Saturday, September 17, 2011

Great Chateauneufs on the Wisconsin River – Blue Spoon --Part II of II

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Mike Boss, Director of Operations of the Blue Spoon Cafe ( in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

A previous post described Blues Spoon’s retail offerings. This post will discuss Blue Spoon’s by-the-glass offerings and their wine tastings.

MWS: How do you pick the wines that you offer by the glass?
Mike: The offerings change frequently.  

They obviously have to fall into the right pricing category to start with because of two things – our glass pour is larger than most  -- we pour a 6 oz. glass and so we get four pours out of a bottle, typically our competitors will get five pours out of a bottle; the other is that we want to keep the price between $5 and $8 a glass.  So that determines the category of wines that you can choose from and then I just go through my inventory – what I have got, what I am interested in, what I want to introduce.  

This summer I will be introducing the next level of wines by the glass that will be in the $10 - $15 range to afford our guests an opportunity to enjoy a better wine by the glass.  By doing that I will be more willing to open up a $30 bottle of wine to pour by the glass and charge $12 per glass.  

Typically, most restaurants want to pay for the bottle on the first pour -- we don’t quite do that – we are not quite that aggressive in our pricing.

MWS: What percentage of wine sales is by the glass vs. bottle sales?
Mike: A great percentage is by the bottle.

MWS: With bottle sales how do you keep your prices competitive with the bigger wine stores?
Mike: We just do. It does no good to overprice it and have it sit on the shelf.

MWS: How do you decide what wines to feature with your monthly wine-tasting events and how successful have they been?  
Mike:  A lot goes into it. I start with a theme and then I start researching the topic.

It’s fun for me because if I am going to be the presenter it requires that I spend a fair amount of time learning what I am going to be talking about. In a lot of cases it is a lot of new knowledge to me.

For instance, one tasting was on Piedmont – the Killer B’s I called it - Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco.  Obviously I was limited to what I could get from my distributors, so I asked them what they had from Piedmont and once I heard back from them I went through their list, and compared that to what I had in stock and came up with a combination of wines that I thought was going to fit the price – usually $30 a person – it has got to be a value for the customer but I also have to make money at it so I couldn’t offer 12 Barolos – so it had to be a mix of price points.

Frequently I will have a distributor’s rep, usually from General Beverage, come out and lead our tasting, and in exchange they like to see their wines being featured. But I am also sensitive that they have a limited lineup and I can’t always feature just their wines because I want breadth and depth in the lineup that I offer.  

We get between 30 and 50 people at our tastings and we give them an opportunity to purchase wines the same night and we sell anywhere from 15 to 25 cases of wine that night.  They come prepared to buy.

[MWS: See posting of 15 April 2011 for a review of the Killer B’s wine tasting].

MWS: What are the most popular selling wines?
Mike: Number 1 is Wollersheim’s Prairie Fume.  We sell a lot of Wollersheim wines, by virtue of their popularity and our proximity to their winery, and our relationship with the owners of the winery. Generally it’s a broad range of wines that are in the $15 or less category that we sell the best, when it comes to how many bottles we sell.

MWS: Disappointments – wines that haven’t done as well as you thought?
Mike: Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Even when we had our restaurant in Middleton we tried to feature Chateauneuf-du-Pape on the wine menu and we couldn’t sell it.  People don’t understand it; don’t appreciate it for what it is.  Personally it took me 2 – 3 years to get my arms around it and to decide that I liked it.  It required a trip there to come to grips with how I really felt about the wine. I spent the whole day at Domaine Grand Veneur with the owner and winemaker, which was very educational and informative. So I came back from the Southern Rhone and laid into a bunch of labels, three different vintages, wonderful selections – and I am still trying to sell them. They may end up in my cellar at my personal cost. There is a small group of people who are Chateauneuf-du-Pape enthusiasts.

I am also sitting on a few bottles of some nice Tokajis and I will have to very selectively hand-sell those to particular wine enthusiasts

MWS: Surprises – wines that have sold better than you thought?
Mike: Ménage a Trois.  

Another was the Guenoc Victorian Claret which normally sells for $18 but last year I was able to get a special deal from General Beverage and price it for $10.  I marketed it as my Wine Pick of the Year and sold 30 cases of it. I need to come up with more Wine Picks of the Year!

MWS: Do you carry the Haraszthy Zinfandel for its regional significance?
Mike: Yes.

MWS: How many people realize the significance?
Mike: The locals do.  Wollersheim has a Case Club with 10,000+ members and their enthusiasts are tuned in to the history of the winery, so a lot of people who visit us after visiting the winery, they know about the Haraszthy name.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Great Chateauneufs on the Wisconsin River – Blue Spoon --Part I of II

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Mike Boss, Director of Operations of the Blue Spoon Cafe ( 550 Water Street, Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.

MWS: How long has Blue Spoon been offering wine?
Mike: I have been here for seven years, and the Blue Spoon has been open for 11. Prior to me coming on, we offered wines by the glass and by the bottle for on-site consumption. Craig Culver, who is the owner of the Blue Spoon, basically picked the wines and the wine list matched Craig’s tastes. His tastes tend to go towards California primarily. The list was small; there was not a lot of depth to it.

So shortly after I started in 2004, since I had had some experience in doing wine tastings I started a wine tasting series here. I thought we had an opportunity to increase our guests’ knowledge about wines, increase our place in the market when it came to sales of wines, and increase the perception that the Blue Spoon was a destination for wine. So the wine tasting series helped us do all of that.

