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My Local Wine Shop of the Year Award

I’m always curious to meet people from outside of Indiana, particularly from either coast who view Indiana in much the same vein that I view Kentucky—a cultural backwater left circling the drain without any progress made since 1989—a flyover state without much going on. 

For the most part, it’s not true.  It’s egregiously incorrect, in fact.  Indianapolis has a lot going on including a burgeoning music scene, artists creating, living and working successfully and enough nightlife to keep you interested for a month of Sundays.  Louisville, KY, similarly, is in the same category of having ‘things to do and people to see.’  Though, I can’t vouch for the rest of Kentucky.

I’m convinced that aside from climate, topography and water features, most places in the U.S. are pretty much the same.  You’re going to have a Target, Best Buy, Bed, Bath & Beyond, a Costco or Sam’s Club and a serviceable grocery store in every major market and you’re going to have professional sports teams—either your own hometown team in close proximity, or one close enough regionally.

Aside from that cultural sameness though, what really differentiates a city are its independent businesses—the touchstones that have become icons over the years.

For this reason, and almost singularly for this reason, I try to frequent independents as much as possible.  And, for this same reason I also eschew chain eateries when and where possible

I’m reminded of this as I head out to Green Bay, Wisconsin tomorrow to watch the Packers play the Vikings at Lambeau Field, a guy pilgrimage to potentially see Brett Favre’s last home game as a Packer (I’ll surely hold on to my ticket stub).  And, we’ll eat somewhere that is small, off the beaten path and local (hopefully they also serve cheese curds, too).  Last year when we traveled to Nashville, TN to watch the Colts play the Titans we ventured off the beaten track to a hole in the wall to get ‘Hot Chicken,’ a Nashville delicacy that can best be described as fried chicken with cayenne pepper used in place of the flour for dredging.

These are the places that make our cities unique.

Austin, TX has even gone to the extent of organizing a grassroots campaign around this local flavor called Keep Austin Weird.

Indianapolis is, perhaps, a year or three behind Austin in terms of this marketing of individual progressiveness and we’re a geographically dispersed city in contrast to Austin, with the largest amount of land incorporated for a major metro in the country.  But, we’re not lacking in the effort department either.

A few cool sites have sprung up that celebrate what is unique and diverse about our city, including the following:  I Choose Indy, the Curious City and several others that are trying to tie together the cultural aspects of our fair land like Indy Arts and Indy Hub.  The Curious City highlights, for example, the Red Key Tavern, a bar just a few blocks away from my home that keeps house rules sacrosanct—no coats on the backs of chairs, no feet on the furniture, no unwelcome advances to woman unless they invite you to engage in a conversation, etc—all lovingly tended by a WWII vet who has owned the place for decades longer then I’ve been alive.

So, this brings me to my point about the First Annual Good Grape “Indianapolis Wine Shop of the Year Award.”  If, as I suggest, it is our independents stores that make us unique, then my Indianapolis Wine Shop of the Year award goes to the Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville, IN.

Barumph. 

It’s in Zionsville.

What, nothing in Indianapolis?

A winner by default?

Alas, this isn’t about who wins, but about who doesn’t win. 

Yeah.  Indianapolis has a wine shop, several of them in fact, but the one that could have been a contender has been on the northside for years, since 1979 in fact.  There are some warts, sure, but it has old school flavor.  A good selection from all major regions and you can buy Bordeaux futures, even if the overall pricing in the store sometimes begs pointed questions.  They’re also moving locations, too—not too far away, just a couple hundred feet into a brand spanking new building on Keystone Avenue.  If you’re in Indianapolis you might have driven by during the building process—the steel girders went up like in an Amish barn raising, the aluminum sheeting on the exterior and the breathless promise of a concrete-floor style wine warehouse in the monthly newsletter.  Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly, Costco-style.

Sadly, though, this wine store, unless I’m vastly in error will never win my Wine Shop of the Year Award.  When given a perfect opportunity to create something unique with a local flavor, something new, but time-tested, something that engenders an espirit de corp and a customer base that spreads the word, they chose the path of non-creativity sameness with aluminum walls warehouse-style with concrete floors to boot.  This is, unfortunately, over the opportunity for something personal and unique.

I shouldn’t be surprised, maybe they live in a spec. home on property that was a farm 10 years ago and eat at Olive Garden and it’s all they know.  Or, maybe I’m rushing to judgment; maybe there is a kernel of community engagement here that I’m overlooking.  After all, the store doesn’t even open until January so I am a bit premature.  But, then, I drive past the progress being made on the liquor barn and I’m not sure I’ll make it in.

