1. Daniel, to start, tell West Ranch Beaconeers about how you envision Whole Foods becoming a “Destination For Wine”?
I started working for Whole Foods because I was a loyal customer first, in the beer department of all places. At the time, I was working for a competing wine and spirits retailer, which also sold beer, but I started shopping at Whole Foods because Matt (the beer buyer here) brought brews in that no one else could get, and offered the friendly, enthusiastic service to go with it. It’s no secret that our Whole Foods is definitely the destination in the SCV for beer because of this, and it’s my goal to make it the destination for wine here as well.
I think the standard wine experience in most grocery stores consists of customers passing through the wine department, as they do their shopping, and maybe picking up a bottle to go with dinner. It’s casual and there’s nothing wrong with that, but ideally, I’d like the experience at Whole Foods Valencia to be different. I want our customers to come get a fantastic bottle of wine, and then buy a dinner to go with it. I’m not interested in replicating the standard grocery store wine experience. We’re aware that our customers have choices, and especially in the current economic climate, they can spend their money anywhere.
The wine market in SCV is very competitive, and while we certainly are up to the challenge, our focus right now is more on participation than competition.
When I came to work here about three months ago, my goal was to give our customers an awesome selection of quality, competitively priced wine that they couldn’t find anywhere else in the area, coupled with a more comfortable and personalized level of service that is more common in smaller, boutique wine shops. In a way, that’s how I look at it—I get to run my own little wine shop that just happens to have the best market in the world attached to it! I think we’ve made amazing progress towards this end in just 90 days, but honestly, the best is still yet to come.
2. And what is your area, or training, of expertise?
I have worked for wine and spirits retailers of various sizes for years, but have had no formal training in the way of wine education. I basically came to wine from the world of spirits/cocktails, and it was a very happy accident that I ended up in this field.
I think that while I have learned, and continue to learn, so much since I started working with wine, I still approach it with the same enthusiasm and curiosity that I had when I started. I want to taste everything, smell everything, and absorb as much information as possible. This helps me a great deal when talking to our customers, because I still relate to it from their perspective.
I know how intimidating walking into a wine store can be, and I know how embarrassing it is to ask questions when you feel like the people working there know so much more than you do. My feeling is that wine is fun first, and that absolutely everyone can learn to appreciate it. I love talking to the more experienced customers that come in to my department, but my favorite thing is talking to casual or inexperienced customers. It’s thrilling for me to introduce someone to a bottle that I know they’ll love, and to have them come back and thank me for the recommendation. It’s probably the best part of my job! As far as my field of knowledge, it tends to skew toward things that I love, so probably California Rhone-style blends, Pinot Noir of any sort, and pretty much anything from Australia—though I try my best to be a great resource for our customers on all of our wines.
3. Give us a wine story, or memorable experience, of your own.
A big turning point for me where wine is concerned happened a few years back, when my wife purchased tickets to a giant Central Coast wine tasting in Los Angeles. It was one of those things where you sample dozens of wines, and after awhile it all starts to blend together, and your palate gets fried pretty quick. I had been drinking wine seriously for a couple of years, but had never really had one of those transcendental wine experiences that everyone else in the industry seemed to have had.
Well, about 3 hours in, we came across the booth for Villa Creek Cellars out of Paso Robles, who specialize in Southern Rhone and Spanish-style blends. All of their wines were pretty fantastic, but they had a Syrah/Mourvedre blend called Bete Noire, which just blew my mind. It was the first time I had tasted something with such an incredible depth of flavor that it buried every other wine that I had tried up until then. I felt like I finally understood something about wine that had eluded me until then; kind of one of those “a-ha!” moments. I have been searching for another bottle, fruitlessly, ever since then.
4. How soon will Eve’s Wine 101 readers find your events on the original SCV Wine Calendar on her blog?
Right now, we’re working on getting our tasting license, which will allow us to not only host standard wine tasting, but also invite winemakers in to host these tastings and participate in bottle signings. We already have a high amount of interest from our vendors in this area, so after the process is complete, Eve’s Wine 101 readers will be among the very first to know! In the meantime, we will be having monthly promotions and sales (like our 20% off any 6 bottles for the four days before Valentine’s Day) to keep bringing in new customers, and a growing selection of local wines (many exclusive to Whole Foods) that may not be readily available at other area retailers.
5. Finally, how do you set your wine selection for local tastes/trends?
One of the really awesome things about working for Whole Foods is that they allow me a tremendous amount of freedom as far as wine buying goes, which means I have the ability to really hone in on what the customers in our community want, rather than having an allocated inventory determined by a corporate office hundreds of miles away like some other retailers. In fact, some of our best-selling wines have been the direct result of customer requests! Whether it’s the Santa Barbara Cal-Italy red that no one else carries, or the Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley that they had with dinner the week before, our customers often have specific requests, and most of the time, I’m able to fill them—and when I occasionally can’t, I’m often able to find to something comparable that they like just as much. Locality, both in the specific and regional sense, is a crucial part of our core values at Whole Foods Market, and it’s something that I’m very passionate about on a personal level as well. As we continue to establish ourselves in the SCV wine community, locality—along with value and unbeatable quality—will be our primary emphasis.
Thanks for the great questions, and we hope to meet you all soon!