Fellowship is a winning sales tool for Wide World of Wines, a "wine boutique" opened last November on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Owner Sid Peters says tasting and toasting translate into good business: after sampling eight wines in an evening, students at his wine seminars often leave the shop's classroom with a bottle or two -- or even a case. Peters predicts first-year sales of $300,000 for his specialty store.
A national association executive and former college president who's been writing and lecturing on wine for 20 years, Peters based his new venture on exclusive contracts with six California vineyards, a small competent staff and low overhead. Not least, he adds, are the classes offered by Wide World of Wines which, along with gift packages and a wine-of-the-month club, promote wine as a hobby. That's where camaraderie figures as the most important sales tool.
On a recent Wednesday evening, two long tables were set for 22 in the basement of the store at 4801 Massachusetts Ave. -- a high-rent district but one where people can afford fine wine despite the recession.
Eight glasses were aligned in numbered positions on each placemat, with baskets of French bread and platters of cheese and pate interspersed with carafes of spring water. On the wall were maps of the French Burgundy and German Weinbaugebiete wine growing regions overseeing the session's offering: "Super Zinfandels."
"It's quite legitimate to describe a zinfandel as brambly," said wine writer Jo Hawkins, a frequent speaker at the weekly tastings. Mary Riebold, a mathematician who is a regular at Wide World of Wines, took notes as each wine was sampled, scoring them on her printed handout. After an evening like this, she often buys three or four bottles of a new-found favorite.
Riebold considers the class partly a social event. But for her friend Ann Bissell, it is serious business. She buys by the case.
Hawkins solicited opinions on the Louis Martini Special Selection 1977, which Wide World of Wines sells for $8.79. The color was not too cloudy, the "nose" was a bit out-of-sorts and the taste was tangy to harsh.
"It's weird," volunteered Bissell, an art consultant who's made a study of the grape. Indeed, other tasters agreed, it had a hot, baked taste. But could it just be that particular bottle? Store assistant manager Deborah Regnier uncorked another and, to the newcomers' amazement, this round tasted smoother.
Cheeks flushed and noses reddened as the tasters passed the eight bottles around to read the labels.
Dave Rickman, a submarine engineer from Sterling, Va., compares wines with friends and buys by the case. While he's found better prices and selection elsewhere, "it's fun to shop here," he said. "They'll special-order, deliver phone orders (of $15 minimum), always have a bottle or two open to taste, they're open Sundays and they accept credit cards."
Michael Lavenson, director of Wide World of Wines, is counting on the extra-curriculars to give the store an edge among the others in town selling good wines.
"We don't sell booze: you won't find any hard liquor on our shelves, so we have to develop other programs to make us interesting," he said.
Other shops -- like Harry's Liquor Store at Waterside Mall which has offered subscriptions to its Wine Academy for six years, with seminars beginning today at the Capitol Hill Club -- offer similar tastings and classes. But Lavenson claims his American Academy of Wine, which started last February at Wide World of Wines, offers the fullest enology curriculum anywhere on the East Coast.
The fall semester will average three or four classes a week, dealing with every major grape variety and wine growing region. Speakers will include vineyard owners and wine society leaders as well as wine writers. The students, Lavenson said, are "people who want to improve their skills for home entertaining and for ordering in restaurants."
It's a mixed crowd, but 65 percent are between the ages of 25 and 35 "and half are singles," Lavenson said. In addition, for a $100 membership fee the store's wine-of-the-month club offers 12 wines worth about $125, one free bottle, discounts on wine purchases and classes, literature and recipes to accompany specific wines. A promotional dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel is scheduled for Sept. 24.
Davenson, a former sommelier who opened the Carlton-Sheraton Hotel's wine bar in 1979, stresses wine "appreciation and fellowship" in the store's programs.
It all adds up to sales. "Most people walk out of the tastings with a couple of bottles," he said. On Saturdays, when complimentary tastings of three to five wines are held from 1 to 4 p.m., "we pick wines with exciting values and sell quite a few cases."
"People need to feel comfortable with wine," Lavenson said. The most expensive wine in the store is Chateau Y'd'Quem, vintage 1967, which goes for $86 a bottle. But no matter how much it costs, Lavenson acknowledged there's no accounting for taste: "Whether you like it or not is the bottom line."
How did the wine class like the $8.49 bottle of Raymond vineyards Napa Valley zinfandel, 1979? "Yummy," said Ann Bissell, "spicy with a certain crispness." Others added: "Not so much berriness." It was a hit.
As the evening progressed, the camaraderie was contagious, especially in light of the 15 percent alcohol kick some of the zins pack. As Rickman said, "Where else can you sit back, play snob and get blasted?" Emerging from the paneled tasting room, several participants took out their checkbooks and headed upstairs to the cash register.