John Allen experienced a revelation 30 years ago while traveling the Northwest as a college admissions officer.
He and other recruiters were dining in Seattle when the wine steward recommended a white he’d served his mother on Thanksgiving.
“It was a French Meursault,” Allen recalled. “One sip and I was absolutely floored. It was so ethereal, so pretty. I thought, ‘What in the world is this?’
“I’d tasted plenty of wine, but never anything quite that impressive,” he said. “Since then, it’s been a continuous search to find other wines with that much fascination.”
Allen changed careers several times before embracing his true passion. That led to jobs at Lindaman’s restaurant, The Crescent’s gourmet shop, Grape & Grain and 4 Seasons Coffee. While at 4 Seasons, he cultivated a wine-of-the-month club that grew to 150 members.
In 1995, Allen and two friends pooled their resources and opened Vino! A Wine Shop, on West First Avenue. They eventually outgrew that site and moved to their current location, 222 S. Washington St.
Allen discussed the challenges and rewards of selling wine during a recent interview.
S-R: When you started out, did you have a mentor?
Allen: A fellow named Ralph Ewing was advising Lindaman’s, and he steered me toward good books and writers like Hugh Johnson and Gerald Asher, who put wine into readable language.
S-R: Were people skeptical about the prospects of a specialty wine shop?
Allen: Sure, because a number of others had come and gone. The margin on wine is so low. Grocery stores use it to draw in customers who will buy other items.
S-R: When did you realize you’d make it?
Allen: Around 2001, when our wine club passed 600 members and we had enough money to move into a bigger store.
S-R: What has worked well?
Allen: The wine club, and creating an environment where information is easily accessible. It’s really quite a learner’s wine shop, and a safe place to buy by the label, because everything on the shelf is a good version of its style.
S-R: Looking back, what’s been your biggest surprise?
Allen: How sophisticated the wine-buying public has become. Also, what an utterly fantastic place Washington is to make wine. There’s not a grape type we can’t grow. There’s no other place like it in the world.
S-R: When you opened for business, how many Spokane wineries were there?
Allen: Arbor Crest, Latah Creek and Worden’s. Now there are 18.
S-R: Has the proliferation of local wineries affected your business?
Allen: Yes, as well as the proliferation of their tasting rooms. There are so many more opportunities to experience wine in a glass – more wineries, wine bars, tasting rooms. Interest in wine is at an all-time high, and so is consumption. And we’re a player in that mix.
S-R: What distinguishes Vino from other wine outlets?
Allen: We taste everything we sell, unless it gets over $80 or $100 a bottle and they don’t offer us a taste. That, to me, is a guarantee to our customers. We also offer an extraordinary range of wines from around the planet at our tastings.
S-R: What does it cost to attend a tasting?
Allen: $5, $10 or $15, depending on what wines we’re pouring.
S-R: And you offer classes?
Allen: Several. One is called the professional tasting ($15), where we taste eight or 10 wines, one at a time, with a winery representative offering instruction. We also have what we call a small-plate event ($45), where a restaurant provides three appetizer-size plates and we pour two wines with each plate.
S-R: How much did the recession affect business?
Allen: In 2007, we had 1,000 members in the wine-of-the-month club, and a waiting list of 40 or 50 more. (Since club members can store wine at Vino, space is limited to 1,000.) It dropped to 825, but now we’re back up to 850 and moving in the right direction.
S-R: What percentage of your overall business does the club represent?
Allen: Almost a third.
S-R: How are changes in the state liquor laws likely to affect your business?
Allen: Costco and the new Total Wine superstore coming to town can buy in huge volumes and get huge discounts, so there will be greater competition. On the other hand, grocery stores have cut back on boutique wines to make room for high-end alcohol, and that’s made our store a more exciting place to shop.
S-R: Any favorite customer reactions?
Allen: When they try something they didn’t expect to like and are startled by how fascinating it is, that’s always a treat.
S-R: How much correlation is there between quality and price?
Allen: The expectation is that higher-priced wines should be exceptional. I remember the first time I tasted Dom Pérignon. A friend and I split the cost so we could have it New Year’s Eve. And I remember tasting it and thinking, “Where’s the $100?” I was expecting more impact. What I’ve learned since then is that Champagne, like any wine, is made in a wide range of styles – it can either be very rich and robust or very light and delicate. Dom Pérignon is way over in the delicate realm, and prized for that. So the correlation between price and quality is an esoteric question.
S-R: If you were stranded on a desert isle with only one bottle of wine, what would you choose?
Allen: (long pause) It would probably be a vintage Champagne. But on the other hand, if I were on an island, I’d want something I could sip and get a big blast. So maybe a 30- or 40-year-old tawny port.
S-R: What are some of your favorite inexpensive wines?
Allen: Bogle and J. Lohr both make very good petite sirahs right around $10 to $12.
S-R: What would you recommend that’s more pricey?
Allen: Beau Vigne, a Napa Valley cabernet that’s just gorgeous ($60). Another is a merlot from Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla ($50).
S-R: What do you like most about the business?
Allen: Discovering new wines, and watching some of our local wineries earn astonishingly high scores.
S-R: Any changes ahead?
Allen: We’re exploring the opportunity to sell wine by the glass with the Liquor Control Board. Currently we can only give customers eight 1-ounce tastes.
S-R: How much would it cost to launch a business like yours today?
Allen: Somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000, and enough money to operate several years until you break even.
S-R: How do you relax?
Allen: I really enjoy creating group dinners with good friends and fine wines.