I don’t know how the time went so quickly. On May 14, 2007, First Vine got its first shipment of wine. Four pallets with seven wines from four producers in the Southern Rhône Valley. On that day, First Vine opened its virtual doors as the first internet-only alcohol business in D.C.
It took nearly two years of work before that to get us there. My husband Cy and I had been thinking about importing wine since 2002, when we visited friends who had a vineyard in Provence. We met Dare around the same time. Her family had been in the restaurant business years ago, and by 2005 she was thinking about starting a gourmet food store, something that didn’t exist in her neighborhood. So Dare and I thought we’d combine the two and open a specialty food and wine store.
We’d sell the wines we were importing, along with a wonderful, carefully-selected regime of foods that paired perfectly with the wines, plus a whimsical selection of other foods we just plain liked, like specialty baking ingredients. Oh, and maybe some cookbooks too. It makes me smile thinking how laughably naïve we were, believing the world would beat a path to our door. We’d shop at a place like that, after all, so why wouldn’t everyone else do the same?
Luckily, we had the self-awareness to realize we didn’t know anything, and little by little we learned that even if we were trust fund babies, the obstacles were many. The first was finding helpful professional advice:
1) A highly-recommended DC-area food business consultant paused after we made our pitch (less whimsical and far more detailed than I’ve described above). Then she said, “I have just one word. Don’t.” When we pressed her, she essentially said that unless we had enough money for psychiatric care and medications, she wouldn’t recommend anyone try a specialty food business. If we persisted, she’d help us, but wanted us to know it was a bad idea. Nothing personal, mind you. It would be a bad idea for anyone.
2) Another highly-recommended New York food business consultant said that she wasn’t exactly sure she could help us, but was willing to take us on as clients because she couldn’t think of anyone else to help us either.
3) A woman who had run a family grocery business and was referred to us through the Service Corps of Retired Executives was an absolute hoot – she told us that we’d better be prepared to change our diets to eat only the food we couldn’t sell. She joked that it wasn’t until her children went off to college that they learned that most people ate food that didn’t come from dented cans or produce without brown spots. When she got down to our thoughts, she basically told us she’d slash our business-plan expectations by 90% (without seeing them first).
4) A New York-based wine consultant started off helpfully, but pretty soon was asking me if I had the wine on hand yet, and when I said no asked by the way which vineyards was I going to import from?
So we decided to scrap the idea of a consultant and investigate things ourselves. I was beginning to figure out what we’d have to do to get the wines into the country and sell them. The federal part was easy. Our import license arrived within a month. The issue was getting a retail alcohol license in DC. We had to have the license in hand because it’s not possible to bring a shipment over as samples and try to solicit orders without it. (It is possible to get a one-time shipment for personal use, but we didn’t think we could persuade the DC government that we’d be drinking four pallets’ worth ourselves.)
Reading the DC alcohol laws was a revelation. I had thought that we’d have to sell the wines to a distributor as an importer and they’d sell them to us as a retailer. But in DC, retailers can be their own importers and skip the distributor, as long as the product isn’t already sold by a distributor in DC. I also discovered that nothing in the code specified that we’d have to have an actual retail storefront to get a retail license, we just had to abide by the zoning requirements and other details of licensing.
So we put plans for the food and wine store on hold to concentrate on wine. In January 2007 First Vine received DC’s first license for internet-only alcohol sales. When our shipment arrived and we started selling, we were the first wine store in DC that sold only wine we imported ourselves. We got the website up and running shortly afterward, then concentrated on getting more wines. We’ve been all over DC making deliveries since then, and know a lot about traffic patterns, shortcuts, and (decreasingly available) free parking, which means we can consider becoming cab drivers should that be necessary.
We’ve stuck to that model for five years now, so it seems like a good time to indulge in a bit of reflection.
We are lucky to have the world’s best friends and families, most of whom drink wine in fairly prodigious quantities. Although we don’t have a selection of wines from around the world, they’re loyal in buying and like what we sell. We couldn’t have done it without them, and I want to thank them all, sincerely, for their support. And also a big thank you to our customers who found us through the website, tastings, search engines, word-of-mouth, and pony express. You aren’t related to us and didn’t know us to start, so that makes you both adventurous and discerning.