Curiously, I doubt this store will make its way to the Curious City web site and it’s too bad, they could’ve done something great for the wine community in Indianapolis and they could have added to our city tapestry. 


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Menu for Hope III

Only a couple of more days left for the Menu for Hope III fundraiser.  An incredible $33,000 dollars has already been raised.

To give you an example of how astounding of a figure this is, I am on the Board of Directors for a very well-run non for profit in Indianapolis, IN that does job training and food rescue serving those that need job skills and those that need a meal.  This non profit has close to a $3M a year operating budget.

Our second largest fundraiser featuring live bands, multiple venues and hundreds of hours of volunteer time raises about $25K, before expenses.

To raise this amount of money via the power of the Internet and folks that, in most cases, have never physically shared a glass of wine together is tremendous and a testament to the Internet and the ability to mobilize people.  Hat’s off to Alder and Pim.

But, your work is not done.  Not just yet.  Please continue to consider donating and earning your chance to win prizes. 

Please especially bid on WB13—the Good Grape offering that includes the 1999 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard designate—a 92 by Wine Spectator.  A Cult Cab that retails on the Internet for $130 dollars. 

Some other good prizes have funneled in, as well.  Inertia Beverage Group has offered a case of Luna Vineyards vino and several other folks have offered up some tasty prizes in the spirit of giving.

Check out the entire line-up of wine blogosphere offerings at Vinography.com


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The “Netflix Effect” and the World of Wine

I should know by now that there are no new ideas. 

I was stuck in an airport this past week suffering through a seven hour delay, ingesting Shipley’s donuts, McDonald’s, Skittles, Powerade and other comestibles best left to guys 15 years my junior. 

Somewhere in between my sugary nutrition-less disposable food consumption and phone calls to be productive during a work day was the current Entertainment Weekly that had, curiously, a full page ad for Sunset Magazine’s Wine Club.

This was on the heels of reading the current issue of Wines and Vines magazine that gave a rundown of current wine clubs—California Wine Club, Avawines.com, Celebrations, Sunset, and several others.

Prior to this I had driven past a Blockbuster store in Houston that was shutting down with gigantic banners indicating to pay a visit to blockbuster.com.

Ah, the “Netflix Effect.”

Primed and attuned with my radar focused on wine clubs, I took a note down for a potential future blog post, “The Netflix of Wine.”  I figured it might be a stretch, but what the heck—I’ve written about crazier things before.  Sometimes I write some wacky ideas just to see if anybody is paying attention.  Maybe this would be another opportunity. 

Then I got home and started reviewing the Menu for Hope III wine prize lineup to see if anybody had bid on my Cal-Mid prize offering.

{Brief Aside: Please bid on my prize offering here.  The current bid is $10.  This is a brand spanking new book purchased expressly for this fundraiser ($30 value); a bottle of Oliver Winery Cabernet purchased expressly for this fundraiser ($20 value) and a bottle of the ’99 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard designate (at least a $130 value).  I’m inclined to bid on my own prize offering so I don’t have to send that Heitz off for $10 bucks. Please help support a good cause and bid for WB13}

While checking out the Menu for Hope III program I ran across a prize offering from a new wine start-up called Wineq.com.  They are new as in squeaking new as of this past week—Launch was December 11th.

Wineq is a start-up that has modeled itself after Netflix (a transferable business model) for the world of wine.  And, they don’t make any bones about replicating the model.  My genius idea, yeah, um, it launched on the Monday before my Thursday note to self.  Better late than never, I suppose. 

Their premise is simple:  turn the modern wine club upside down.

And, for the most part, I like it. 

In a perfect world, a wine club acts as a personal sommelier that delivers quality wines that you’ll like to drink straight to your door.  In the new millennium I’m not so sure that a new paradigm isn’t called for and the Web seems like the most reasonable means to deliver service and selection. 

Wineq does this.  They are focused on the small, boutique, artisan wines, but their model uses their site to customize preferences for shipment—the frequency, the actual wines (just like NetFlix), quantity, etc. 

So, if you want to receive 2 wines once a month for 6 months, you would queue up 12 bottles, pay your monthly fee and wait for the wines to come on your determined timetable.

I did say monthly fee because like NetFlix, they also charge a monthly service fee.  According their web site, the fees mostly support free ground shipping on orders over $35.  2nd day air is a reasonable $5.  Orders under $35 are charged a $5 shipping supplement. 

