Three stores, three kinds of tastings

By Kimberly Dean
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Irecently decided to take the temperature, so to speak, of the wine biz around town. By calling a few stores to get a feel for the wine tastings in and around Denver, I uncovered some different views on how the tastings affect the business of selling wine.

The first call was to Daveco Liquors in Thornton, reputedly one of the largest wine and liquor stores in Colorado. They have a separate wine bar and cigar bar and boast almost 90 categories of wine from mead to vermouth, and 248 Colorado wines, according to their website. They call themselves the “largest liquor store in the world,” but I think that would be a bit difficult to confirm.

Sheila Carey, wine buyer for Argonaut.
Argonaut Wine & Liquor faces Colfax Ave.
Photo by Kimberly Dean/The Colorado Statesman

I spoke to Grant Barnard, Sommelier, and self-proclaimed “wine geek.” He said that Daveco has been holding their wine tastings since they opened in 2007. Barnard clarifies that they do carry a ton of Colorado wine and have about 8700 labels in total, many from California and the Northwest United States.

Their tastings, normally attended by repeat local customers, take place every Friday from 3 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m. They are free, but definitely worth the trouble. “Hands down, the more you taste, the more you buy,” Barnard said. Daveco offers different wine tastings every week, and if a distributor signs up to do the tasting, then you get all the tasting notes to help you decide what to buy.

When asked about the store’s involvement in the ‘politics of wine,’ he says the owners, though not personally involved, “watch it very, very carefully.” And why shouldn’t they? It seems to be a common thread that wine and liquor stores are happy with the status quo.

In California, you can purchase wine most anywhere. “It’s not Mom and Pop shops selling wine,” Barnard explained. He believes somewhere down the line the issue became somewhat of a wash and was made equitable across the board. If things change in Colorado, it “will depend a lot on how [the legislation] is written.”

The next call went to Adam Segura in the wine department at Total Beverage in Northglenn, who became an employee after attending some of their wine tastings. (That’s how I like to get my jobs, by “hanging around” the place: it means you really like what you do.) Total’s tastings are Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m. and are also free. It would seem that the stores that like to do this consider it a service.

The type of wine they serve depends on the season, sometimes with the goal of teaching customers to pair wine with their upcoming holiday meals. The store has been open over 10 years, and as far as Segura can remember, they’ve always had tastings.

“Tastings bring in people who want to try new wines. That’s how I got into wine.” He was introduced to it gently, not simply told what to drink and with which foods.

Because people trust the selection process for the wine tastings, Segura’s clientele will try anything. He says it helps sales because “regular folks come back every weekend, and attendance sometimes reaches 50-100 people roaming in and out. There are usually four samples (not always wine but beer or spirits as well), and he says most of his customers tend to favor the sweeter wines like Riesling, Gewurztraminer (German for spice wine), Muscat and Port, though the latter is not usually tasted. They don’t serve any food at these weekly events, so the palette is usually cleansed with water.

On a recent Friday morning, I popped into Argonaut Wine & Liquor to meet the popular Sheila Carey, wine expert and buyer with Argonaut since 1985. Though not a sommelier, Sheila has developed her palette over 25 years of experience at the store. In addition, she has accumulated her knowledge through buying trips and wholesalers.

Sheila is clearly a trusted expert in Denver, with a daily special wine offer sent via email to loyal customers. It is appropriately called the Grapevine, and according to Ron Vaughn, owner and head honcho at Argonaut, “Each day the special sells out by 11 a.m!” Sheila says she chooses the daily wine based on the best deal she can get for her customers. If a distributor happens to have come by that day with something really amazing and the cost is right, that’s what she’ll pick to go online. With over 6,300 wines to choose from, something has to narrow it down!

The Argonaut tastings occur every Friday and Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. on the balcony of the East Colfax store, and attendees are usually regular customers who are either in the store or hear about them through in-store announcements. Sheila says once you know the kinds of wine you like, it is easier to make selections based on the tasting notes for the wine. Tasting notes exist for all wines, whether you get them from a wine tasting event, or online.

Although there are good wines of every color, Sheila tends to prefer reds, which she drinks at home, such as a California Cabernet or Merlot.

Sheila’s husband, Tony Carey, is English and tends to favor Bordeaux, which is what she said she would buy on a special occasion (either 1982 or older). Apparently the 1990 Chateau Montrose is supposed to be spectacular at more $500 per bottle.

Tony is also on the Town of Frederick board of trustees and the liquor license committee. When asked about the controversy over wine being sold in grocery stores, Sheila said that obviously people want to protect their paychecks, but that she and her husband are rather indifferent. Neither one gets involved in that issue politically.

That subject is left to Argonaut’s owner Ron Vaughn, who has indeed testified at the Capitol in the fight to keep things as they are. Ultimately the idea of wine being sold in grocery stores was “pulled for lack of support,” according to Vaughn. This conversation has been going on for nearly three years, and he believes everyone is tired of hearing about it, but Vaughn says he will always resist such legislation. He said this state has a huge craft beer consumption as well as a Colorado wine following, and any new law allowing for the sale of wine in grocery stores is a “threat to this type of business,” especially since nearly every shopping center has a liquor store.

Argonaut hosts a monthly Wine Tasting at the Park Hill Golf Club, benefitting the Easter Seals of Colorado, and it includes food and wine from different regions. The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and admission is $30 in advance, or $35 at the door. You can usually expect appetizers and at least 150 wines available for tasting. Learn anything you ever wanted to know about wine at this event.

*Tip: Check to make sure of the time frame in which a wine is meant to be drunk. That’s just one way to make sure you don’t drink something that has already “gone off.”