Every other week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a wine shop owner. This week, we’re featuring TJ Douglas, owner of The Urban Grape.
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts is home to the wine shop run by TJ and his wife — and it sounds more like the destination for a squirrel than an oenophile. Yet the husband and wife team are hoping wine lovers flock to their open, welcoming store in the Boston suburb.
Located six miles west of Beantown, the village of Chestnut Hill is known for being the home of Boston College and part of the Boston Marathon. And while the affluent neighborhood may not be regarded for its wine society, The Urban Grape is hoping to change that by showing people the unintimidating side of the wine.
So unite and discover this gem of a store Bostonians! Just don’t confuse the wine with the tea. Check out our interview below the fold…
How did you end up owning a wine shop?
It’s been a dream of mine to own my own business for many years. I saw something lacking in the world of wine retail and wanted to bring restaurant-style hospitality to the industry. For me, this was about following my dreams and putting the perfect bottle of wine in the hands of every customer.
What makes your store unique?
We are the only store in the country to feature what we have termed “Progressive Shelving.” This means that all the bottles in The Urban Grape are classified by the body of the wine, not the varietal or region. We use a 1-10 weighting system that is unique to The Urban Grape.
Additionally, our concierge-based hospitality includes tracking all of our customers’ purchases, operating free tasting machines, and maintaining a robust social media presence that interacts with our customers daily. Plus, we’re a husband and wife team, which means you get two of us for the price of one.
What are the biggest challenges in owning a wine shop?
Not drinking your profits! That, and balancing back office business work with the excitement of working the sales floor.
How do you stay up to date on wine news and trends?
I’ve handpicked each and every sales rep that I work with. They know what I’m looking for and work hard to bring me the hidden gems and newest trends. They also bring the winemakers right to me, which means I stay up to date with the trends right from the source.
What wine regions or varietals are you most excited about right now?
I’m headed to Washington State in September for a week of vineyard tours and wine crushing. That’s got me really excited about Washington wines, most of which are perfect for our customers’ palates. For varietals, I like the comeback that Chardonnay is making. It’s an interesting and worthy story. And Syrah and Nebbiolo will always be favorites of mine.
Where do you look for new wines – and how do you decide which ones to sell?
Like I said earlier, The Urban Grape has the best sales reps in the state. They bring me wines that other stores often don’t see because they know we will hand sell them to an educated clientele. We change our inventory daily, always with an eye toward balancing the Urban Grape weight system and our price points.
Tell us about some of the best perks you’ve taken advantage of as a retailer when traveling to wine regions.
We’ve only been open a year, and so far haven’t had too much time to take advantage of the perks! But in general, the best aspect is the “back-stage pass” to wineries that allows us to have a true understanding of a wine and its place. Our best experience has had nothing to do with wine, but rather whiskey. The owners of Slane Castle Irish Whiskey recently brought my wife and me over to Ireland for the Kings of Leon concert at Slane Castle. We had full VIP access, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
Do you stock old and/or rare wines? Which currently stocked bottle excites you the most?
Yes. We have a temperature and humidity controlled section of our store for our high-end collectors to shop. We also keep additional bottles off-site in a wine cellar for the very serious collector. I am currently obsessing over the 2008 Sine Qua Non B-20. Thankfully, I moved it out of the store to the off-site cellar just before the store’s storage basement had some flooding during the recent hurricane!
Are you a collector? Tell us about the wines you bring home.
Yes, I am a collector. Any truly invested wine retailer is! I like to bring home wines that I can enjoy with my two sons when they get older. When I’m on wine trips, I also bring home special bottles that you can’t find in Massachusetts, or in the states. They don’t have to be expensive to be a collector’s item. They just have to mean something to you.
What’s the wine that got away? In other words, has anything ever passed through your store that you wish you had held onto for yourself?
I don’t let wine get away. If something special comes into the store, I always keep a bottle or two for myself.
What was the last wine you opened for a special occasion?
It was the 2004 Fattoria Poggio di Sotto “Riserva” Brunello di Montalcino and we opened it on my son’s fifth birthday. He had milk.
How can a customer signal that he or she is knowledgeable about wine, so you steer them to something a wine geek would appreciate?
We ask every new customer, “What do you usually drink?” That gives us enough of a starting point to have a general sense of their wine knowledge without intimidating them. We also ask, “What are you going to eat with this wine?” Foodies are often interested in geekier wine, as a more complex dish begs for a more complex wine.
If a customer presents him or herself as not knowing that much about wine, do you steer them to interesting and unusual or recognizable? Why?
Always, we will steer them to a more unique wine. It gives them a sense of adventure about wine that we hope will stay with them on their entire wine journey. Also, if they try something unique and like it, it builds their trust in The Urban Grape, and a new wine relationship is born.
Any tips for finding a good bargain?
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, than a bargain is in the wallet of the buyer! My best advice is to always work with a trusted wine retailer. If we think a wine is over-rated and over-priced, we won’t carry it and work hard to find a better wine at a better price for our customers.
Do you advertise scores from publications like Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, or Wine Enthusiast when bottles you stock do well? What’s your take on the current push back against scores?
If a wine has received an exceptional score, we will post it next to the price on the back of the bottle… in about 10 point font! We do not do shelf talkers or have a special section for high scoring wines. The Urban Grape is based on the belief that if a wine tastes good to you, then it’s a good wine. That said, wine scores can be helpful as long as you know that the reviewer’s palate is calibrated to your own palate. But just because someone else thinks it’s a 95 point wine, doesn’t mean you will like it.
Do you have any special events – like weekly tastings, winemaker dinners, or classes? How much do they benefit your business?
Do we ever! We are all about getting wine into the hands of our customers. We have free tastings every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We always have 16 bottles of wine open in our Enomatic tasting machines that our customers can try for free. We have winemakers into the store to pour their wines, and work with local restaurants on winemaker dinners. We hold educational seminars at the store on Sunday nights and give classes off-site whenever we can. We’re preaching a wine revolution in Boston, and people are listening!