Over the 12 years that we have owned our little shop here in Coeur d’Alene, we have gotten to know many wonderful people. Customers, friends and colleagues all come from diverse backgrounds with varied interests, including many that are artistic in many realms, from painting and sculpture to music. It all makes for fun conversation and stimulates us to do better at our own pursuits. There is, after all, an artistic element to wine, and you only have to look at Mary’s table displays to see the artistic connection there.
A series of conversations with one of our distributor salespeople really seemed to connect to what we know of the wine business, both on the retail side where we dwell and on the producer side, in what we hear from winemakers and growers. This particular wine professional, who we have gotten to know well and is one of the best we have to deal with, is an accomplished musician — a drummer in fact. He plays with one of the more prominent country rock “cover” bands that travels around the Northwest, from Central Washington to Montana.
In a recent series of conversations, he related to me that his real musical dream was to play with a small jazz ensemble. I was shocked! We had talked over a number of months about many of the great rock and country drummers; he would frequently tell me that most just didn’t seem that technically strong on the drums. This is where jazz comes into it for him. He genuinely feels that the great jazz drummers are the true artists. That style of music takes more artistry and creativity than the strongly rhythm-driven drumming of rock and country-rock. I respect his opinion on this and hope someday he gets to fulfill his dream of playing with a jazz group. He finished a recent conversation with saying that a paying gig is still a paying gig, and he will continue to play rock.
This is the dilemma that faces many wine professionals too. I have talked to countless winemakers who have a varietal or style of wine they love to make. Their reality, many times though, is dictated by needing to produce a wine that is not as stimulating or challenging or rewarding as their favorite but is the paying “gig,” or the thing they have to do in order to pay for what they want to do.
This dilemma actually transcends all aspects of the wine business to a greater or lesser degree. Brother-in-law, John Lancaster, owner and winemaker at Skylark, for instance, produces a Chardonnay that is quick from harvest to release and sells like crazy. John really doesn’t like Chardonnay all that much, but it is a great seller for him and allows him to produce wines like his Las Aves, which is a Priorat inspired red blend and his vineyard-designated Syrahs, which are his passion.
As far as distributors go, we know several large ones that sell everything from bulk wine producers (names that we would never consider drinking) to Red Bull, which allows them to have the cool, small production wineries they are passionate about. They call these products “the ones that keep the trucks moving.”
Even at the retail and restaurant level, we have wines we carry because the demand is built in. Customers come through the door and say they want “this wine.” Is it a wine with a compelling story that we love to tell and wine in the bottle we personally love to drink? Not often. But they do have an already built following that ultimately allows us to have more we can carry with that great story and delicious, complex and amazing wine.
We suspect that most every industry has similar tugs-of-war over what is “fun” and stimulating versus what is necessary. For wine consumers, there is likely a discussion that goes on between what is practical to buy versus wines that really get us excited. The trick for all of us is to find that balance, so next time you go looking for a bottle to take home on any given evening, try tracking down one of the lesser-known varietals from one of your favorite wineries. Then go home and listen to one of the great legendary jazz drummers. It could be an epiphany on many fronts.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.