Saturday, April 16, 2011

Barriques: Finn and Matt bring great wine to Madison’s masses – Part I of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Finn Berge, co-owner of Barriques, (, @barriques on Twitter, at the Monroe Street location (1831 Monroe Street, Madison, WI 53711, 608-284-9463) about their wine business.

MWS:  Barriques has been open since December 1998 (at Monroe Street in Madison). How have Barriques wine offerings evolved since then?
Finn: When we first opened we didn’t know anything about retail.  

I knew a lot about wine, I just didn’t know anything about retail. We opened up and I bought like I was still buying for a restaurant – whatever was the top wine with the top label and the big points.

You can have your trophies, but people don’t drink trophies every day – that’s the reality of it. People who drink wine every day -- like myself -- I don’t go into my refrigerator and pull out a 97 point Chateauneuf du Pape – if I am having a bottle of wine tonight I will have a Wall wine - something good that you can enjoy, and if you don’t finish it that’s ok.

MWS:  How long did it take you to figure that out?
Finn: Couple of years.  

It is only economically viable if you have your little black book of people who want their box filled up for them with trophy wines, and in this economic world there are a lot fewer people like that.

MWS:  When you worked in the restaurant business in Madison, did the high point wines sell there?
Finn: Oh yes. Especially with fine dining – clients entertaining, expense accounts… and so that old adage: the more expensive it is, the better it is, so wine lists tend to be inflated a lot more.  

Whereas, retail where people are buying for themselves, and they are buying multiple bottles, well that price tag adds up pretty quick.

MWS:  You have always had the Wall of 100 that features wine under $10.  What was the thinking behind that?
Finn:  The Wall is the opposite of the way most stores approach inexpensive wines.

Most stores you go in, the inexpensive wines are in stacks or on the floor, and the trophy wines are in the nice wood cases, lit up and everything else. Well, the people who are looking for the trophy wines, they know what they are looking for and will find them, but the common consumer who wants to learn about wine, this is a vehicle for them to be able to go in, and read the information clearly, and it is all at eye height rather than the floor.

In the US we have huge potential for greater wine consumption; in total consumption we are now first in the world, but our per capita wine consumption is only about 9 liters per year, while it is either 27 or 29 for France.  [MWS: Americans drink only 9.6 liters of wine a year per capita. That's less than Bulgaria, and only a bit more than the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is pretty much illegal. In France annual per capita consumption is 46 liters. Topping the charts is the Vatican with 70 liters]. If we start hitting those numbers there will be a Barriques at every corner.

MWS: Are there differences between Barriques locations in Madison in terms of the kinds of wines that are featured?
Finn:  There is definitely a difference between suburban towns versus city proper.

Here on Monroe Street, because we are in the middle of the University, there are a lot of language department professors and those individuals will try anything and drink anything but they are definitely much more budget-minded also.  They buy smart, but they will try obscure varietals or blends or different countries.

Fitchburg – California chardonnay still reigns as king.  You wouldn’t believe that in most markets but that place we can sell lots and lots of California chardonnay.

In Middleton they buy in the mentality that if it is more expensive it will therefore be better.

MWS: How has business been?
Finn: Good.  Of course the combination of what we do between café, food, wine, and wine tastings helps  – we are kind of an education center.

MWS: A common comment by others in the business is that Barriques has done an outstanding job of educating Madison consumers about different wines.  Has that educational mission always been explicit in Barriques’ history?
Finn:  In the beginning I was the only wine person on the floor, all day every day, so I had a one-on-one relationship with customers.  

Now, unfortunately I spend more time on the computer writing tasting notes so that each of the stores has the information. When we started our wine tastings our intention was to follow the mold – having periodic tastings with wine distributors or wine makers.  

When we did our very first wine tasting we had a visiting distributor from Chicago to do a tasting – and there was a major snowstorm in Madison that night but we still had 80 people show up – they came on cross-country skis, snow shoes, they brought dogs – it was hilarious.  The store was just packed and we said we need to do this more often. To logistically pull off having consecutive wine makers visit us every week was just too hard to arrange, and that is what I did naturally in any case, so we decided to start doing it ourselves every Friday night. Ever since then, Friday night has been mine, here on Monroe Street for the last eleven years.

MWS: Are there certain wines that are a hard sell to Madison wine consumers?
Finn:  Anything that is one step off the beaten track.  

The names that people know and react to are names like Chianti, Tuscany, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rioja – those types of names were developed for marketing purposes. We had an email special a week ago, it was a Morellino, which is a DOCG [MWS: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a protected designation of origin] from the heart of Tuscany – it is everything that Tuscany is -- but it is called Morellino -- it doesn’t say Chianti. [MWS: Morellino is the name for the local variety of Sangiovese (which is also the basis of Chianti and both Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) and comes from the Maremma area of Tuscany]. So you can’t have five Morellinos on your shelf – people may pick it up here or there based upon my notes  -- but you can have several Chiantis, and they will all sell because people are familiar with that.  

Even more so with Tuscany: if I do a Chianti tasting I will have 25 people show up, but if I do a Tuscany tasting I will have 45 people show up – even though I am showing all Chiantis.

MWS: Are there certain wines where you have been surprised with their success in Madison?
Finn:  I am not out to bash certain products but there are companies that have done an excellent job in marketing but have forgotten what is supposed to go in the bottle.

MWS:  Another comment is that Barriques staff is very knowledgeable about the wines Barriques carries.  What does Barriques do to train its staff?
Finn: The people who work on the wine side came in looking for jobs that would somehow involve them in wine.  We can always tell which ones will be good at selling wine: we have an open invitation to all our staff  -- it is almost mandatory -- to our wine tastings.

Wine tasting is something that you have to keep up on so you have to be constantly tasting and learning.  

I am still learning – things that I always thought were a reality get debunked somewhere along the way.  I just found out that everything I thought I knew about Rioja was completely wrong as far as what the label and the blend could be – I had always believed that it had to be a majority of Tempranillo – that is not true, and they can put Merlot, and they can put Cab in it, they just can’t put it on the label.  We also have an in-store Intranet so if I get a cool fact or a visiting winemaker I can do a little bio write-up and all our staff can see it.

The next posting will discuss how Finn’s tastes affect Barriques’ selection of wines.


  1. It's been a while since I have been into Barriques. It's time to visit and check out the wall and the tastings again. Thanks MWS!

  2. hello There, thank you for the great quality of your blog,
    and the inspiration to love healthy foods each time i come
    here, i’m amazed.