Going the Extra Mile for Wine

This may mean leaving the neighborhood. And possibly (gasp!) riding a ferry.

We Seattleites stay pretty true to our comfort zones. We consider West Seattle "far," and we've encouraged the sprouting of farmers markets in every little neighborhood so we can buy local and organic without driving too far. When I sold wine in Pike Place Market, I tried everything to combat locals' mindset that market parking, crowds, and the weight of wine bottles made the trip impossible. The "extra trip" is the bane of the specialty store's existence. Stephen McClure, the owner of Vashon Wine Shop, has a solution to the problem of bringing customers through the door for more than the occasional bottle. He takes his commitment to being his customers' personal sommelier two steps further—with a heavy schedule of wine-tasting events and a custom delivery service. McClure, a veteran of the Seattle restaurant business, opened Vashon Wine Shop three years ago, signing the lease days after he decided to relocate to the rock. It was good timing, since the trusted wine buyer at the local Thriftway had just left and the island had no freestanding wine store. Like every wine shop, McClure now offers a free weekly tasting, in his case Saturday afternoons from 3 to 6 p.m. In addition to that obligatory service, he offers Summer Socials every Thursday at 5 p.m. Geared toward patrons who have so much going on during the weekends that they can't make it to his normal events, these tastings include freshly prepared local foods from frequent One Pot collaborator Morgan Brownlow, all for a nominal fee. Raising the stakes even further, on the first Friday of every month McClure holds a tasting for the store's wine club. Taking place during the island's monthly art walk, he invites the customers who order monthly sampler cases from him to try the wines they'll be receiving, learning more about their dozen straight from the merchant. The real innovation, however, is the Vashon Wine Shop's "VinoRover" delivery service, which serves all points island and mainland. McClure started VinoRover to keep in touch with friends and customers in Seattle when he made the move to Vashon. In the beginning, he simply delivered cases of wine to people in Seattle who had come to depend on his wine picks. Those deliveries helped keep the new business afloat, and have grown into a subscription service. For a monthly fee that ranges from $150 to just over $300, McClure delivers a case of wine that includes anything from values of the moment to his current crushes—all chosen with the recipient in mind. "My primary focus continues to be retail on Vashon because I enjoy the social aspect and love the community here," he says. But VinoRover carries a little community with it. As McClure delivers boxes to his customers' front doors, he talks with them about the wines and encourages people to e-mail him with comments about his selections. The e-mails help him learn what wines excite customers the most, which he uses to further tool future boxes. "If someone likes a certain wine that I know is coming in, I'll include a bottle and then average out [the price of it in] the rest of the case," he says. In fact, most of the monthly deliveries are now tailored to specific tastes, which can be a daunting task. "It's difficult finding 12 different Rhone blends month to month, or putting together a half-case of new off-dry whites. Sometimes a customer requests a second bottle of something I gave him three months ago. The name eventually comes to me." He does not keep detailed records—all the information is in his head. I always wonder whether merchants like McClure are ever truly appreciated. Do people really know how much effort and attention he paid their 12 bottles? I hope so. Perhaps the proof is in the word-of-mouth growth that the Vashon Wine Shop and VinoRover are still seeing. "I've been here three years and I still meet people for the first time," he says. "That's exciting." A corporation would call McClure's business model "diversifying revenue streams." But to him it's just an extension of service and a willingness to go the extra mile. mdutton@seattleweekly.com

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