Friday, July 22, 2011

Exclusive wine selections at Brennan's Market - Part II of II

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Thea Miller, Product Manager at Brennan’s Market, (, @BrennansMarket on Twitter, Brennan’s Market on Facebook) at their Watts Road location about their wine business.

A previous post discussed Brennan’s strategy of focusing on exclusive relationships with wine producers. This post will discuss popular wines at Brennan’s.

MWS: What wines do you offer as part of the Brennan’s Cellars Collection?
Thea: We offer a wide range of prices $6.99 and up. Above $50, is not really our focus. Most of the wine we sell is priced between $9.99 & $15.

We focus on Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Italy and the U.S. (California, Washington State, Wisconsin, Colorado & Arkansas)

The varietals that we offer include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Chianti, Riesling, Shiraz, Syrah, and more. Plus lots of red blends and white blends.

MWS: How many wine SKUs (stock-keeping units) does Brennan’s carry?
Thea: About 400.

MWS: Any differences between the Brennan’s stores (University Avenue and Watts Road in Madison and stores in Monroe, Brookfield and Oconomowoc) in the wines you carry?
Thea: No. All of our stores carry the same wine. It may seem like more at Watts than at our University Avenue store, but that’s just because Watts has more room to display.

MWS: What wines are the most popular?
Thea: Judging by sales since the beginning of the year, our two most popular wines are South Island Pinot Noir from New Zealand (at $9.99) and Italia Moscato d’ Asti from Italy (at $15.99). They are trending into the summer so far, so it will be interesting to see when the weather really warms up. I anticipate the Moscato will keep on going. It has such a great following.

MWS: Any surprises – wines that have done better than expected?
Thea: Yes. When Carlson Winery in Colorado first released their Laughing Cat Sweet Baby Red, I thought it would do ok, but it really took off.

There is a huge market for sweet reds for people looking for the health benefits a red wine provides, without the dryness.

Since then, we expanded the number for sweet reds we offer.

MWS: Any disappointments – wines that have not done as well as expected?
Thea: Sure. We had line in our label called Monterey Coast. Priced at $9.99 with great California varietal characteristics. We thought it would be a quick mover. Unfortunately not the case. So, we tried different things, but it just never caught on. So, we moved on.

MWS: Any hidden gems in the store?
Thea: The 2009 St. Laurent Riesling from Washington State is going to get a 90pt rating in the September issue of the Wine Enthusiast.  Guglielmo’s 2007 Petite Sirah from California got a 90pt rating in Wine Enthusiast in March.

But, we really aren’t all about ratings here. While we have rating signs, we are about finding a wine to fit each customer’s palate. That’s why we almost always have a wine selector on hand to navigate our unique selection.

If you come in looking for mainstream wine like Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, we aren’t going to have it. So, a knowledgeable wine selector is a must to offer alternatives to the consumer. We also have wine selectors to help our customers complete their meal. They shop their way through Brennan’s and then stop by the wine department to pick up wines for the week or wines for a party.

I will say that hands down the best deal in the store for everyday drinking are our Private Reserve 1.5 from Chile. Viu Manent Winery makes them exclusively for us. Can’t beat the value for a table wine.

MWS: Personal favorites?
Thea: My personal favorites change day-to-day, week-to-week. Ask me in a couple of weeks and it could be totally different. Depends on what I’m doing and cooking. Right now, here are my picks:

Powers Coyote Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State. I hadn’t had in a while and we had a dinner with the winemaker. Fell in love with it all over again.

South Island Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp, citrusy. At $9.99 it’s a great deal for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Italia Prosecco. So food friendly. Great for picnics. Great for wine cocktails, too, like a Strawberry Sparkler. Made with simple syrup, strawberries, lemon and Prosecco.

Plus, I make a lot of Sangria in the summer. One of my go to Sangria wines is our 1.5 Private Reserve Chilean Cab.

MWS: How would you describe the typical Brennans’ wine customer?
Thea: Our customers vary from store to store, but the most common thread is that they are people who are interested in having a unique shopping experience and who want to provide the best products for their families.

Because we are more than a wine store or liquor store, we get everyone from first time wine drinkers to experienced wine drinkers. Most of our wine customers are looking to complete a meal they have planned or pick up some wines to complement cheeses they just bought or just try something different.

