It is said that there are two sides to every coin.
In the world of fine wine, while the restaurant segment seems to more often engage the imagination with glamorous imagery that continuously draws the attention of the press, wine shops, with their row-upon-row of multi-colored bottles adorned with both classic and exotic labels, afford the consumer a kind of vinous-art experience – a visual and tactile showcase both compelling and unique. This takes its highest form with the independent wine cellar.
One such operation – California-based K & L Wine Merchants – is a tireless proponent of the vine. Clyde Beffa, partner-owner along with his co-founder Todd Zucker, has for close to four decades embodied the passion, focus and commitment to quality that defines the modern, fine-wine merchant. We recently spoke about his experience in the industry.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: Many wine lovers experience an epiphany at one point in their wine evolution. Can you tell us what first drew you to wine?
Clyde Beffa: Playboy Magazine February 1971 issue-William Masse article, ”Stocking the Urban Wine Cellar-a guide to the pleasures of the grape. ” Read this on my honeymoon – started collecting the next week.
STTG: How did you get your start in the industry?
CB: I was semi-retired from the dairy business in 1975 (30 years old). My friend Todd Zucker was a partner in Parkside Liquors in SF and the company split up. He asked if I was interested in the wine part, he would buy the liquor. We started K&L Liquors in 1976 – the same year Oracle, Microsoft, and Apple started.
STTG: K & L Wine Merchants is today one of the most significant retail wine groups not only in California but also in the United States. In your opinion, what are the defining components of the company’s success?
CB: Finding our niche after the Price Clubs and Liquor Barns opened in 1982-1983. Finding our own private labels – Kalinda, et al, travelling to Europe, etc., finding the best wines to bring in directly, starting some of the first wine clubs, early into the internet craze, doing auctions.
STTG: When you first entered the retail wine business the landscape was very different. How have e-commerce wine channels and the Internet in general changed the way the industry operates?
CB: Everything happens quickly these days – our mailed newsletter was the heart of the business for 30 years. Now e-mail blasts sell wine so fast the newsletter becomes out of date quickly. Print ads worked back then.
STTG: Your model has revolved around assuring that your buyers be highly trained and specialized in specific regions. How have you accomplished this and how different is this from your competitors’ models?
CB: We have eleven buyers who specialize in finding the best wines from their specific regions – they travel to their regions, meet brokers and producers and bring back the best value wines they can find. To be a buyer at K&L puts them high on the Org Board – just above the owners 🙂 …to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!