys.
The only thing better than a great bottle of wine is a great bottle of wine matched with the perfect food. This is another area where boutiques rule supreme. Not only are most of the employees wine geeks but they are also foodies. Many specialty store employees work in up-scale restaurants as well and most of us love great food. While I don’t mean to be harsh, in most cases I would hazard to guess the employee running the till at a Superstore liquor store probably knows Kraft Dinner a hell of a lot better than they know Osso Bucco or Beef Bourgignon. When you put a lot of time, effort and TLC into a special dish why not seek an informed opinion on a wine pairing rather than just winging it? In the end it will be well worth it.
There are many other reasons boutiques take a higher mark-up (for instance Superstore doesn’t even offer cold beer or wine so they can save the refrigeration costs). When it comes down to it it’s all about the experience. Sometimes it may be appropriate to stroll the cold, vast isles of a huge chain store to save some cash on the Dom Perignon for your next hip-hop video. If that’s what your looking for please do not walk into a specialty store and complain that your bottle of Shiraz is a dollar more than the “other store”…or I may have to kick you in the shin. If you’d prefer to have great service, listen to good music, hang out with fun people and find something new, fresh and exciting to wet your tongue, then head down to your local boutique for a fantastic experience.