Because half of our store is based on seasonality and freshness, our customers come in more frequently than maybe a traditional wine or liquor store. The average customer buys 2-3 bottles. Of course, some do take advantage of our 10% off 6 bottles (exclusions apply) or 1.5L case discount, too. Luckily, we know that if they pick up 2-3 bottles, they will be back next week for more.

MWS: How successful have your wine samplings been?
Thea: Our samplings are a great tool for us. Because everyone’s palate is different, it’s great to be able to say, “Try this wine. Let us know what you think.” Because sweet to me, might still not be sweet enough for someone else and so on.

It really helps to guide our wine selectors to exactly what the customer is looking for. Of course, we do sell the wines that we are sampling, too, but we are more concerned that a customer walks away with a wine that is just right for them because that keeps them coming back to Brennan’s.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fawlty Towers corked wine

Exclusive wine selections at Brennan's Market - Part I of II

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Thea Miller, Product Manager at Brennan’s Market, (, @BrennansMarket on Twitter, Brennan’s Market on Facebook) at their Watts Road location about their wine business.

MWS: How has business been?
Thea:  Good.

Because a good percentage of our business in on the produce side, we are somewhat weather driven. In the summer, we really need nice, sunny weekends. That gets people out and about grilling and entertaining. We’ve had kind of hit and miss weather up until recently, so we have been anxious for summer!

MWS: How long has the Brennan’s Cellars label been in existence?
Thea: We’ve been just about 100% exclusive on the wines we carry since the late ‘90’s. That means we don’t carry any wines that other stores in Wisconsin carry.

Some may not be carried any where else in the US, although a producer like Soljans from New Zealand also sell their wines in California.

That came about as an extension of how we bought cheese and produce.

If our cheese and produce was different than everyone else’s, why should our wine be the same labels as everyone else’s?  

Don’t we owe our customers something unique and special in wine, as well?

For Brennan’s long-term survival and to provide a unique experience for our customers we decided to launch our own wine label.

In about 2003, we launched our first actual Brennan’s Cellars brand with the Private Reserve 1.5L wine from Chile. It was followed by South Island (New Zealand), Riverland (Australia), Monterey Coast (California) and so on.

We have eliminated lines and added lines over the years to meet the needs of our customers.

Some like Barefoot left because Gallo acquired them and their desire for a broader distribution ended our exclusive relationship. At that time they accounted for about 25% of our wine business and we did not want any one wine producer becoming that large of a part of our business again.
[MWS: E. & J. Gallo Winery’s fast-growing Barefoot brand remained No. 1 in retail sales for the 52 weeks ending June 13, 2011 with $255 million in sales, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. With Carlo Rossi ranking seventh in sales and Gallo Family vineyards ninth, the Gallo company owns three of the top 10 brands. Two other Gallo products, Livingston Cellars and Peter Vella box wines, also made the top 20. Barefoot grew 27% in dollar sales over 52 weeks at the major U.S. food and drug stores from which SIRI analyzes check stand scan data. Barefoot’s volume rose 28% to 3.8 million 9-liter case equivalents, reflecting a slight price decrease of 4 cents. Trinchero Family Estates’ Ménage à Trois brand was the only wine in the top 20 to grow faster—33%—than Barefoot.]

Our most recently added line is from Tasmania, Australia called Tarkine Forest includes a Pinot Noir and Riesling.

We tend to have a New World focus, although we do carry some wines from Italy.

Of the wines in our collection about a third of them are under the Brennan’s Cellars label. The rest is by winery.

MWS: How do you find and select these wines and winemakers?
Thea: We visit each and every one of our wineries, like we visit each of our cheese producers and fruit growers. We visit about four wineries a year, rotating between Chile, Australia, and New Zealand.

Skip Brennan, the owner of Brennan’s, has done a lot of the traveling over the years. He made his first wine trip to Australia in the early ’90’s. Followed by Chile in mid-90’s and New Zealand in 1997. Italy in 2006. Since Skip was injured in a serious bicycle accident in 2007, others in the company have assumed his duties like Brennan’s GM Tim Culhane and myself.

We use the same criteria Skip used to select wineries.

We look for small, family-owned operations that are top-notch from head to toe.

We look at everything. I mean everything, including cleanliness.

