Monday, February 23, 2009

At Elkton shop, 25 Md. wines and counting

Greg Birney said he was 7 when his family opened Cherry Hill Liquors in Elkton, Md. He learned all aspects of the business, from stocking shelves to sweeping the floors. And by the time he graduated high school and took over the shop in 2002, he had a pretty good idea of what he needed to set his store apart. Something unique. A niche product. And carrying Maryland wines turned out to be that element of his inventory that other stores didn't have; today he carries around 150 of them.

I had visited a lot of liquor stores in the area and really nothing to me set them apart,” he said by phone last week. “I'd find the same product sets at each liquor store. So my thinking was, 'What am I going to find, what am I going to do, what kind of services or products can I offer my customers to draw form a larger customer base? Because otherwise it was just going to be a neighborhood shop; not that there was anything wrong with that, but I wanted something more. And that's when I stumbled into [Maryland wines], in early 2003, that's when I started rolling with them. And at that point there were only 12 Maryland wineries, and it was easy. Now there are into the 20s that actually selling to retailers; I believe we're around 25, 26, and I just made contact with another one today [Bordeleau] that I'll probably be picking up later in the week.”

Birney's name came by way of Morris Zwick, owner of nearby Terrapin Station Winery. What prompted the call was a question about how difficult he found it to sell Zwick's wines in a box, a concept foreign to regional wineries but not so much any more nationally or internationally. The winter edition of Pennsyvania Wine & Spirits devoted a story to the subject. Writer Anne Taulane noted that in Pennsylvania over the past 52 weeks, sales of alternative wine boxes (three-liter, one-liter, and 500-milliliter wines) were up 35.9 percent. Zwick packages his product in 1 ½-liter boxes, the equivalent of two bottles of wine.

Boxed wines, Birney said, have kind of a negative connotation in the industry, especially on the retail side of things. “But Morris and Janet [Zwick] have really worked to put quality wines into their final product. One of his goals, and this is something I have to explain to consumers or potential customers of his [is that this] is one of his personal goals, one of their goals at the winery, is to have a lower carbon footprint. So they want to be as environmentally responsible as possible. To answer your question, it's one customer at a time, explaining that concept. Being the closest liquor store to their winery, it's been a lot easier doing that. I don't know how other stores have fared, say 10 or 20 miles from here, because they're not next door. But a lot of people have seen the winery, seen the grapes go in and wanna try it, and they're very curious, and generally speaking there are a lot of repeat customers on it.”

He charges $22 per box for the wines, explaining that it's in line with other wineries “when you break it down because you have two bottles in each box. When you break it down,” Birney said, “and explain to a consumer that, hey, there's a liter and a half of wine in there, that means it's comparable pricewise to $11 or $12 a bottle. And when you explain that, they're more agreeable to it.”

The two questions most often posed? Birney said one is why Terrapin Station has decided to package their wines in a box. And the second has to do with the names of the wines -- Vidal Blanc, Traminette, Cecil Red, Cecil White. It's a similar situation, though not quite as extreme, to the names that Anthony Vietri uses for his Va La Vineyards wines in Avon Grove, Pa. “They don't recognize Vidal Blanc; they recognize Chardonnay,” Birney said. “It's explaining to a customer what Vidal Blanc is, explaining how it tastes, that's kind of a secondary questions is what is this grape.”

It's that willingness to answer questions and sell the product that ranks Birney's liquor shop high on Zwick's list of favorites from among the more than 40 outlets that carry his product. For now, that's the only way you can buy Terrapin Station Wines, although Zwick said last week that they are planning to erect a tent by the winery for a couple of months this summer and, besides selling it, allow customers to taste some of them. While that happens, he said, he'll evaluate what shops his wines are going into now and how they're doing.

“We’re probably going to have to ruminate on the mix of stores that we have,” Zwick said. “Some do pretty well in terms of moving product and others don’t. It's just a matter if you’re a small winery producing local product, you’re generally going to be attracting people interested in wine to begin with beyond getting bulk 1 ½ liters bottles of wine from California or something. So some stores, they just don't push much premium wine and, of course, right now, in particular. And so when we're placed in a store where they're moving a lot of lower-priced, lower-value wines and beers, that's just not a successful place for us to be. So we'll keep evaluating our mix of stores.”