Joan Hates Online Poker
By Jeff Segal, Owner, Domestique
I got into a shouting match with my grandmother, Joan, at my younger brother’s high school graduation dinner about whether online poker was a career. It was the early 2000s, the Chris Moneymaker days, and a few friends of mine had dropped out of college to make lots of money playing cards in front of a computer screen. Joan was unrelenting. She bellowed about value creation, communities, the fabric of society. I was a young, dumb contrarian and probably yelled the phrase “internet economy.” We retreated to the bar to let the rest of the table eat in peace, she ordered two scotches, and we moved on.
I’ve been thinking about that argument from almost two decades ago. The places that we’ve always gone to escape daily life are shuttered, or transformed by plexiglass and tape on the floor. Small businesses that were built to support people and communities have become lean operations that take online orders and pack boxes.
Our days at the shop look very different now. We’re up earlier in the morning. Most of our time used to be spent talking to customers in our “library,” hosting tastings, enjoying the way that people navigate a wine shop when they don’t have time constraints. Now we spend most of our time pulling orders, boxing them up, and dispatching them for delivery (or putting them by the door for pickup). We do in-store shopping by appointment only, one person at a time, and the phone never stops ringing, but the balance of time has definitely shifted from the customer toward the logistical.
That’s what being a brick and mortar retailer means in the era of COVID. But it’s also why brick and mortar retail matters more now than ever. There’s a new wave of online-only natural wine shops that have cropped up over the past six months. You know them, they’re the ones you see in your Instagram ‘Explore’ tab with lots of portrait mode shots, all selling the same bottles of “low intervention” wine (h/t Guilhaume, above). They’re usually one-person operations run out of a warehouse but with a wholesome front end. They’re the online poker players of wine retail.
Buying wine at good retail shops is largely what made me fall in love with wine. There have been a few that really, truly impacted my life: Village Corner in Ann Arbor, Chambers Street in New York, and Bi-Rite in San Francisco. Wine retail is special because buying wine is so fucking intimidating for most people. The best shops immediately put you at ease. They have incredible employees, that’s rule number one. Often they're people whose true love is music or art or literature (or some random shit, like charting tides or collecting old tractor parts) and yet they ended up selling wine. They don’t rush you, they focus on the atmosphere and not the transaction, they show you that wine is a beverage and not an idol. Sometimes the shops are messy, sometimes they’re clean, but they exist and take up space and they’re real.
We are undoubtedly real. We rent thousands of square feet of high-ceilinged, light-filled real estate. We have 12 employees. We have a cellar full of rare wines that we don’t plan on selling anytime soon. We have hundreds of vinyl records and beautiful stools and posters from natural wine fairs. We have a dishwasher and a bathroom. We keep our wine in beautiful white oak shelves made from old barns and not inside a locker in a dank fulfillment warehouse.
We’re training the people who will be the (much improved) future of wine. We invest in our community, whether it’s Manny from down the block who cleans and builds pallets for us, or our monthly donations to SOME. We’ve created a purposeful space that’s meant to be evocative. It stands for more than wine. And so do we. It’s not just us, of course. Some version of this is true for all wine retailers that have a vision and care about their craft.
Joan was right. There’s a difference between a transaction, the movement of money, and a business that creates value outside of itself. And even if it’s more packing boxes and less hanging out these days, we’re more glad than ever to be a brick and mortar shop.