VinoCruz, A Retailer’s Perspective

Ξ May 12th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine Bars, Wine News |

With all the hurly-burley about the influence of wine magazines and wine bloggers, who is in ascendence, whose sun is setting, it is easy to overlook the fundamental importance of the wine shop retailer. Whereas traditional wine media and my fellow anarchist wine bloggers report, in the main, on their experiences, it is the job of the wine store retailer to listen. Indeed, if they are well studied, familiar with their inventory, it is they who provide the customer with immediate feedback, a qualified drinking experience, impart a knowledge measured to the customer’s needs. And they do it all knowing that to get it wrong has real world consequences to the bottom line and on their reputation.
What follows is an interview with J-P Correa, half-owner of Vino Cruz, a small wine shop in downtown Santa Cruz, California opened in September of 2006. The shop’s unique feature is its specialization in the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Admin Tell us about yourself. How is it you came to wine?
J-L CorreaJ-P Correa My name is J-P Correa. I’m co-owner of VinoCruz. I’m in business with my partner, Jeffrey Kongslie. My wine background? It’s interesting, I come from a totally different world. Recently coming into the wine business, my 25 years of experience is in clothing retail. I was in the high fashion business in New York for a long time. I moved out to San Francisco to pursue opportunities in the clothing business. But when I moved out to California my whole view of wine and food totally changed. I’d been exposed to great restaurants, great wines when I lived in New York and in my travels to Europe. I would always go to great restaurants throughout the world, sample wines from throughout the world, but when I got to California, being about 45 minutes from Napa, the first time I went up there suddenly this whole new world opened up to me. Instead of going after an ‘edited’ selection of wines I was able to experience them first hand. And also I looked more closely at the relation between food and wine, how differently people approach it, how I began to approach it differently.
Food and wine pairing is different between New York and California. We here have such ample opportunities to taste fresh and interesting produce, organic produce. Coming here just turned my whole idea about food and wine on its head. So when I was looking to get out of the clothing business I wrestled with a lot of different opportunities in front of me and I decided, you know what, I’d built this great passion for wine and food so I need to do something that went in that direction.
When I first started coming down to the Santa Cruz Mountains I’d go to some of the PassPort events or would find myself in a position to meet some of the winegrowers from around here individually. The thing that kept coming up in my head was why can’t I find any of these wines in stores or in certain restaurants? I mean, some of these winegrowers, I’ll give you a good example, Dave Estrada from Clos Tita. We tasted his wines once at his home, we were fortunate enough to do so, and when we left we asked ourselves “Why can’t we find these wines? Why doesn’t anybody know about these wines?” So we said to each other that this could be a great opportunity for somebody to put together a store that really focusses on the wines from this region, to let people know how great are the wines from here! So somewhere along the line we decided to do it ourselves. We took the plunge and opened up the business. That’s how we ended up in the wine business!
It’s really interesting. People have always said to me how different it was to go from the clothing business to the wine business. But when I stand back and look at it some of the personalities you’d find among high fashion clothing designers and some of the winemakers is not that different. It is about passion, it’s about personal taste, it’s about putting your heart and soul into something, and putting it out there and hoping people will respond to it the same way. Like fashion, it’s a different form of the luxury business. You’re use to buying a handbag, a pair of shoes or a fragrance from a designer, you’re buying a little bit of their lifestyle. It’s the same thing with wine. You buy their wine, it’s something you can personally identify with, it affects you individually, and in a way you’re buying a little bit of their lifestyle, their hard work, their energy.
Yes. Of course, in the fashion industry it is subject to trends and very rapid changes. For example, I’m looking at the wines you’ve set up for tasting today and I see Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. They’ve been around for a very long time and have a very traditional, classical approach to winemaking and wine style. And some of the wines here I know are big, ripe fruit bombs. So how do you approach the issue of stylistic variance?
J-P Correa That’s one of the things I really appreciate about the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many of the wineries are producing such small quantities that if they decide they want to go in a different direction it’s no problem for them. They’ll actually put themselves out on a limb and go in a different direction, and make a wine in a different style. I think it is harder for the bigger, more established wineries to all of a sudden change direction because they’ve built up this big brand, they have financial responsibilities, things they have to answer to in their business. But some of these guys making 35, 150 or 300 cases, they’re doing it because their passionate about it. Let’s face it. If you’re making 300 cases you’re probably not making alot of money anyway, you’re probably paying more into it than you’re getting out of it financially! So some of these guys might say they want to try something new, to try something different. So they can go in a different direction.
