Have Tastings Will Travel

Off-premise retailers have taken wine education efforts on the road- and customers' homes and offices

Late last year a loyal customer phoned Sam's Wine & Spirits in Chicago to request a personalized wine tasting in the privacy of his own home. A Sam's staff member arrived with glassware and a selection of 10 wines. After a two-hour solo tasting in his living room, the customer purchased $6,000 worth of wine. "Some people are just too busy to come into the store- so we go to them," says Sam's owner Fred Rosen, a 1998 MARKET WATCH LEADER and 1996 "Retailer of the Year."

Many wine retailers are leading customized wine tastings in homes and offices. Rosen's knowledgeable staff has held private tastings ranging from corporate events to elegant in-home evenings. Some retailers offer food, while others only provide wines. Some take orders at the tastings, though others prefer to conduct business later at the store. But the universal appeal is personalized service.

Michael DiCarlo, owner of DiCarlo Fine Wine and Spirits of Mundelein, Illinois, has been doing private tastings (he calls them Vineyard Tours at Home) for about a year. I can show customers not just mainstream wines, but wonderful, obscure labels in an intimate setting," he says. He provides Riedel stemware, wine fact sheets and order sheets. (Tastings cost $14 a person, including wines. Larger groups receive wine club membership prices, plus a $100 fee for an on-hand consultant.) "I hand out my business card and hope that some that some participants utilize my store," he says.

Carri Wroblewski, co-owner of BRIX Wine Shop in Boston, first meets with clients to determine tasting themes. Since BRIX opened in 2003, she's conducted about 60 customized tastings. "One client bought a private tasting as a present for her husband- it was just for the two of them," she says. In addition to wine costs, fees range from $150 to $200 an hour, with a two-hour minimum.

"We talk about a wine's history, make pairing suggestions and provide some anecdotes about the vintner," says Dan Garland, owner of Madinger Wines in Kirkwood, Missouri. Madinger's staff studies customers' purchase histories to tailor a tasting that fits their preferences. "It creates great word of mouth," he says. "If you do it for six couples, it snowballs."

Tastings led by the Grapeables Fine Wines staff in Fountain Hills, Arizona, have included "Around the World in 80 Minutes" and "A Night in Paris." Co-owner Jim Myczek says, "These tastings offer a more relaxed setting-at home or at the office, with friends or workmates."

"If the customer has no strong preferences, we'll suggest a 'Global Wine Tour,' where we showcase our best wines," explains Mary DiCarlo, events coordinator for Wine Expressions in Lisle, Illinois. Last year the store held 35 custom tastings, which resemble either an educational seminar or an informal cocktail party for larger, more social gatherings. The base price of $20 per person includes seven wines and is adjusted according to the chosen labels.

Lisa Grossman, owner of Bacchus Wine Made Simple in Manhattan, has led customized tastings ranging from bridal showers to Fortune 500 events. Bacchus charges $47 a head for groups under 10, with the price dropping as attendance rises. She offers participants a 15-percent discount on featured wines. Last year she handled about 135 customized wine tastings. "They're not only profitable in and of themselves, but they also broaden our store's visibility," Grossman says. "Our reach has grown beyond our neighborhood. We've also formed strong relationships with corporations. That's very beneficial, particularly during the holiday gift-giving season."

Mahesh Lekkala, owner of Wine Legend Livingston, New Jersey, has held tastings for Morgan Stanley executives so they can learn ordering and tasting wine for client entertainment purposes. So far in only two years he's done about 100 tastings. "We don't make money on the nights of these tastings, but you have to look at the big picture," Lekkala says. "If they like it, they'll come back and buy from us, and so will their friends."

"Gratification is not instant," agrees Michael DiCarlo, "Short term, the tastings themselves have little Impact on the bottom line. But at year-end, when unfamiliar faces become weekly visitors, the effect on my bottom line is priceless."

Denise Schnurr