I’ll have to see this in action, but if they are able to get customers to buy into the monthly fee and forget about the shipping then that will be a masterstroke.  Research I’ve seen indicates that wine shipping costs are a tremendous online consumer wine shopping inhibitor and this serves to remedy that circumstance. 

Overall, as you would expect from a launch, the number of wineries are few, but they indicate they will be signing up at least two a month.  If they create any kind of Internet ripple, though, I suspect that will not nearly be enough to satisfy consumer lust for diversity.   

Good luck to these guys, for sure.  Anything that helps support the small winery is something I fully endorse.  But, just as Tom at Fermentation recently noted that the number of wine blogs doubled in 2006, so too have the wine related Web based businesses.  There’s likely fallout somewhere in the next 18 months as some of these businesses contract.  I just hope that some of these small wineries are cultivating multiple channels of business and spreading the love around to a lot of different places.  There are no new ideas, but winery sales channel diversification is a novel idea that most should be following. 

Check out Tim’s post at Winecast.net, as well. 


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Colliding Circumstance and Wine in the Great Midwest

A couple of weeks ago Mark at Uncorked detailed an encounter he had at a wine tasting in Houston, Texas.

It seems that one of his biggest wine bargains ever was the purchase of Chateau Guiraud Sauternes from a now closed wine shop in Ohio. 

In a small world moment of the first order, Mark had the opportunity to run into the former co-owner of the Chateau at the tasting in Texas—she still living in France, he still living in Ohio, they convening serendipitously at a tasting in Houston, Texas.

I’ve now had a similar moment that still boggles my mind for its colliding circumstances.

Over the course of 2004 and into 2005 I wrote a business plan for a wine shop that would be based in Indianapolis. It combined a number of inspirational elements from wine shops on either coast and some unique elements that are not found here in Indianapolis, or anywhere.

Wine retail isn’t a fabulous business to get into if you are a little thin in the pocket book because inventory is anathema to light cash flow and terms in the wine business are usually 15 days net.  Cash goes out, product comes in, there are no returns to the distributor and you hope the customers come.

I had a couple of meetings with the principal investor of a restaurant in Indianapolis called Binkley’s—they had a vacant storefront in a neighborhood that fit all of my criteria—next to their restaurant that could act as a destination pull for traffic with a similar customer base, situated in an urban environment, mature neighborhood with close proximity to nightlife and a university and a mixture of baby-boomer’s and youth with rich demographics, traffic counts were good, etc.  It was a perfect location.  Alas, the space was just too damn big—over 3000 square feet.  There wasn’t any way I could make sales projections work that would suit the amount of space.  And I would need a perfect storm of business and foot traffic to make sure I wasn’t set-up for failure.  Distinctively, I also have the dubious quality of having absolutely no retail experience.  The investor, a guy who has made money out of both sides of his pants pockets for years knew this as well and simply said, “You don’t have enough of your own money to make this work.”

Fair enough. 

The process of creating the business plan was a good one and I put together a pretty good plan regardless.  I subsequently started this blog as a creative outlet for my wine enthusiasm and I wound up working for a wine company based in Napa—a turn of events and circumstance that I think was manifest destiny anyways. 

I was out in California a month or so ago for business and I attended the Wine 2.0 function in San Francisco.  As the evening progressed, members of our team at Inertia left for another nightspot to wind the evening down.  A customer of ours, Jason Goelz from Sapid Wines, was hanging out with us, as well.

Jason is a younger guy, 30 years old or so, and a real good guy dedicated to making good wine as he launches his brand.  In guy talk, Jason is “out kicking his coverage” meaning that he’s crafting good wine at a pace to market that isn’t normal.  I expect many good things for and with him in the future.  Inertia is excited to help him and he uses Inertia services for his direct-to-consumer business and very soon for direct-to-trade business, as well. 

Come to find out, Jason is an Indiana guy. He was born here, he lived here for several years and he still has family in Indy that he visits for the holidays.  We quickly made plans to have a glass of vino and a bite to eat while he was here in the city.  While we were chatting, Jason mentioned that he had distribution in Indiana with a distributor that I was not readily familiar with, Crossroads Vintners.

When I came home from my trip to California last month, my wife and I attended a tasting from a visiting winemaker coordinated by a wine shop, The Grapevine Cottage, the best wine shop in Central Indiana.  The tasting was nice enough, but I ran into an old acquaintance at the tasting who, come to find out, had recently started a wine distributor in Indianapolis with a partner called Crossroad Vintners.  Hmmm.  We chatted for a few minutes while he worked the tasting and we both marveled at the joy of both of moving into the wine business resolving to grab a bite to eat in the near future. 

