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Drink it in

There is much to do and see - and taste - as new wine merchants join the act in the bay area.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published September 21, 2005


Step right up, ladies and gentleman of the grape, and you there in the back too long afraid of the wine.

Come one, come all, into our glorious tent, where 10,000 wines are stacked to death-defying heights. Play on our merry-go-round of flying tastes. See our amazing wine tamers make the most pretentious roll over on their backs. All for the slimmest stack of Washingtons.

Whether such promises turn out to be ringmaster romance or carnival barker's spiel, a caravan of wine merchants has pitched bright new tents all across the Tampa Bay market in the past year.

Friendly service and under-$10 wines have been seen before, but the three newest ventures aim to reinvent the wine store, changing its look, its layout and its ease of access.

Each does it differently, creating a three-ring circus of revisionism for the millennial wine shopper. Total Wine & More, a mid-Atlantic chain of mega stores, opened its first Florida location in Tampa this month. In downtown St. Petersburg, entrepreneurs have just installed Tastings: A Wine Experience, a sleek lounge on First Avenue N where 120 wines can be tasted before buying.

And in little more than a year, a new chain called Cork & Olive has opened five of 20 planned wine stores around Tampa Bay, all brightly designed like an upscale shoe store with more walking space than wine shelves.

Total Wine & More

The center ring under the big top, at least for now, is Total Wine & More, which has taken over a Rooms To Go space in the big-box retail cluster at I-275 and Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Instead of bedroom suites, there are aisles and aisles of 10-foot high shelves loaded with a huge inventory - 8,000 wines, 2,000 spirits and another 1,000 labels of beer.

It's a daunting amount of stock, compared with 1,500 or more in the average shop, but the store is well-organized and the aisles are wide. Wines are arranged by nationality and grape (and often stocked twice), as well as by high ratings and bargains.

Confused? One aisle sorts them simply by style: Easy, Elegant or Bold Reds.

The pitch is lots of choices and low price, but in recent years years Total Wine management has come to stress service too, and now floods the floors with white-shirted salespeople.

Still, it's designed for grocery cart shopping and discount pricing.

Tastings: A Wine Experience

In one of the smaller rings, leather sofas, warm woods and private wine lockers give Tastings: A Wine Experience the air of an old-school club, but the idea and technology are high-tech Eurostyle imported from Italy.

The key is a dozen or so sleek chrome Enomax wine stations, cool glass boxes for whites and carousels that hold a dozen reds. Customers buy a computer-coded debit card and then wander among the stations. To try a wine, one inserts the card, presses a button over a wine and precisely one ounce is dispensed into the glass, and the cost deducted from the card ($17 for an ounce of Opus One; $1.80 for an ounce of Australian cab/merlot/shiraz).

Since all of the 120 bottles from cheapies to showoff purchases are for sale at standard retail, it is an affordable way to test an impulse.

If you wish to drink the bottle there, you pay retail plus a $10 corkage fee, but you can also buy many wines by the glass at the bar or flights of two-ounce pours of three wines. A few sandwiches and a dozen cheeses are available too.

Penny Maso, who discovered the machines in Italy, and investor Mike Newfield call Tastings "self-serve and self-learn." A card above each bottle describes the wine and its price per bottle; nearby notebooks give more description; and the staff is happy to talk about any choice.

Though wines are limited, the selection shows a smart range from Veuve Clicquot and Silver Oak to adventurous choices such as rich Lolonis petite sirah and a friendly French Bourgeuil.

Cork & Olive

In the ring on the other side, the number of wines is also dramatically reduced. But that's just part of the radical changes that Cork & Olive founder Michael Probst says will enable him to become the Starbucks of wine.

He has thrown out almost all traditional merchandising. "Who understands all those wine labels? I find it crazy. It intimidates me and I'm in the industry," he says.

Instead in his stores, there are only 250 or so wines, many of them inexpensive and rarely seen. They are arranged on airy shelves seemingly at random.

"If you mean organized by varietal or country, then we are somewhat disorganized," he says. Price offers a small clue, the bestselling wines at midrange prices are at eye and hand level, the more expensive are higher or lower.

Cork & Olive buys wine widely with an eye to little known brands, largely European and affordably priced, that it can sell with relative exclusivity.

In addition, Cork & Olive is decorated with barrels of bulk wine to sample by the glass, three casks of olive oil, and an open table where customers and salespeople can hang. The company also plans a direct marketing operation with in-home wine parties a la Tupperware.

The format may be risky and unconventional, but Probst thinks that's what wine retailing needs. And in little more than a year, he has set up five stores here, has three more rented and a plan for close to 200 in Florida. He now has a customer list of 14,000 who have tried the Cork & Olive approach.

The competition

Smart independent wine merchants say they're prepared for the newcomers. They expect customers to check out competitors, but to come back for personal service and comparable prices.

ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, Florida's 150-store mega-chain, is still in a growth mode, says president Charles Bailes, and not afraid. "Florida's the most competitive state already; we've had club stores for 10 years, It's hard to sell wine lower than that. But if price (competition) is where we're going there is no bottom and the consumer will benefit."

Some ABC stores have 5,000 wines, he said "Once you're over 1,000, what's enough?"

"We plan on being around at the end of the day."Some shopkeepers fret that retailing is following wine marketing down a yellow-lizard path of silly popular brands and will lose its genteel airs; others welcome any new wine drinker.

The impact is likely to be bigger behind the scenes. Big players new to the market can shake up distribution, drive hard bargains with distributors and upset existing relationships. Though their clout could be used to grab more allocations of rare wines, the biggest initial draws are well-known brands, which an aggressive company may sell as loss leaders, say Kendall-Jackson chardonnay at $7.97.

Ultimately, there's greater profit in the many wines around the world that never make the wine books or ratings and are not seen in supermarkets or small wine shops. They can be bought inexpensively and sold at profitable margins.

Where new formats may make the most inroads is at supermarkets that have competed strictly on convenience and price; the new rivals add service and a bit of lifestyle and status to price advantage.

Indeed, one of the fastest growing wine operations is Wine Warehouse, a Florida chain of independents that offer discount prices with small shop service and tastings. Most locations take pride in pure warehouse look and eschew shelving. They are jammed with stacks of wine in cardboard boxes and wooden crates - and crowds of eager shoppers and wine tasters on weekends.

Wine Warehouse, which opened two years ago, has already outgrown its first location in St. Petersburg. When it moved from its out-of-the-way spot this month to Fourth Street N prominence, three other wine ventures bid for its old location.

With so much wine and so many wine drinkers, there is room for more under the big top: Everyone loves a circus.

- Chris Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

A new generation of wine sellers

- Total Wine & More, 1720 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 813 350-9601; www.wineaccess.com/splash/totalwine/

- Tastings: A Wine Experience, 149 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg, 727 894-2255; www.awineexperience.com

- Cork & Olive, Northwoods Plaza, 2534 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater, 727 791-8343; and locations in St. Petersburg, Valrico, Largo and Wesley Chapel. Locations to open in Hillsborough and Polk counties; www.corkandolive.com

- Wine Warehouse, 3438 East Lake Road, Palm Harbor, 727 787-4990; and locations in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Palmetto, Sarasota and around Florida; www.winewarehouses.com

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 10:37:05]


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