Posted on | October 22, 2015
Written by | Jason Wilson
The Power of ‘Different’—Plus Effort—is Paying Dividends for Sellers of Offbeat Wines
Michael McCaulley recently acquired a stash of rare wines from Colares, an area in Portugal near Lisbon consisting of a precious few dozen vineyard acres perched on cliffs above the Atlantic, surrounding the fairytale castle of Sintra. One of the world’s oldest wine regions, Colares boasts some of the few remaining ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines in Europe. The reds are produced from a little known grape called Ramisco, which is particularly tannic and acidic, and requires long aging. Meanwhile, the vineyards of Colares are in danger of being snatched up by developers eager to build beach homes.
So, to recap, Colares represents pretty much everything a modern wine geek seeks out and loves—obscure grape and region, a juicy back story, pronounced tannins and acidity, a wine that’s almost extinct. That’s all fine and dandy for the cognescenti, but McCaulley, Managing Partner of Tria wine cafés in Philadelphia, has got bigger issues.
Chief among them: Yo, how the heck is he gonna sell Colares in Philly?
That’s the kind of wine-sales conundrum that McCaulley has been solving since 2004, when he opened his first Tria wine bar, with more than two dozen wines by the glass on the menu. Now with four locations, Tria is the kind of place where Philadelphians are just as likely to order a rosé from the Canary Islands— or a Gros Manseng from Southwest France or a sercial Madeira—as they are a Napa Chard or Australian Shiraz. Probably more so. “You get a following,” McCaulley says. “People come to Tria knowing they’re going to find something different.”
Tria is a prime example of what wine-selling can look like in any city if restaurants, bars, and retailers stopped playing it so safe and embraced new things—and had a little more fun communicating with their customers. The fact that Tria operates in a control state like Pennsylvania, where prices are higher and allocations are smaller, should make their success even more noteworthy. The message: If you can sell geeky wines from, say, Gaillac or Bierzo or Bullas or Santorini in Pennsylvania…well then, you should be able to sell geeky wines anywhere.
“A lot of restaurants make excuses. ‘These wine don’t work. They don’t sell,’” McCaulley says. “I disagree. Customers rise to the level you set for them.”
For example, McCaulley explains that two bestsellers of this past spring and summer happened to be Txakolí, the light, effervescent staple of Basque Spain and Austrian Gelber Muskateller (yellow Muscat). “A lot of these wines are odd to us in the contemporary moment. But they’re traditional wines and they’re not all that weird,” McCaulley says. “We’re just rediscovering them. When you explain this to customers, they understand and feel safe ordering. It’s not just a
McCaulley first offered the Gelber Muskateller in 2007, and it’s been on the spring menu ever since. “Guests eventually began to request it. They’d say, ‘Do you have that Gelber in yet?’” he recalls. “It’s never going to sell like Sauvignon Blanc, but every spring we’ve bought at least ten cases. This year we bought 25 cases. And it always sells out.”
Backlash from the Old Guard
Of course, despite the age-old mantra in the industry that people should “trust their own taste,” there are people in the wine business who throw shade on the idea of exploring new wine regions and grapes or rediscovering classic-but-forgotten wines. One of the more vocal antagonists in this regard has been ol’ Robert M. Parker Jr. In a now-infamous, slightly-unhinged rant on his website last year, Parker lambasted people like me and McCaulley, who embrace off-the-beaten path wines. Opining on those who often enjoy something besides Cabernet or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, he roared: “Instead they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown. That’s their number one criteria—not how good it is, but how obscure it is.”
This, of course, is not the case. No one expects Negrette or Blaufränkisch or Savagnin to usurp the old standbys. “These wines are not here to replace the usual suspects,” McCaulley says. “They’re here to complement them. Just like there’s room for a nice strip steak and there’s room for beef tongue.” Tria always has about a dozen mainstream grapes on the menu next to the geeky stuff, and at any given time may have more wines from New Jersey than Napa Valley.
Robert Parker railing at “godforsaken grapes” feels a lot like the Old Guard fearing that their power base is eroding; and many feel it is, as retailers move beyond writing scores on placards in order to sell wines. It’s not easy to sell non-mainstream wines. It takes a different approach, one that involves much more communication and education and perhaps even a new language to speak to customers.
But how do you sell these sorts of wines to regular drinkers?
For McCaulley, at Tria, it all starts with staff education. “The big thing is having the staff taste the wines,” he says. “It makes things more relevant and interesting for the server, which then leads to a more fun and interesting conversation with the guests. We talk about sharing, not selling.” It’s also a matter of presentation: the menu at Tria categorizes whites as Zippy, Smooth and Luscious, and reds as Lighthearted, Sociable, Funky, or Bold.
Beyond staff training and presentation, it still takes some extra effort to highlight and promote a wine that people are unfamiliar with. On Sundays at Tria, during a promotion called Sunday School, less-known wines are offered at $5 for the first glass. On a recent Sunday, a Gaillac white, a blend of Loin de L’oeil and Mauzac grapes, was highlighted for $5 on a card clipped to the menu (which included the wine story’s, and an explanation that this Southwest French region is pronounced “guy-yak”)
Still, amid all the highminded talk of education and sharing and storytelling and discovery, I realize one big question lurks in the mind of restauranteurs and retailers: Can I actually make money on a wine no one’s heard of? McCaulley says offering off-the-beaten path wines are not only profitable, but a big part of Tria’s success. “You don’t have to take a low margin on the unknown thing,” he says. “Sometimes, the unknown thing has much better value. You make more money and the guest gets better value.”
Besides, he says, “These wines just make life, and work, more interesting.”
Jason Wilson is the author of Boozehound: On The Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits and the e-book series Planet of the Grapes. He can be found at jasonwilson.com and @boozecolumnist.