As regular readers know, Terroirist regularly poses 15 questions to a wine shop owner. This week, we’re featuring David and Monica Stevens, the owners of 750 WINES in St. Helena, California.
I visited 750 WINES during a trip to Northern California at the beginning of December. The store is hidden just off the main drag in downtown St. Helena; you’d be forgiven if you walked right by it. When I entered, I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret New York-style speakeasy. The unassuming, unmarked nature of their space is by design; David and Monica work primarily on an appointment basis.
The shop is incredibly hip and reflects its owners’ sense of style. David plays in a band with several other folks in the wine industry, and Monica seems to know everyone in the Napa Valley. Original artwork hangs from the walls, and the furnishings are spare and minimalist: three or four bookcases stocked with wine bottles, a desk in one corner and a piano in another, and a tasting table prominently featured in the center of the room. Monica and David aptly describe the space as “like a loft in Tribeca.”
Because David and Monica work on an appointments basis with their clients, their service has a personal touch that distinguishes them from other retailers. Wine-lovers don’t stop at 750 on the way home from work for a bottle — they call David and Monica to source a cult Napa Cab they can’t get anywhere else or to put together a case for an important dinner. 750 also prides itself on introducing its customers to new wines and winemakers — to keep its clients ahead of the wine curve.
David and Monica poured several wines for us to taste during our visit — and chatted with us about the latest developments in the Napa and Sonoma wine scene. Our full interview with them is below the fold.
How did you end up owning a wine shop?
As Wine Director at Tra Vigne Restaurant in St. Helena for seven years, David was afforded the opportunity to establish relationships with a “Who’s Who” of Napa Valley winemakers and vintners. At the same time, as director of retail sales for Tra Vigne’s Cantinetta, he realized his passion for introducing the consumer to the gems of Napa and Sonoma.
What makes your store unique?
Two major standouts! First, our offerings of well-made, small-production wines from primarily Napa and Sonoma that deliver great quality and price. We are not here to misrepresent or sell our clients short in any way.
Second, 750 WINES has taken wine retail and client servicing to a new level. Our custom private tasting (or private shopping!) appointments coupled with the complimentary concierge arrangements available to all our clients have set 750 WINES apart.
What are the biggest challenges in owning a wine shop?
Not being able to bring in all of our friends’ wines!
How do you stay up to date on wine news and trends?
Through incredible friends and colleagues here in the industry and from being out and about in the “underworld” of Napa Valley — a.k.a., networking! We also follow interesting wine folks on Twitter.
What wine regions or varietals are you most excited about right now?
Pritchard Hill and Coombsville in the Napa Valley, and the Petaluma Gap and Green Valley in Sonoma County. Pritchard Hill has exploded in the past 10 years. New vineyards and new brands are popping up all the time. Coombsville has been one of the best-kept secrets in the Napa Valley for years. Great wines such as Merus, Kobalt, and Caldwell put this area on the map. Coombsville received its AVA approval on December 14, and certainly Pritchard Hill can’t be far behind!
The Petaluma Gap is located between the towns of Sonoma and Petaluma, about 20-30 minutes from the coast. The Green Valley actually shares three different designations: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Green Valley.
As for varietals, we’re most excited about Rhone varietals and blends, trousseau gris, ribolla gala, tocai friulano, cabernet franc, and merlot.
Where do you look for new wines — and how do you decide which ones to sell?
For Napa Valley wines, we have the good fortune of being located at the epicenter! Our friends in the business keep us up to date on their new wines and new releases through tastings we have with them here at the shop. We venture out to Sonoma as often as we can to meet with producers and winemakers about the best that Sonoma County is offering.
Tell us about some of the best perks you’ve taken advantage of as a retailer when traveling to wine regions.
There is no question that the very best perk when traveling to wine regions is access. Many small producers do not see guests except for trade. When traveling outside the Napa Valley, we are fortunate to be welcomed into the inner sanctum of some new, artisanal wineries, some of which normally do not even sell to retail. We are often allowed allocations of these wines as long as we don’t “advertise” that fact by putting them on the web site.
Do you stock old and/or rare wines? Which currently stocked bottle excites you the most?
We do not. We are known for our current release offerings.
Are you a collector? Tell us about the wines you bring home.
We are not collectors in the traditional sense of the word. We have a cellar but almost all of the wines we have are meant for consumption within the next few years. We have a few Italian and French wines that need a bit more bottle age.
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?
When I opened my first wine shop, I did not squirrel away any of the hard-to-get, high-end wines, as I believed that it was more important to get these wines to good clients than to drink them myself. Now we keep a box labeled “HSH” (Home Sweet Home) in which we stash a bottle or two of a wine that we know we will wish we had if we end up selling them all.
The problem with this box is that we don’t take it home with us often enough. When someone asks if we have any “NAME THAT WINE,” we will most likely pull our last bottle and sell it to them.
We have no shortage of great wines available to us at any time, so there isn’t really a wine on the planet that we would lose sleep over letting go.
What was the last wine you opened for a special occasion?
Dal Forno, Valpolicella Superiore 2004.
How can a customer signal that he or she is knowledgeable about wine, so you steer them to something a wine geek would appreciate?
This is simple and happens frequently. They usually simply say so. We hear it all the time. “What do you have that will blow away my wine geek friends that you are certain they don’t know about?” There are always new, great wines being released, so this is one of the things we enjoy most.
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?
We do see people that are new to wine and can be intimidated by wine lists filled with wines they don’t recognize and varieties they have never seen before. Many of these people are also not prepared to pay Napa Valley Cabernet prices. We will not necessarily steer them toward unusual or interesting wines immediately. We’ll stay in their comfort zone with Cab, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Over time, based on their feedback, we’ll recommend some other interesting wines that seem to fit their preferences. Our private tastings certainly help the novices with their wine comfort zone.
Any tips for finding a good bargain?
As you can imagine, there are not a lot of bargains in the world of small-production Napa and Sonoma wines. That said, bringing in a new wine from a “new” winemaker (who is the assistant to one of the established cult winemakers) often makes for a good price/quality ratio.
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?
We do not advertise scores as a general rule. We believe that our clients look to us for guidance and wisdom in relating their palate to a particular wine.
Do you have any special events — like weekly tastings, winemaker dinners, or classes? How much do they benefit your business?
We have the great fortune of having a terrific retail space — urbane and off the beaten path. It feels much like a loft in Tribeca. Our friends and colleagues therefore often wish to host their private Premier Napa Valley events, release parties, or media tastings at our space. We also host a few terrific events annually that are open to the public. Our 2012 calendar is getting full! There is great potential for this space, and we continue to tap into that.