By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; E05
Peter Weygandt, a Philadelphia-based wine importer, was frustrated.
Despite raves for much of his portfolio from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and other influential magazines, Weygandt had trouble getting his wines to consumers. Consolidation among distributors limited competition and crowded portfolios in key markets, making it difficult for his selections to stand out. In the Washington area, which Weygandt coveted for its wine-savvy and affluent customer base, retailers were reluctant to allow his wines to compete against labels they already carry.
So Weygandt took the unusual step of establishing his own retail store. Weygandt Wines opened in late October in Cleveland Park, joining a parade of fine-wine stores up the length of Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle to the Maryland state line. His business partner is Todd Ross, familiar to many area consumers from his years working the floor at Mills Fine Wine and Spirits in Annapolis. Ross manages the store day to day, and Weygandt comes down from Pennsylvania most Saturdays, when work travel doesn't take him elsewhere.
What sets this store apart? Well, it sells only wines imported by Weygandt-Metzler, the firm Weygandt started 22 years ago. (Metzler is his wife's maiden name.) His portfolio includes nearly 450 wines from about 100 producers. The vast majority of those are French, with some from Italy and a smattering from Germany and Austria. Lone Australian and Californian bottlings have been spotted. Weygandt and Ross say they might carry a few wines from outside the portfolio, but they clearly don't want to.
It's rare for an importer to own a retail store. The most familiar example is Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, Calif., which sells Lynch's imports (also primarily from France and Italy). Such a store does not appeal to a wide consumer base; rather, it is keyed to a single palate's preferences. Weygandt and Ross are taking a huge risk because they are appealing to a niche market. They also risk alienating retail clients, not just in the Washington area but also elsewhere, as the store gives Weygandt a vehicle for shipping his wines directly to consumers across the country in areas where shipping is legal. (Maryland residents will need to buy theirs in person.)
Weygandt believes that's a risk worth taking.
"I don't feel like I'm competing with other stores, because they don't have my wines," Weygandt said. "If you want my wines, you know where to find them. If you don't want my wines, you're in the wrong place. But the other stores will still have the 'everything' selection."
In other words, don't come looking for Yellow Tail.
Walk into Weygandt Wines and the first thing you'll notice is a long tasting bar in the front of the store, where a few wines are always open for sampling. Large photographs of wine producers line the walls, conveying the message that these are families, not factories. You'll also notice that instead of resting on wine racks, the bottles are stacked in their cardboard boxes. Don't think in terms of lower overhead, however, because your next impression is likely to be sticker shock. These wines are expensive. Though a few bargains greet you near the door, the bulk of Weygandt's portfolio is in the $25-to-$80 range, with several soaring into triple digits.
And you'll have a chance to taste them. In the early weeks, at least, free samples have included some pricey Burgundies, including a Dugat-Py Pommard that retails for $90 and highly touted cuvees from Cécile Tremblay from $64 to $94.
Weygandt focuses on so-called "natural" wines; many of his producers practice organic or biodynamic viticulture. "I like producers who work the soil, forcing the roots down and cultivating low yields," Weygandt said.
That's all well and good; I applaud organic and biodynamic winemaking. Still, Weygandt's wines will not appeal to everyone. I've had decidedly mixed results with selections I've tried since the store opened, proving the importance of tasting before buying. When the wines being sampled cost nearly $90, that's easy advice to swallow.
McIntyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.