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Education: The New Way to Sell Wine

Stores are welcoming new wine drinkers, while also better catering to aficionados

Eric Arnold
Posted: June 6, 2006

From just after sunrise on a recent Sunday morning until about 2 a.m. Monday, it took three large trucks, $700 in pizzas and nearly the entire staff of Astor Wines & Spirits to move the store's 15,000-case inventory a few blocks south to its new location at the corner of Lafayette and Fourth Street in Manhattan. The new store has 50 percent more floor space and is now located in a historic landmark, with a labyrinthine cellar.

The move wasn't just about making a cosmetic change, however; it was the realization of a long-held philosophy. For Astor, one of New York's largest wine shops, the three most important things aren't location, location, location, but education, education, education. From the instant customers walk through the front door to the time they leave, the hope is that they learn about wine, not just buy a bottle and gamble that they'll like it. "You have enophiles and beginners, but they're walking into the same store and they have the same needs. The trick is how you talk to each of them," said Andrew Fisher, president of Astor.

Though the concept is a departure for Astor--and for New York retailers in general--innovative wine shops are becoming more common. Retail chain Best Cellars, which attracts entry-level wine drinkers with wallet-friendly wines, has a quiz on its Web site that asks consumers about their personal taste in food to better steer them toward wines they're likely to enjoy. Chicago wine store Just Grapes encourages education by offering Wine Spectator School courses.

The wine-education trend is in full swing in Chicago. Restaurant and retailer Bin 36 offers a program called Bin School, whose classes range from a basic wine-tasting course to seminars that match a three-course meal with different wines. Giant retailer Sam's Wines & Spirits has also offered wine classes under what it calls Sam's Academy for about a year, and is beginning to expand from night classes to weekends as well. The goal, said Bill St. John, who teaches the classes, is to "get [customers] to understand and feel confident about wine that they can taste for themselves and do good food-and-wine pairings at restaurants or at home." The store holds its classes at two Chicago-area culinary schools.

Sam's also makes sure that wines are regularly open and available for tasting in an environment that makes customers feel welcome. The company's recently opened Highland Park, Ill., store contains an area called Sam's Lounge, where 12 wines are poured by the glass. Other shops are now going beyond the informality of setting up a folding table with a couple open bottles on special days. Manhattan wine shop Crush has an elegant tasting room, also used for classes, in which six wines are available for sampling every day. Astor, too, has a dedicated tasting area in the center of the store. Glasses are used in lieu of plastic cups as often as possible, and the staff opens and pours more than just the cheap stuff.

Astor, however, is trying to take things a step further. A section of the building will be dedicated entirely to education--complete with a classroom, demonstration kitchen and dining room. The area will be known as the Astor Center and is currently under construction, slated to open for classes this fall. Each room in the new area will hold only 36 students, which Doug Duda, executive director of the center, thinks is just the right size for people to share their passion and enthusiasm for food and wine. "We wanted to create an environment that would be conducive to dialogue," he said. "There's a different kind of conversation that can happen when you can speak to the winemaker."

But before all that, Fisher explained, "it starts out with proper respect for what you're selling, and then proper respect for who you're selling it to." For example, the glass-enclosed climate-controlled room in the new store doesn't simply house the high-end wines, but inexpensive ones--typically lower in alcohol, such as Moscato d'Asti--that require cool storage as well. "If you don't start out by treating the wines correctly, the rest is just hand-waving."

The rest of the store, like many others, is arranged geographically, with neon signs indicating sections such as Australia, Italy and Bordeaux, with clear descriptions on each bin. But there are also special sections such as Organics. Although the wines in this section can be found by their geographic categories as well, the overall idea is to cater to customers seeking organic or biodynamic wines as well as to educate someone looking for a wine from, say, Piedmont, to let them know not only that the region contains organic producers, but also what it means for a winery to be certified organic.

Whether someone just stops in to buy one bottle of wine or wants to take a series of classes, Astor's staff hopes to make wine welcoming rather than intimidating--to convey that there's something for everyone. "At one level, working on the educational side, better free tastings are the way to go," said Fisher. Yet since he's not about to pour high-end wines all day in the middle of the store, more specialized classes are necessary too. "On the upper end, if you want to taste Barolos and do it in the correct environment, you need to be able to offer that."

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