Compass Wines, A Washington Revelation

Ξ August 28th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, WALLA WALLA, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

While in Walla Walla, Washington I was told by Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars of a particularly important wine guru working in Anacortes. Mr. Boyd spoke in almost hushed tones of a certain Doug Charles, a man whose knowledge and palate could put a wine on the map. Specializing, but by no means limited to Washington, Mr. Charles was said also to be a key source for limited production wines from throughout his favored state. For rare, hard to find wines, wines of limited production and allocation, Doug Charles was the man to see. Indeed, while in Compass Wines in Anacortes, the far northern gateway to the San Juans and Canada, I encountered a woman, an artist, who was worried upon learning I was a wine writer that I might ruin her unique wine store by mentioning it. For causing her anxiety I must apologize. But the truth is that this is a wine store worthy of national recognition. And it is, among sailors, as you will read. Open since 2001, on-line since May of 2003, it is now our turn, we land lubbers.
From the initial press release back in 2001.
Leveraging long-time business relationships developed over the course of his 20+ years in restaurant management, Doug Charles is able to obtain and offer his customers wines that are otherwise only available via select mailing lists, if at all. “From Leonetti to Bunchgrass—from Chateau Margaux to Chateau d’Yquem, our shop offers a nice range of wines, including under $10 bottles perfect for sipping with dinner tonight,” said Charles. “Our customers include everyone from New York collectors to local fishermen.”
And from their About Us page.
Contrary to most retail shops, Compass Wines was built on the idea of maintaining an extensive inventory of past vintages, as well as quantities of the current releases. We also purchase entire cellars of fine wines from around the world. These range from great old Bordeaux, to the ‘cult’ wines of California.
And so it was when visiting the San Juans, I dropped in to spend a few minute at this remarkable wine store. Enjoy.
Admin I’m here at Compass Wines in Anacortes, Washington with owner Doug Charles [along with Will Parks]. So what is it you do?
Doug Charles I’ve been in the wine business directly for just over 10 years, 20 years before that in the restaurant business. I’ve done a lot of consulting work in between. Washington has been my passion since the 80s, when the wine industry got going. I got hooked early on and never really looked back. I love other stuff too, but I have a soft spot for Washington.
How did you end up in Anacortes?
DC I did restaurants up here for a number of years. I was doing some consulting work that involved putting wine cellars onto mega-yachts. We determined that there was a need in the maritime community to service boaters. We figured that if these guys with Feadships and Bayliners don’t have places to store their wines then we should look at locations from the Canadian to Mexican borders in maritime areas where we could combine specialized retail with wine storage; and everything pointed right back to Anacortes, a half hour from where I live. We spent about 18 months looking, but it all pointed back here.
So distributors make a pilgrimage out here.
DC Yes. We’re definitely remote for Washington, we’re about an hour and a half north from Seattle, which bodes well for what we do because a lot of the allocations for limited production wines are divided by the Seattle metropolitan area and the rest of the state, and because we fall outside in the rest of the state, when allocation numbers are set the guys in Seattle will be fighting over a few bottles and I get a larger allocation because I take up everything else in the state.
It does seem that you’ve put Anacortes on the map as a wine destination, besides selling through your web-site, of course. Certainly for sailors. And you must advertise in sailing-themed magazines?
DC I don’t know if we put it on the map. I think the Washington Ferry system did that! But yes, we advertise in sailing magazines. We also do a wine program called ded reckoning which is sailing-themed. And we’re just rolling out next week the new edition that features the BMW Oracle yacht on the label. That’s been months in the making. The label is being printed as we speak. That sailboat was actually built right behind the shop here in Anacortes. It was tested here. We will be promoting that extensively in the maritime community on both coasts.
[I was given a bottle of ded reckoning 2000 Walla Walla Petit Verdot. It features a label with a 1906 photo of the U.S. Battleship Nebraska built by Moran Bros. Company, Seattle, Washington. See poc above.]
Fascinating. Now, I met Sean Boyd of Rôtie Cellars in Walla Walla recently. He knows and speaks very highly of you. He understands your reputation. How is it you cane to meet Mr. Boyd?
DC We get lots and lots of wineries that come through here on a regular basis. I had several wineries here yesterday. I had five here last Friday. I’ve got two coming tomorrow [Aug. 21st]. We’re known for being specialists in limited production, small output wines. We’re not afraid to put a wine with a production of 20 cases on the shelf. I don’t have a corporate mind set I have to follow. I don’t have shelf tags that I have to fill. Winemakers know that they can come here and experiment with us. They can bring in limited production things; and because we focus half of our floor space to Washington specifically, we’ve got a lot more room for these little producers. They are not going to get squeezed out by the big guys. Look at our shelves. We don’t carry a lot of the big brands that you normally see because those brands are available everywhere. We go after brands you don’t see everywhere else. So the little guys have a better opportunity to get floor space here than other places just because of the way we’ve set up our business.
What is the square footage here? And how many bottles?
DC We have about 16,000 bottles on hand at any given time. We’ve got 3,500 square feet here, most of which is actually in refrigerated storage in the back. I’ve never really mapped out what our actual showroom is here but I’m guessing 1000 square feet probably, of display space. And then a couple thousand of storage.
You have a big tasting coming up…
DC We do tastings once a month. Tomorrow we have Chris Gorman and Mark McNeilly. They are going to be pouring the Gorman and Mark Ryan wines. They’re always free events here. Everybody gets to come and taste the new releases before they hit the street. And some of the old releases.
