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WineInk: Wine Shops are like bookstores

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk
Under the Influence: Tequila Mandala Extra Anejo

This space is usually reserved for wine, but I thought a tequila might work well here. Jason forwarded notes that described the Mandala Extra Anejo as “Elegant with a great body, with 7 years of aging in French oak barrels. Dedicated to those who love the extraordinary and special. Dark amber in color with intense fruits and toasted oak aromas, this tequila is addictive with a long and profound finish, leaving a harmonious soft flavor that is sweet with hints of oak and vanilla.”

Sounds a bit like a fine wine.

“We have a great selection of tequilas,” Jason Herrick said to the slightly nervous young woman who had entered The Liquor & Wine Grotto in Montecito, California, looking for a special gift bottle of the agave-born spirit.

“Let’s start with what you want to spend,” he said.

Over the next five minutes, Jason took the woman on a tour through the Highlands of Jalisco on a shelf, showing her bottles and packages of tequila that might make the perfect offering for her friend. As the conversation went on, the timid gifter became less so, and began to ask questions about the bottles and the process of how tequila is made. She became empowered because Jason had given her enough information to allow her to feel comfortable.

It was an everyday example of how a local wine (in this case, wine and liquor) store can provide a purchasing experience that is beyond simply efficient, but also fun and informative. And that may be the biggest benefit of shopping in a local owner-operated wine shop rather than the jumbo emporiums that so many seek out.

I often make the analogy that independent wine shops and independent bookstores serve similar purposes and face parallel challenges. The little guys provide a level of service, a personalized experience, along with little touches that can make the search for something special more rewarding. Both, however, are under siege by the behemoths — the Costcos and the Amazons of the world who use their buying power to shave pennies and take over the market. There can be obvious financial advantages to buying at the warehouses. But, with both wine and books, there can be found soulful satisfaction when taking time to make discoveries and chat with those who are devoted to their craft.

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This tiny shop not far from the Santa Barbara wine regions and nearer still to the Pacific is one of my favorite wine shops anywhere. The co-proprietors, the aforementioned Jason Herrick and — get this — Brian Brunello (yes, that is his real name) are as friendly as they are knowledgeable about wines, not only from the bounty of the area but from the broader wine world, as well. They have a cadre of regulars who have known the shop for years and who often can come in to score their hard-to-find, small production treasures as well as the tried-and-true standards. Like the tequila-seeking buyer, they also are visited daily by tourists in the area who are serendipitously finding this gem of a shop for the first time.

Whenever I visit Santa Barbara I make it a point to stop in and look through the racks at The Liquor & Wine Grotto.

In early December on a sleepy, pre-holiday weekday morning, I found Herrick sitting at the small front desk behind a pile of bills, doing the things that people who run their own business do daily. “People don’t get that this is a part of the job,” he laughed, as he put down the paperwork and came around the counter for a personal hello. “They think all we do is taste wine and meet winemakers, but that’s just part of it.”

The phone rang and, though I could hear just one side of the conversation, I could tell it was a well-known customer who wanted to purchase six bottles of Foxen Chardonnay for a friend for the holidays.

“I’ll get ’em out for you today,” Herrick said, adding, “And let me work on the price; I’ll do the best I can.”

It was another example of the personal service and attention that sets this store apart from the larger, more rigid competition.

As I walked the shop while Jason tended to his order, I noted that there were shelf talkers, small cards describing the wines, along with reviews and ratings from well-known wine publications.

“People say they don’t buy a wine because of ratings and reviews, but if Brian and I are busy helping customers out and people are left walking through the shop they always come up with those wines that have the 90 point ratings,” Jason explained. “I always tell the small producers to get a story, get some ratings and leave us shelf talkers if they want their wines to move.”

While there is no denying that The Grotto is a special shop, the same kinds of stories can be found daily in independent wine shops all over the world. People who are passionate about wine open and operate these kind of stores to share their love of wine with customers who appreciate the hands-on approach when they are buying wine.

And about that tequila. The woman left with a smile and a prized bottle of Tequila Mandala Extra Anejo for her friends. At $169 a pop the price was obviously not a concern. Merry Christmas.


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