We also started selling wine retail at that time. As we started expanding the list gradually, we came up with a pricing structure that would allow us to sell wine out the door.  It has evolved into more of a wine shop type of program where the majority of our wine sales are going out the door, although a fair amount still goes to the table.

One of the things we decided a long time ago was we wanted to sell wines in the restaurant, and I struggle with restaurant wine prices as a consumer because I know what the costs are.  So our approach to pricing for the consumer at the table is quite different from anyone else in the greater Madison market.  We price all of our wines at retail, so if you look at the prices of the wines on the shelves they should be competitive with the likes of Steve’s for retail sales.  If you want to enjoy the same bottle at the table, we only charge a $5 corkage fee. So a bottle of Franciscan Magnificat, we might retail it at $48, and so to enjoy it at the table you are going to get it for $53.  If you compare that with what you might get it for at the table at any Madison restaurant, it’s going to be well over $65.  So we offer very good pricing for on-premise consumption.

MWS: How would you describe the Blue Spoon’s typical wine customer?
Mike: Confused -- about what they like, about what they are looking for.

I think people who like to buy wine appreciate help in finding wines to purchase because there is a lot of mysticism involved in wine and we can help clear that up a little bit as they are looking for a wine. I do all the wine purchasing and am here to help customers.  I have attempted to pass my wine knowledge on to key employees so that they too can help customers.

MWS: You carry a wide selection of wines – a Vernaccia from San Gimignano, several labels of Chateauneuf du Pape, White Burgundies including Meursault, Silver Oak, Owen Roe, Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, Poet’s Leap Riesling from Long Shadows, Beaux Frères… along with lesser-known wines. How do you decide which wines to offer?
Mike: For any number of reasons.  I am trying to get better at my logic for wine purchases.  

What I have to temper myself against is what does Mike Boss like, compared to what do I think our customers will purchase.  I have a couple of different sets of customers when it comes to wine purchases – some that are in that $30 -  $60 bottle range and they have a very broad palate, and then the majority of the customers fall in the $20 or less category that we have to market our wines to.

How do we end up with Beaux Frères, the Jaboulet, the selections of Chateauneuf du Pape? – I have got even more in the basement!  Some of that is due to my travels  -- the Chateauneuf du Pape purchases were a direct correlation between my being in Chateauneuf du Pape, and coming home, and falling in love with Chateauneuf du Pape.  So to a certain extent I buy based on my knowledge of what a good wine is, and certainly I try to taste as many wines as I can before I purchase. And I do get the ability to taste a lot.

When I am in the market for buying I will try 30- 50 different wines a month. I work with 5 – 6 different distributors.  I tell them what categories I am looking for – like what can you show me in California Cabernets from ‘07 that are priced less than $30, or Oregon Pinot Noirs in the $15 – 25 range.  

I learn about wines basically through three ways: word-of-mouth, or through reading, or through a recommendation from a distributor. I do a lot of reading – I am pretty religious about reading Wine Spectator magazine as well as their on-line version.  So when I hear about a good wine like Beaux Frères I will often seek it out through my distributor, if I can get it.  

There are lots and lots of good wines that I simply cannot purchase because a distributor does not carry it.

MWS: Not many people know that you carry the types of wines that you do here.  Why don’t you advertise that more?
Mike:  We don’t advertise. We don’t believe in it.  We concentrate on word-of-mouth, referrals, in-store marketing, our website, press releases, interviews – things that don’t require us to spend money with a newspaper.

MWS: Are there some wines that you carry consistently that your customers expect to find?
Mike: Certainly the Wollersheims – we do sell a lot of them.

I am out of stock currently but we have been very successful in selling one of my favorite Napa Valley Cabernets in the value category -- the Villa Mt Eden Grand Reserve – for my money it is every bit as good as a $30 – $40 Cab at $16. Year in and year out they keep producing a good Cabernet. So we have people seeking that out when we have it.

I do like to keep things fresh, so if you come in month-to-month you will see different wines.

MWS: How many different labels do you have at one time?
Mike: We are restricted by size and space, and so right now we have about 150 different labels with between 800 - 900 bottles.  

We do sell more reds than whites.  Are my customers necessarily red wine drinkers? Probably not, but those that like the reds buy more of them.

For example we have been doing our monthly wine-tastings for 84 months now and we get anywhere from 25 to 50 people, and many of them have been at all 84.  We will taste 10 – 12 wines, it will generally be no more than 3 – 4 whites, and the rest will be reds and that’s what they are looking for.  That’s kind of my barometer when it comes to purchasing.

MWS: How long does a bottle of wine typically sit on the shelf?
Mike: Hopefully not very long.  

With the Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage, if it takes me a year and a half to sell it, it’s ok – I will sell it. I will hand sell it to somebody.  I will introduce it to somebody. If I know that somebody is a fan of Southern Rhone wines, I will talk to them about it.  About 5 years ago a case of 1964 La Chapelle was sold for  $1.4 million – it was a 100-point wine and so I can get a customer into that for $130 a bottle – different vintage of course, but there is a mystique about that particular wine. It just takes one person to buy it.

The Sea Smoke is another example – it’s a slow seller but it’s a fun sale for me because it’s such a good wine, those people who buy it usually come back and buy more.

The next post will discuss Blue Spoon’s by-the-glass offerings and their wine tastings.