What are your European specialities?
DC I have a soft spot for Burgundy. Reds and whites. And for Southern Rhone. I have my biases! But those are the ones that I like to focus on. And it also doesn’t really compete with the Washington profile. We don’t do Pinot Noir up here very well, or very much. And Chardonnay is not something Washington is known for. So for the people who are trying to balance out their cellars, or balance out their dinners, Burgundy and the Southern Rhone fit really well. Grenache, for example, I’m a big fan of the grape, but there’s not a lot of it up here. There’s more and more coming, but I don’t try to compete. But because I can’t find good Pinot in Washington so I go to Burgundy and get it! It seems like a fit, doesn’t it?
You have a few Portuguese things I see…
DC I do. We like odd things for this market. We’re in a rural area. We don’t have a huge wine community in this immediate area that has experienced a lot of the things from Portugal, or from Greece, or South Africa. We like to have a lot of those fun, different things on hand so that everybody has an opportunity. You don’t have to go to the Big City to get these unusual wines from Croatia. We like them, the funky, weird stuff; and I stock it because I don’t have to report to anybody. If it doesn’t sell, well, I have only myself to blame.
I like different things to kind of push the envelope for our customers. If they come in and are used to drinking Pinot Gris all of the time, then I can suggest they try a dry Muscat this week, try a Viognier, try something a little bit different. And the way our shop is set up we instinctively do not put neon tags with prices on them on display. Every bottle is hand labeled so the customers are in a way forced to talk with my staff. We’ve set up the floor plan so that when people walk in the first time they are confused. That’s intentional. Because we want to develop a one-to-one relationship with our customers, know what they like. Every customer has their own data base in our system. So if you come back next year we can pull up what you bought when you were on vacation last year. Maybe they bought XYZ. We’ll ask them if they want to try something different. It’s something I took out of the restaurant business; something like the relationship a waiter develops with his clientele.
It’s like a mini CellarTracker.
DC Exactly. My goal is to make wine accessible to everybody, to take away the snobby, elitist attitude. My take has been that I want to make it accessible, I want to make it fun; I want to make it no different for the layman than going grocery shopping. For the customer who want First Growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, or Leonetti, or Quilceda, they are going to come in regardless of whether we’re jerks or not because there is product they want, and they are going to buy it. Our main goal is to sell the novice wine person who is used to buying a bag-in-a-box somewhere, when they come in the first time, to sell them a $6.99 Merlot they like; then should they come by a second time then we’ve done our job, our staff has done its job. That to me is the hardest customer. If we can expose people to new and unusual things and get them out of drinking the usual fuzzy animal wine from Australia or a jug of some sort, and get them to try something different then we have done well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something expensive; it just has to be something interesting and fun, and make them feel welcome, that to me is the primary goal of what we do.
If we can make those people happy then we know we can make the other people, the specialists, happy. Because we have those products that they want. We have a 1970 Petrus available today. We’ve got those sorts of things for the collector types. But the hardest customer for me is the non-collector, the novice, getting them to feel comfortable coming here instead of grabbing something with an orange tag at the grocery store.
We want to establish a personal relationship with our customers, to sell them something they themselves describe to us, and then edge the line forward. The way that I approach it is that buying wine is really no different from buying a cabbage. It’s just a food item. You don’t need to have an attitude about it. My job is to make it fun. that’s why when you’re digging through bins here you’ll find a couple hundred dollar bottle of wine alongside a $6.99 bottle of wine. (Though I have had to put the really expensive stuff under lock and key because some of it walked away.) I want people to know that it is just a bottle of wine, you know? It is just food.
I am next given a modest tour of the storage facility.
DC The idea behind these storage lockers is very simple. We took this yacht and built wine facilities into it to store his wines. And while his new ship was under construction we actually built a wine cellar below the water line so that he could actually store his wines properly. That was the idea behind putting the storage lockers here: If this guy with this 250 foot yacht doesn’t have wine storage then the guy with a 30 footer doesn’t either. So we began to offer wine storage here on our premises. They can leave their wine here rather than at their house on the islands or on their boat. And when they travel back and forth between here and Seattle (though we actually have guys storing wine here from as far away as London), they can pick them up here on their way to somewhere else. They needn’t worry about it.
Before I leave a second storage area for Compass’ bewildering quality holdings, I notice cases of older vintages of some of the most professionally celebrated wines of Washington, Quilceda Creek, for example. I ask Mr. Charles about a large format bottle I see.
DC Quilceda Creek is the only 100 point winery in the state from the Wine Advocate. As far as I know they are the only Bordeaux varietal producer in the world that Parker has given 100 points to three out of four years. They scored 100 points in 2002, 2003, and 2005. They scored 99 points in 2004 and 2006. Their 2007 has not been released yet. They produced one 6 liter bottle each in 2002 and 2003, and we have both of them.
This gives you some idea of the tremendous stock Compass possess. Indeed, it sometimes happens that wineries themselves contact Mr. Charles for bottles of wine they no longer have or are willing to take from their own wine libraries, for horizontals, for example. Mr. Charles is only too happy to oblige. I encourage you to visit their site. And if in Anacortes visiting the San Juans, as I was, do drop in. It is a challenging and sublime wine store.


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