Retail (part1)

I’ve wanted to write for a long time about being a retailer. Though so many people visit us regularly I’m sure a good many wonder what it is we do all day.  It’s a pretty commonly held belief that we spend our days sitting in the office, talking about wine and washing our lunches down with fine Bordeaux and whiskey. In reality, much our time is spent working the floor, moving boxes, answering the phone and dusting.  Yet, despite this rather simple job description there really is a lot that goes on in a retailer’s work day.

Take this morning, for example: I arrived at 8:25 a.m. to find three delivery trucks lined up on Cedar Street. Thursday is delivery day, so it’s good to get an early start. So far, so good.  Then I go inside to discover that the lights in the refrigerator don’t work and the uninterruptable power source on our server has overloaded, crashing the server and throwing the network a monkey wrench. We open in twenty minutes and there are 125 cases to bring in and a network to fix. No worries, right?  I just call the IT department. Oh yeah: that’s me! I crawl under the desk and get to work. By 9:05am the deliveries are all in, the bad power source is bypassed, the server up, the network re-established and the store is open for another day of business. New bulbs don’t solve the problem in the ‘fridge, so we open up its guts and get to work. Maybe a relay or a new ballast will do the trick. I’ll keep you posted.

On any given delivery day we can get as many as two hundred cases of goods in, or about four tons* We check them in, move them downstairs to put away or out in the store for the shelves. Most boxes move at least twice. None of us needs a gym membership. Once the goods are in and put away there’s paperwork; new goods get created in the database, vintages are checked and updated, the goods are received into inventory. Costs never seem to be the same from month to month so with every item we have to decide if we raise our shelf price to cover increases or if we keep things as they are and lose a little bit of the bottom line. Believe it or not, we usually absorb cost increases. All business is competitive and the wine business is particularly so these days. Best to stay sharp.

It’s funny how big, new stores with their shiny racks and wide aisles have only a finite amount of space, but an old store can absorb new stock like a sponge. If you’ve ever been to our store you know how packed full it is. 1,300 square feet of selling space stocked with nearly 2,000 different wines and 900 different spirits. A retailer is a little like a librarian. These are our stacks. Between the shelf stock and the basement storage there are nearly 44,000 bottles in stock but there is always room for more. You just have to be creative. 

Unlike sommeliers, who know the menu and work from a list especially chosen for that menu, we need to be prepared for anything, anytime. Sometimes it’s burgers on the grill or lamb Tagine with preserved lemons other times, vegan tofu with edamame and sprouts. I cook every day, so I love the part of my job in which I talk food, recipes and cooking with our customers.

..and there is our favorite game “I had this wine last week”  (seriously, I love this game) It goes something like this:

“So, I had this wine last week. It was really good”
 “Was it white or red?”
 “Was it Italian, French, American?”
“I don’t remember”
 “Did it come in this kind of bottle (Bordeaux) or this (Burgundy)”
“That one (Bordeaux)”
 “What else do you remember about it?”
“It’s dry and had a greenish label and started with a ‘p’ “

–several minutes pass –
 “Was it this?”
“Oh, yes!” cries the customer, waving about a dark green bottle of Orvieto with a beige label produced by Trappolini. It is an interesting study, what people remember about wines they’ve enjoyed, and  it’s great fun when we can guess that Trappolini is the wine that starts with ‘p’.

Most of our inventory comes from six to eight wholesalers but we have more than forty different suppliers who call on us. That’s a lot of attention and that doesn’t even include the steady stream of small, new and in some cases fly-by-night companies who constantly stop by trying to get us to buy from them. It is a full-time job just fielding suppliers. …and all the while, answering the phone, working the floor, moving boxes and dusting.

(Ok. ‘fridge works. Looks like a new ballast is the ticket. )

 We taste a lot here in the store; some weeks between fifty and seventy-five wines will be presented to us. It is a great experience – the BEST possible experience in wine, in fact, but sometimes we’ll go a whole month without tasting a single wine worth buying. Think about that: 200 to 300 wines in a month and not a one worth buying. There’s a lot of unfortunate wine in the world. Even now we have about two dozen samples in the office that we need to plow through. Some I’m hopeful about, others just look grim. It is easy to assume that we just pop the cork, taste a little and then buy the wine if we like it and pass if we don’t but it doesn’t work that way. Being a professional buyer is much more complicated than buying for home.  It isn’t a matter of liking a wine or not. I don’t like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but I can tell you that the seven on our shelf are of great quality. The wines we select must first be proper and correct and then they have to be the right price. If the wine in your glass is rich, round, juicy and purple then it’s not proper Bordeaux even if it says ‘Bordeaux’ on the label.  If I hand you a bottle of Pinot Noir it needs to taste like Pinot Noir, not like Syrah. That’s my job.
Speaking of my job, there’s the phone and another delivery is here. Time to move a hundred more boxes. Then maybe I’ll dust the Chardonnay section
*the average case of wine weighs approximately 40 pounds, a case of liters of spirits more than a third again as much.


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