The most important thing we look for in a partner, not just a winery partner, but cheese, specialty food and produce, is passion. Do they have passion to create the best wine in their region? Are they innovators in their field?

We have a passion to give our customers the best products out there, and we want our partners to match it.

MWS: Did these winemakers have to make any changes to adapt to the tastes of Wisconsin wine consumers?
Thea: Wisconsin wine customers tend to like sweeter wines, and so, for example, we asked one of our wine makers to make a sweeter style of Riesling, which had more residual sugar.

MWS: How do you establish the Brennan’s brand name among Madison wine consumers?
Thea: When went 100% exclusive in the late ‘90’s, we had a lot of customers confused that we didn’t carry the brand name wines that they were used to getting a Brennan’s.

Over the years, we have built sales for our collection and for our Brennan’s Cellars labels through sampling, a lot of winemaker tastings.

Almost all of our wineries come out to see us at least every other year.

It also helps having our wine selectors on hand every day to build relationships with customers, so if someone has a special event or dinner or even just Pizza Friday they know that they can come to Brennan’s. We have at least one full-time wine selector at each store to help customers with their selections.

The next post will discuss popular wines at Brennan’s.

Friday, July 8, 2011

L’eft Bank in Madison: from the Sugar River to the world – Part III of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Michael Paré, Wine Merchant with L’eft Bank Wine Company, 4918 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI about the wine business.

Founded in 1985 by Mark Johnston with his handy Ford Pinto and a few cases of Burgundy, L’eft Bank has grown to become the leading distributor of fine wines and spirits in Wisconsin. What’s with the apostrophe in the name? See for an explanation, and why a picture of newts leads off this posting.

Previous posts discussed the wine importation/distribution business and wine sales to restaurants and retailers. This post will discuss trends in wines.

MWS: Any surprises – wines that have done better than you expected?
Michael: We just brought in a new producer – and I am not on their payroll – from just south of San Francisco by the name of Jason Stephens.  They brought in a Merlot, a Cabernet and then a Cabernet Syrah blend. I am not necessarily the biggest fan of California wines – I am not saying they are bad, but when I sit down at home to drink a bottle of wine and go to pull a bottle out of my basement I probably have a very small percentage of wines from California. Just my own personal tastes. And these wines just really impressed me a great deal. When I look to get samples to go out to my customers, with Madison’s customer base being very exploratory – they want to try things from all over the world, I don’t often take a lot of bottles from California, but I immediately got these samples out to take to people. I immediately showed them to Finn at Barriques and he got them the next week. They are really nice wines. I immediately had a restaurant want to pour the wines too and they are not inexpensive wines -- so that was a successful show.

MWS: Any disappointments – wines that have done worse than expected?
Michael: I am hard-pressed to like Argentine Cabernets. I like Argentine Chardonnays. Malbecs are great. Their Cabernets have not separated from the Malbec pack to really differentiate themselves. Napa Cabs have their own flavor, their own quality. I am still looking for the Argentine Cab that differentiates itself, that justifies itself.

MWS: How do you decide on allocations of highly rated wines?
Michael: We recently had a wine that was a 2007 Isole e Olena Cepparello. It is a pretty famous Super-Tuscan. The 2007 got really good press about a year ago and I had people asking for it then. And I said the only way that I can sell you that is if you are buying the 2005 or the 2006. [MWS: The 2007 got 96 points from Parker and is available from $55.67; the 2006 93 points, $51.49 and the 2005 92 points, $47.50.]

And so the way you do allocations is you look at who has already supported the winery, and supported them through the good and the bad. You cant just cherry pick and take all the best vintages and this is true of retailer and restaurateurs. If the winery is making a mediocre Merlot, and they say we need to sell this, then you need to help us sell it. It is the history that allows them access.

Wineries do this themselves when they sell to their wine clubs – if you want to go to Shafer winery, for instance, which we represent – you can buy their Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot from the winery, but you cant buy their Reserve Cabernet called Hillside Select until you have been in their wine club a certain amount of time, and you have earned your way up the line.

MWS: What do you think of the points system for rating wines?
Michael: The rating system is a crutch and so it is both good and bad.  

The original purpose when Parker started rating wines was that he was modeling himself after Ralph Nader as some sort of consumer advocate, that’s why it is called the Wine Advocate. As a consumer advocate for wine he was trying to force wine producers to stop counting on their reputation – you cant sell us a label any more -- and more on the quality of the wine in the bottle.