I find that alot of winemakers around here to be extremely creative in the way that they approach their business. They’ll test unfiltered, unfined wines, they’ll test doing their Chardonnay in a different way… going back to the trend thing, you look at Chardonnay, the trend was for such a long time to go for big oaky, buttery, a full-bodied Chardonnay, but we have alot of winemakers around here who are reacting to that trend and going for a little bit more of a subtle style Chardonnay, more fruit driven, more minerals, more steel. So you’ve got somebody like River Run Vintners who has gone to stainless steel production on his Chardonnay. We have a couple of other people who’ve started using more neutral oak. They’ve listened to their customers. Maybe they are small enough so that they can have more one-on-one contact with their customers, restaurants, their retailers, and they can react to it.
I know of one winery in particular, who we do business with, who got alot of feedback that as the fruit level was getting riper the acidity level was dropping. It was making their wines not as food-friendly. So they really though about it. At the end of the day, realizing this is what it was all about, having wines pair well with food, they approached the grape growing and picking differently to get higher acidity levels. So the relation between the winemaker and the customers directly, and their retailers, is actually much closer here than elsewhere.
So how did you assemble such a massive collection of Santa Cruz Mountain wines? Was it knocking on doors?
J-P Carrea It was knocking on doors. When we made the decision to open the store we had about four months between the decision and the actual opening of the store. I got a pad of paper and a pencil and made appointments with everyone of these guys, got up to their wineries, told them what we were doing and gave them a business plan. We explained what we were going after and tasted through all their wines. Versus a large retailer, I feel very fortunate that I’ve tasted every one of these wines. I’ve written it all down and can talk to my customers about it.
We don’t get every single wine from every winery. We go for wines we would be very proud to put on our table at home. I don’t ever want my customer to get home and open a bottle of wine I suggested and have them feel that they didn’t get their money’s worth. I want to be able to stand behind every single wine that’s out here. So, therefore, I have to like it in the first place. (laughs) That’s how we’ve approached how we bought our wines. Also, I have only 200 and something spaces in the store so I have to be selective.
In looking around I’m wondering where are the shelf-talkers, where are the rating points?
J-P Correa Ah! OK! That actually comes up alot. We have a couple of shelf-talkers. When we have something that’s gotten an exceptional score, like the Mount Eden over there [pointing] that got 96 from Parker and a 93 from the Wine Spectator, that’s something that deserves being called out. But I think in general we’ve not wanted to be about who got the highest score but about the quality of the wine itself. And a lot of these winemakers, again, they’re small, they are not putting their wines out for judging.
In a way it is unfair to put shelf-talkers up about the wines that do get scored if we feel the quality of wines that have not been scored is equal. We try to keep the wines on a level playing field.
And this is where the retailer is extremely important to be able to guide the customer.
J-P Correa I do have customers that come in and say they like a certain wine, it’s got a certain score; I can guide them to another wine that has as good a quality but it’s that they just might not know about it. Talking about certain Chardonnays from the Santa Cruz Mountains that have gotten great scores, a customer may be intrigued by the score, they’ve read about it, but maybe they can’t go for the price point. Maybe a Chardonnay at $49 or $40 is out of their price range. I can say, hey, I’ve tasted this wine from another producer and I personally feel it has alot of the same characteristics for 30% or 40% less. You might want to try this one and see what you think. That’s actually worked out very well for us.
Do your customers come in typically looking for something in particular or asking for advice?
J-P Correa Most of the time they are looking for a specific type of wine but they are very open to suggestions. The tasting table has been invaluable for us on that one. I get customers who come in all the time who say they only want to taste reds. I get such a thrill out of it when they end up walking out the door with a Chardonnay, even more if it’s a Sauvignon Blanc! They can surprise themselves, they can leave with something they had no intention of buying when they walked in. That, to me, is very exciting.
I encountered a fellow in a Santa Cruz Mountains winery tasting room once who collected Napa Cult Cabs, and he was out tasting with his wife. Or I should say he wasn’t tasting. He simply refused! Because they didn’t fit, or he thought they didn’t fit, his very narrow palate. It must give you considerable personal satisfaction to expand someone’s palate, to open their mind to new wines, different styles, different grapes, for that matter.