This was weird.  I start working for a technology company in Napa, CA, following my passion for wine while working out of a home office in Indianapolis.  Then, via a business relationship I serendipitously talk to a California winemaker who has family in Indianapolis and would be visiting shortly.  Next, I bump into an old acquaintance that starts a wine distributor in Indiana and he works with this same small, boutique winery and winemaker. 

What could be weirder?  The distributor and the winemaker meet for lunch yesterday; I decline to participate to let them do their business without an interloper.  Where did they meet for lunch?  Binkley’s of course.  Binkley’s is the restaurant that was home to my business meeting with an investor a year and ½ ago that started my wine odyssey in a serious way.

You can’t make this stuff up: Indianapolis and wine at the center of a colliding set of circumstances that makes you scratch your head and wonder about cosmic forces at work.


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Where Does Elitism Come From in the Wine Industry?

{Please Remember to bid on prizes and the Good Grape Cal-Mid Cabernet pack for the Menu of Hope III. You can bid at the following link and please use the code WB13}

http://www.firstgiving.com/menuforhopeIII

As I’m coming to understand the wine industry from the inside out I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the issue of elitism and snobbery.

In a previous post, St. Vini from the Zinquisition had a dissenting opinion on my rant against Olive Garden—isolating a post he wrote on the value of wines with a national footprint on the smaller, hand-crafted stuff.

I don’t necessarily disagree with him and this got me thinking in a different direction—about the value of an Olive Garden trying to spread education on wine and where exactly wine elitism comes from.

In my previous life, closely aligned with IBM, I came to know all to well the insidious top-down fear mongering that is the management structure at the corporate behemoth.  While I wasn’t an employee of IBM, I worked closely with IBM’ers on a daily basis for years and years.  And, while they weren’t afraid for their jobs on a daily basis, (job security is quite good, actually) one of the typical motivating factors in their world was “looking good.”  Or, perhaps I should say, not “looking dull”—because I heard that a lot. “We don’t want to look dull” was the refrain even as you were being asked to have ownership of information that was coming across four different layers in a weird game of responsibility without accountability.  A majority of decision-making was based on the harmful notion of looking good for the boss, or even better, looking good for the boss’ boss.  By proxy, most good sense was sucked out of a business situation based on this risk adverse quality of work life.

This is to say I kind of figured out the third dimension of the business—the gray area in between black and white where most people exist in a world that requires that things actually get done.

So, as I become acclimated to the wine industry one of the more curious aspects of my foray has been to try and decode where this mythical notion of elitism is propagated.  It’s the bane of the industry—most everyone likes to pay more than just lip service by providing actual real value to creating an approachable product and an approachable brand that invites a sophisticated, but accessible clientele. 

But, when I was more strictly on the consumer side it was easy to read some of the glamorized accounts of the wealth and sophistication in Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere and think that some of the wealth rub-off infected the industry creating a sort of snobbery that floated down the pike to the consumer like flotsam from a swollen, flooded river bank.

As my awareness becomes sharpened, though, I’m coming to think that I might have been off-base. As I meet producers, distributors, brokers, importers and wine technology folks, almost to a person this is a warm, friendly, inviting and CASUAL industry.  Dress is casual, perhaps a touch hipper than the khaki and blue shirt uniform of Silicon Valley and more agrarian. Attitudes are bright and egos seem mostly manageable.  This is a jeans crowd, and for the better.

Surely some subtle elitism that manifests itself as snobbery exists, but by and large I think the blame for this notion exists only a rung or two up from the consumer.

I’m blaming the Sommelier or Wine Director at fine restaurants as well as the high-end wine shop.  And, I’m blaming the very small percentage of wine enthusiasts that are wealthy collectors and enthusiasts. 

These guys are the spiritual robber barons and perpetuators of the velvet rope that cordon off the wine world for many newcomers. 

I was in a conversation a week or so back where the light bulb went off.  The jist of the conversation was around selling wine to restaurants the likes of which win Wine Spectator awards and the Wine Director has a slew of alphabet letters after their name from wine certifications.  We were discussing the difficulty in getting on those wine lists and the comment I received back was:

“I like to work with guys that don’t have wine certifications.  The guys that have certifications think they invented the damn stuff.  It’s too much of a pain in the rear to sell wine that is excellent to guys that did a little studying, hang out with cooks and think their wine pairings are the end all be all.”

Interesting stuff and I agree with him, I just don’t think the chasm is going to be crossed with Olive Garden pimping White Zinfandel to folks dining on the all you can eat salad and breadsticks. 


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