I think that is done in the sense that the quality of wine is better all the time everywhere in the world. Chilean wine was pretty dismal 10 years ago, and now they are making really great wines. Same with Argentina. Same with Australia, the whole bubble with Yellow Tail coming up and down, and that’s kind of going away. Same with manufactured wine, that is slipping away because people want more authentic things.

People who don’t know anything about wines, don’t have a retailer that they can go to, they need a crutch. I have always said to people when I worked in retail and they would ask, “What does this 90 point mean?” I’d say, “Find all the ones that are from the same person – whether it’s Parker or the Wine Spectator -- on the shelf and start tasting and figure out if it makes any sense to you. If it does then gauge yourself against that.”

That’s a lot of work – that’s somebody who really wants to get into wine -- and a lot of times people just want an easy buy. Ratings help us sell wine, but they can be detrimental.

I mentioned the Super-Tuscan, because it got a huge rating, people were just clamoring for it, and you look and they never bought the wine before, and they never bought any wines from that winery before. They don’t really care about the winery, they just want the score. So you just give them a copy of the score and say, “There you go, have a nice day. That’s $50, thank you.”

MWS: Which price points are the fastest growing?
Michael: The fastest growing category has been the $15 - $20 category. I don’t see a lot of high-end sales – over $30 wholesale, probably $45 - $50 retail. [MWS: SVB Financial – the leading commercial bank in lending to the wine industry -- is projecting fine wine sales to grow by 11% - 15% in 2011.  They define fine wines as wine selling at more than $20 a bottle.]

MWS: Which wines/regions/producers are doing well?
Michael: California is always the leader. It’s so much easier for a consumer to look at Cabernet from California on the label than to worry about a lot of more traditional French labels.

Italy, for a lot of young consumers is kind of a mess. I recently had someone say to me “Barolo is my favorite grape.” Barolo is a town; the grape is Nebbiolo.

When you don’t have to think about the wine and understand the label that well, and it just says the grape varietal, it’s so much easier. [MWS: Interestingly it was a Frenchman, Alexis Lichine, who, when the U.S. was cut off from French wine supplies during World War II, convinced California wine makers to label their wines according to the grape varietal – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay... Until then California wine makers had slapped names like Burgundy and Chablis on their product. See for a description of Lichine’s fascinating life.]

We need a lot of German wine education on our website, we have a lot of German wines to sell. [MWS: An excellent explanation of German Riesling wine labels can be found from L’eft Bank at:]

MWS: Which restaurants’ wine lists do you like?
Michael: I love Italian wines, so I love Papavero’s and Lombardino’s wine lists. They are deep into Italian wines. Papavero’s has about 20 – 25 wines, most of them are available by the glass and by the bottle, they are all Italian, they have never poured a Pinot Grigio. They want to do something different, and they want t0 do something that is cutting edge. I appreciate that.

MWS: What do you like to drink?
Michael: Oh gosh, wine.

When I first started getting into wine I really loved Rhone wines. I have learned that I like Chateauneuf-du-Pape when they are young, not necessarily so much when they are older. So if I look at a bottle that is three years old, I am more likely to enjoy it than one that is 12. That’s the nature of Chateauneuf-du-Pape; whereas when I drink older Bordeaux I love those. When they are younger I think they are a little bit less interesting.

Austrian wines. Grüner Veltliner – they are so good.  There’s a producer called Schloss Gobelsburg and they have wines that start around $15 all the way up to $70 a bottle and I try to sample as many of their different ones as possible. The other one is called Brundlmayer.

And dry Rieslings from Germany. In Germany they drink dry Riesling and they export a lot of their sweet stuff. Dry German Rieslings are really spectacular. JJ Prüm is a really great producer. He is right in the heart of the Mosel and he has parcels in all of the famous vineyards and so typically what a producer will do is they will bottle single vineyards, and they will bottle each at different ripeness levels, so you will have the Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese… and if has 10 vineyards, he can easily have 30 wines. It gets to be pretty crazy. They can be pretty expensive wines, he is right in the heart of the Mosel and so he can command a higher price. Selbach is another of my favorite producers. Also in the heart of the Mosel within 10 miles of Prüm. Josef Leitz – their Dragonstone.