J-P Correa A really interesting story on that. We’re a tourist community. Our economy here is pretty dependent on the tourists who come through here from all over the country. It’s no different here in our store in the summer months. I’m always surprised when tourists come in to the store and start looking at labels, and they go “Wait a second! You have Ridge in here? That’s not Santa Cruz Mountains. That’s from Napa. I’ve seen it in a magazine. It must be good!” And I tell them, no, it’s from Santa Cruz, see on the label. And then they see Kathryn Kennedy and they do the same thing. “No, no, no. I’ve read about this. It can’t be from the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Or Mount Eden.
It’s really interesting when people see Santa Cruz Mountains wines together and they realize they have tried these things. They think it might be from somewhere else. They just don’t realize it’s from the Santa Cruz Mountains. They don’t think of the the Santa Cruz Mountains as a wine growing region. That’s always eye-opening to me. Some people just never associate this appellation with certain types of wine.
So what are the total number wineries represented here?
J-P Correa Currently we have about 68 wineries represented. We fluctuate but we 210 to 215 offerings from the wineries.
Can folks order Santa Cruz wines directly through Vino Cruz?
J-P Correa If someone comes in and wants a case of such and such, there’s no problem. I can get it for them. I actually do quite a bit of that. If a customer wants a case of something not from the Santa Cruz Mountains I can go ahead and do that. We know all the companies that represent the wineries in the area, whether it’s Santa Cruz or not. Napa, Paso Robles… I can do that. I do it all the time.
What do you think of the Santa Cruz Mountains quality/price ratio? Compare it to some of the high end Napa wines.
J-P Correa That’s a stick one! It could put a bug in some people’s buns! Honestly, I think there are a few people, were they up in Napa or up in Sonoma and they had the appellation name on it, they would be charging a lot more for it. Take Ridge Montebello, for example. That’s considered one of the finest Cabernets in the world. And has proven itself as such on a number of occasions. I really do feel that if it had the name ‘Napa’ on it they would be able to charge more for it. A couple of other producers as well, the quality is right up there.
What’s the most unusual varietal being grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains?
J-P Correa I will say that some of the most interesting varietals being grown right now are not grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA proper. Down Hill Winery is testing Torrontes, but the fruit is grown outside the AVA, Jeff Emery with the Verdejo that he’s doing and the Touriga, the Port. I think that those are very interesting varietals and we’re getting alot of attention for those things, but the fruit isn’t grown here.
The appellation is an interesting one. It’s so big but it has such a little amount of space devoted to growing the grapes. The conventional wisdom has been that you’re supposed to do Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on this side of the mountains [West] and Cabernet and Merlot, Cab Franc on the East side of the mountains where it’s warmer, but in the last couple of years you’re seeing people that are testing Syrah, on both sides of the mountains, and getting very different effects from it. That’s very exciting. I think people are growing Cab and Merlot on this side of the mountains, and they’re getting some very interesting effects out of it. I do know that certain producers are testing things like Gruner Veltliner and Riesling on this side as well. And that’s very exciting.
It’s an interesting appellaton. It’s so big with so many nooks and crannies with vastly different micro-climates. There is almost a little pocket somewhere for everything to grow well. It is taking people a little time to find those pockets and plant the land with the right varietals. We will see some very exciting things coming up in the next couple of years.
Is there anything you’d care to add before we wrap it up?
J-P Correa There is one last thing I’d like to add. Going back to the question of my old business and my learning from years in retail that can be applied here, there is one thing both Jeffrey and I were very interested in when we opened up the store was that we didn’t want to create an environment where people felt intimidated. Wine is one of those interesting products where you kind of know what you really like, but you get up in front of some wine people and all of a sudden you can get very intimidated. I’ve been to wineries and tasting rooms, not necessarily here in the Santa Cruz Mountains but in places North of here, where you walk in and may know stuff about wine, know what you like, but the staff behind the counter definitely makes you feel you don’t know what you’re doing. We wanted nothing snooty about our approach to wine in our store. Or too technical. At the end of the day a wine is something people have to have an intimate connection to. Why would you want to put up a barrier between a product and a person that will stifle that intimate connection?
Thank you very much, Mr. Correa.
J-L Correa You are very welcome.


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  1. on May 13th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Great interview! As one of the self-proclaimed “Small Producers” here in the SC Mnts., I’ve got to say that J-P and Jeffrey run one of the most professional and refreshingly friendly wine retailers we have the pleasure to work with. Keep up the good work guys!

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