September 01, 2006

Seattle wine shops

We drove up to Seattle last weekend for a quick visit with old friends. This was a family trip, no wine activities in the mix. But that didn’t stop me from poking around a few local shops to see what’s available.

Seattle wine geeks are the first to say that, while selection at the major retailers in town can be good, prices don’t come close to those of major retailers in California and other states. But from past visits, I remembered that I might find some things that aren’t available in Portland shops, and maybe a buck or two cheaper than this town.

So imagine my surprise in visiting top retailers like McCarthy and Schiering and Esquin, not to mention Pike and Western and DeLaurenti in touristy Pike’s Place Market. The selection wasn’t much better than Portland if at all, and oh the prices! With only a few exceptions, one notable (see below), prices were pretty much a buck or two higher than Portland, if not more.

The first thing I notice each time I visit Seattle’s a big city, bigger than I remember. It’s not a sibling to Portland, as we tend to think down here. It’s more like a parent. The skyline is bigtime, the streets crowded, and downtown on a warm summer day there’s the stale stench of urine mixing with fresh sea air. That’s old school big city stuff, something Portland can’t match.

At least the wine could be cheap and people friendly. Actually, most of the wine shop staffers I met were quite friendly, even at Esquin where they’re in the midst of a significant remodel.

Wish I could say the same for McCarthy and Schiering in the Ravenna neighborhood. I’d heard a little about this store’s attitude, but I always give a place the benefit of the doubt. The complaint here tends to be that the staff is a bunch of wine geeks who won’t give you the time of day unless you’re one of them. It’s a familiar thing I’ve seen over the years in surf shops, guitar stores, and now with wine. My friends, who live in the neighborhood, typcially don’t go to this shop for that reason.

But I want to check it out so we head over for a browse late on Saturday afternoon. There’s a nice selection from around the world, and prices are decent for this market. It’s a nice place. Then I notice the 2004 Chateau Trignon Gigondas, a new release from Kermit Lynch imports. The price? Would you believe $13 for a 750ml? Yeah, I haven’t seen this wine that cheap in a decade. Even Trignon’s Rasteau is more than that now. So I ask the clerk, after waiting for a minute, how they have it so cheap. He’s nonplussed, and says something dismissive about how some Gigondas cost that. I persist nicely. Hey, I’ve bought this producer for years, it’s never this cheap, it’s not big deal but maybe there’s a story about the special deal they cut. Who knows, maybe it’s the wrong price? I don’t know. But here I am about to buy something, and my friend has a couple bottles too. I think I’m familar with wine a little bit, maybe the staffer would be a little interested in communicating with a soul brother? Nope, nothing, just a blank stare that seemed to ask “are you done yet?”

Now I’ve worked in a busy wine shop on busy Saturday afternoons. But there’s no good excuse for being laconic, or brief to the point of rudeness. But that’s this shop’s reputation and, much as I tried to engage, it’s funny how quickly it surfaced. We bought our wines and upon leaving, my friend commented about how they were tasting wines down the counter but not exactly offering us any tastes. Maybe we should have spent more. My friend got it right, they just didn't seem like they were having any fun. One other bargin tip – they did have the delicious Brut-Comté from the Jura on close out for $10. That’s a steal in good, cheap bubbly.

Moving on, the Pike’s Place shops are predictably spendy but well stocked with interesting wines. There’s nothing I can’t get for the same in Portland (or less, no sales tax here). But for the Seattle equivalent to Fisherman’s Wharf, DeLaurenti and Pike and Western are impressive. Oh, and I saw the ’03 Trignon Gigondas at DeLaurenti. The price? $15 for a 375ml bottle.

On the way out of town on Sunday, we stopped by Esquin, probably the top retailer in town with a shop that reminds me of the Wine Club in California. I fully expected to find at least a few things I couldn’t live without, but I left without purchasing anything. Great selection of stuff, and good enough prices for the market with a few minor bargains, but that’s about it. I was most surprised that their newsletter specials were mostly mass-market things like Jacob’s Creek Shiraz. This is a serious store. Can’t they find bargains that are a little more adventurous?

Oh, and again here’s the Trignon Gigondas, vintages ’03 and ’01. The prices? About $22 and $25, respectively, about what I’d expect these days for 750ml bottle. Hmm.

In the end, Esquin was fine, but nothing like I’d hoped. Yet if McCarthy and Schiering still has that Trignon for $13, you should load up and tell them who sent you. Just don't expect them to enjoy it.


Marc D said...

I think you pretty much summed it up on the Seattle wine retail scene. I haven't been to the Ravenna shop, but the last time I was in McCarthy and Schiering on Queen Anne, they couldn't have been nicer. I had bought some wine to drink at a picnic and had forgotten a corkscrew. When I asked if they had a cheap one I could buy, the guy at the counter gave me one, gratis.

On Esquin, I usually stop in when I am picking up an order at Garagiste, which is just a block or so down the street. Esquin seems to have the best selection of Oregon Pinot Noir in town, but compared to Portland, well, you know. I have found the odd bottle of Giacosa and Allemand in Esquins when browsing in the past. The last time I was there I bought a bottle of 98 La Rioja Alta. It is usually worth stopping in. You are right about their newsletter, they are focused on the under $10 bargain market.

The folks at Pike and Western are extremely friendly and passionate wine geek types. The selection is limited, but they know what they have and are usually helpful.

Delaurentis is a great place to buy cheese. Nice Italian wine section, but no bargains.

Next time you are in Seattle, it might be worthwhile to stop in at Garagiste. It is 99.9% an email only retailer and the building is a storage and shipping warehouse, mainly. They do have a small (read tiny) but interesting retail shelf when you first walk in. I have seen Roumier Chambolle Musigny, old vintages of Ridge Monte Bello, some very good Mosel Riesling values, etc. You might even get to meet Rimmerman, who is quite a character.

Shelly Ridder said...

Thanks for the comment. I really expected a better (different, wider) selection from Portland, especially on imports. But there wasn't much different. I would have gone to Garagiste, but it was Sunday and I assumed they were closed. One stop with the family was enough...and the drive home was waiting. Next time though...I've heard about that walk in rack. And perhaps a further trip north, not to mention calling out some Seattle wine folks who I didn't even mention my visit to. Just not enough time for everything.

Tim said...

"The skyline is bigtime, the streets crowded, and downtown on a warm summer day there’s the stale stench of urine mixing with fresh sea air. That’s old school big city stuff, something Portland can’t match."

Pure poetry, Vincent. Walking to the market for lunch the next day I, too, experienced a urine blast. I was hoping you and the kids had been spared, but alas, you got the full-city effect.

Sorry we talked up Esquin only to have it dissapoint. If anything, I guess it shows how much a wine geek I'm not. Maybe coffee next next time? I can geek with the best of them there.

Oh, and the bubbly? We're celebrating as of right now! I might have to brave those M&S dorks one more Saturday and pick up another bottle of each.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

To be sure, Esquin is a great shop. I failed to mention the outstanding selection of older Bordeaux. I'd definitely shop there if I lived in Seattle. The prices are in part due to the messed up distribution and taxation system for hooch. What are you going to do.

As for the scent of Seattle, don't worry about it. Seattle reminds me of San Francisco in many ways, this being only one, endearingly in a way. Portland, when we returned, looked in comparison like a toy city. A great place, maybe what San Jose wishes it were. But there's definitely a younger sibling thing.

By the way, thanks for the great time. We ought to do it again, sooner than last time.