In Washington on New Year’s Eve: wine meets wealth

December 30, 2011

For more than half a century, legendary local wine salesman Pepi Almodovar has presided over well-heeled Washington’s New Year’s Eves. A bespectacled oracle of oenophilia, he has plied wealthy Washingtonians with celebratory wines since John F. Kennedy occupied the Oval Office.

“Fifty-one years — every year the same,” Almodovar said this week while fidgeting with a display at Calvert Woodley Wine & Spirits in Northwest Washington. “Always a rat race, bumping wines.”

A parade of customers scampered between wooden wine crates and floor-to-ceiling bottle racks in the cramped Connecticut Avenue institution, long a destination in a city that has one of the highest per capita wine-consumption rates in the country. The store, which sells everything from cheap wine to the unfathomably priced, often crawls with Washington elites; Chief Justice John Roberts does his wine-shopping at Calvert Woodley — always with the Cuban-born Almodovar’s assistance.

With New Year’s Eve approaching, most of the customers dodging one another in the family-owned store’s aisles carted off champagnes or tiny-bubbled alternatives. One man picked up a bottle of $119 Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs. Someone else asked for a 2004 Cristal for nearly $200: 12 percent alcohol by volume for the 1 percent.

Spending a day with the 70-year-old Almodovar and the rest of the Calvert Woodley staff provides a window not only into the way the city celebrates, but also into its high-flying wealth.

Washington boasts some of the country’s richest neighborhoods and most affluent households, many of which thrived during the economic downturn. That recession-resistant prosperity has made Calvert Woodley the kind of place where $43.99 bottles of Veuve Cliquot’s signature “Yellow Label” champagne fly out the door (“even if they don’t know how to pronounce it!” Almodovar said) — and where one customer rejected a $799 bottle of 2005 Chateau Mouton Rothschild on Thursday because he preferred a much more expensive (but unavailable) 2005 Chateau Lafite.

Most of Calvert Woodley’s 52 employees take home less per week than the roughly $1,500 it would cost to buy a single bottle of 2005 Lafite.

But the rage-against-the-wealth ethos represented by the Occupy movement is missing from the store. There’s more awe than resentment about how the haves throw their money around here.

“This guy picked up like six cases, for $3,600,” marveled Dillon Williams, 51, a Jamaican immigrant who has worked at Calvert Woodley for three decades and now manages the store’s subterranean warehouse. “That’s a mortgage right there. It’s amazing.”

He loves recounting the buying habits of the big-walleted. “If you have it, there’s nothing wrong with spending it,” he said. “I’d do the same thing.”

“There’s big tickets, all day, every day — people spending $1,100 on one bottle,” Phillip Fogle said during a break from stocking the 5,000-square-foot store’s shelves. “That was unheard of to me, unbelievable. But it’s common. This place attracts people with money.”

Fogle, 43, joined the Calvert Woodley staff this year after working in the printing business. He moves boxes and bottles around the store and helps customers to the undersize parking lot, which is usually loaded with luxury cars.

He lives in Ward 8, where the unemployment rate is about 20 percent, and he’s surrounded by poverty. He’s black in a city where the income gap between blacks and whites is one of the widest in the country.

But the affluence on display around him at work? He’ll drink to that, Fogle said.

And it won’t be plonk: For New Year’s Eve, after working the 9-to-7 shift, Fogle said, he’s going home to listen to jazz and open a half-bottle of Ben Rye, a sweet wine that sells for $32.

“I have expensive tastes,” he said. “I just don’t have $1,100-a-bottle tastes. I can’t afford to.”

To be sure, the majority of Calvert Woodley’s customers have­n’t been making big-ticket buys, either.

Multiple bottles of Andre Cold Duck wound up in shopping carts Thursday (the bargain sparkler sells for $5.99), people were loading up on $9.99 bottles of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and bagels were outselling caviar ($69 an ounce) by a wide margin.

The store also is selling far more bottles of prosecco — the budget-friendly Italian sparkling wine — than Krug, Dom Perig­non and the other high-end, $125-and-up champagnes in the lead-up to New Year’s Eve.

Almodovar sells them all to customers who often tower over him, making the diminutive salesman appear like a half-bottle next to a 750.

“Can I help you, madame?” he says to a woman staring wide-eyed at an enormous wall of bubblies.

“Prosecco?” she asks.

“I got the Valdo, the Rebuli, the Voveti, the Adami — how you like your prosecco?” he inquires. “You like the dry? You like the sweet? How much you wanna spend? $15? $10?”

Sweetish, $10ish, she says — and the affable Almodovar points to a stack of orange boxes, each of them containing a bottle of Valdo Prosecco Brut.

“On sale for $9.99,” he says.

She takes three.

Calvert Woodley co-owner Ed Sands, who opened the store with Aaron Bernstein in 1982 — when they merged Calvert (Bernstein’s shop) and Woodley (Sands’s) — said this week that the recession “impeded our growth.” And more customers ask “for value wines.”

But business remains sound, he said, with “a little” year-over-year revenue growth. (He declined to release exact figures, but industry publication Shanken News Daily guessed about $20 million this year, a number Sands described as “conjecture.”)

“Without a question, we’re very fortunate, being in this area, which has been considerably insulated from what’s happening across the county,” he said.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the store’s busiest day of the year, there were so many customers at Calvert Woodley that each of the four cash registers rang up a sale roughly once every minute-and-a-half, said Sands’s son, Michael.

Calvert Woodley is one of several shops in the region that cater to fine-wine buyers; the Total Wine superstore chain in Northern Virginia is another.

Pepi Almodovar has worked at Calvert Woodley for a dozen years. But he got his start peddling booze in 1961 at Pearson’s Wine & Spirits in Glover Park. He had just moved to the United States and was living behind the store. He walked in and talked his way into a job.

This week, one of his Calvert Woodley colleagues mentioned having just sold three bottles of a red Bordeaux (the 1990 Chateau La Conseillante) for $298.97 each to a customer who was looking for gifts. Almodovar was asked whether he gave much thought to the relative value of what the store sells.

He shrugged.

“I think only of satisfying the customer,” he said before shuffling off to answer more customer questions about Washington’s New Year’s Eve wine list.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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