Napa Valley is not an outlet mall for wine lovers. The last place to find a bargain on Napa wines is in Napa Valley. I'm still prone to sticker shock and I work here.
But that's just the way it works. Vintners don't want to see their wines marked down in their hometown and they seldom cut prices in tasting rooms because their distributors get in a huff. And there's certainly no competition from discount warehouses anywhere nearby.
So I was intrigued when Todd Miller opened the Wine Garage in 2003. "There weren't any wine shops that catered to locals," Miller said. "They were all selling trophy wines." Renovating an old Calistoga gas station, Miller created a funky little retail store in which no wine sells for more than $25 a bottle. He also makes his own wine, and for kicks sells a jug wine that he dispenses from a gas station-like nozzle. It sells for $30.
Miller thought he was filling a niche when he opened Wine Garage, and he did—just not the niche he expected. Locals, he soon figured out, often buy wine at reduced rates through industry connections. Turns out, the shop was a bigger hit with tourists than residents.
"I try not to select a wine that visitors can find in their local wine shop," Miller said. "I look for small producers and labels." It's an eclectic collection of wines, a collection of more than 200 wines that often changes
Most labels are from California and many are obscure while others are familiar, such as Steele, Dry Creek, Monticello and Marietta. Miller won't go on record about the prices of specific wines but—pssssst—I saw Black Kite Pinot Noir Kite's Rest 2008 selling at the shop for $25.
The concept is similar to the popular Best Cellars stores on the East Coast. Each Best Cellars outlet stocks 100 wines, all priced $15 and less. It's a cheapskate's paradise and user-friendly for newbies, with wines that are color-coded by style such as "Juicy," "Smooth" or "Big."
Wine Garage may not have the buying power of a small chain like Best Cellars, but Miller said the slow economy makes it easier for him to find deals. He's certainly not alone. Retailers and restaurateurs tell me they're inundated with discounts and deals. "I find all sorts of wine that was originally priced at $45, $55 or $65 that I'm selling for $25," Miller said. White wines, as you might expect, are considerably easier for Miller to stock than reds when faced with the under-$25 price point.
Miller avoids the wrath of vintners because he can sell their excess inventory on the cheap and do it with a low public profile. About 60 percent of Wine Garage's revenue comes through its wine club, which is actually more of a personal wine buying service. Six times a year members receive a half a case that Miller selects from his inventory. Of course that means trusting his palate.
"I taste crappy wines all day long before I find a winner," Miller said. "I often feel like my job is to taste a lot of bad wine." His jug wines certainly are appealing for the price, which is equivalent to about $12 a bottle. The Bordeaux-style red, a non-vintage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot and Petit Verdot, is supple and zesty, just fine for daily drinking.
Do you know of any other retailers committed to value like Wine Garage? Would you like to see a similar retailer in your neck of the country?
I drink my share of $50 California Pinot Noirs and $70 Brunellos, but I can't afford to open those on a Tuesday night. A few more places like Wine Garage would sure make Tuesdays easier, even for those of us who work in Napa Valley.
Donald Eldred — St. Paul MN — March 2, 2011 12:39pm ET
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Andrew Alley — Burlington, NC — March 4, 2011 6:56pm ET
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