Our customers’ loyalty has been especially kind considering the current economic situation, which has lasted longer than any of us would like. We first saw the impact with customers switching to less expensive wines, and then people buying less wine overall. While DC has felt the downturn somewhat less because of the steady influx of new, young residents with jobs, it’s sometimes hard for us to compete with local wine shops that can provide not only good value, but a pep talk for people unsure about their choices. So while we’ll still be showing up at your door with your order as usual, we’re thinking about the future and the next phases of the business.
First, we’re talking with distributors outside of DC to see about getting our wines out to a wider world. As importers we can sell to pretty much any U.S. distributor, so we’re looking at distribution in states that make the most sense for us to try. The first is Virginia – even though we can ship to individual customers there (more on this below) we can’t sell to restaurants, which would give us good exposure and business. The second is New York, because it’s the biggest wine market in the country and it’s not too far away. We think that somewhere in that big region there’s a place for us, as the song says.
We’re also looking at partnerships with more local businesses, whether for tastings or actual sales combos, as a way to get ourselves in front of new faces and palates. Every year or so we still revisit the idea of a shop – at least a wine shop. It would have to be the right location, and we’d have to find the right wines to supplement the First Vine selections (even with more than 80 wines, we can’t fill everyone’s wine needs all the time), but we keep our eyes open.
And of course, we welcome input from all of you – so please comment here, e-mail us (first dot vine at verizon dot net), or bend our ears when we deliver your wine (which will be soon, right, because you’re all running a bit low? 😉 )
Finally, since we’ve spent five years doing it, a few words about online wine sales. If you live in DC you can get wine shipped to you from any U.S. winery and any wine retailer in the U.S. willing to do it. But most states don’t allow retailers in other states to ship there. The biggest online wine retailers manage by having an affiliation with a retailer in each state, so even if the wine comes from a central shipping facility, it’s still an in-state delivery. Others, to be frank, ship illegally. If you’re buying wine online and the site has a disclaimer saying that you, the customer, take full legal responsibility for following the laws of your jurisdiction and that the site is simply shipping it on your behalf, there’s a good chance that it’s not legal for you to be getting the wine from that seller.
The odds of getting caught are slim, but we – and many other honest online wine retailers – aren’t willing to risk it. We hand-deliver in DC and ship to Virginia, Alaska, and California directly, following the laws of those states. We’ve got an arrangement with Vinoshipper to sell through their site to retail customers in Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wyoming. So we’re looking for ways to get exposure in those states, and reaching out to consumer groups in other states to see if there’s a chance to change the laws. In my more cynical moments, I think I’ll be very old before that happens, but you never know!
We had a little First Vine celebration recently and were treated to a couple of wonderful dips to accompany the five-year festivities, made by our neighbor, Jenn Barger. She’s a Features Editor at the Washington Post Express, and is our guide to making everything a bit more fabulous, as well as pointing us toward the future. She’s working on an article on dips, which means we can all expect to be seeing more dippable/spreadable food this summer. Everyone raved about these, and Jenn kindly shared the recipes.
The whitefish dip is from Passionfish restaurant, and it packs a lot of flavor. You can make it more or less horseradish-y, I like to start with less and add more. Smoked whitefish is available at Whole Foods, in case you haven’t seen it in your local supermarket. Here in the DC area you can also buy it at Parkway Deli in Silver Spring. Make sure to start with small pieces of fish, otherwise you’re going to end up with a much denser dip than you’d like by the time it gets broken down. The ricotta and sun-dried tomato dip is Jenn’s own creation. If you can’t find the sun-dried tomatoes with the herbs you can definitely use the plain ones in olive oil and add some oregano (3/4 teaspoon dried or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh) and basil (similar amounts), plus some salt and pepper.
We served two wines from Cave la Romaine that went well with these dips and other casual party food. The Tradition Blanc ($10) is a mixture of White Grenache, Bourboulenc, and Clairette, a typical Rhône Valley light white wine. Plenty of crispness to get through all that flavor, but also some floral and more tropical fruit in there too. Rouge Volupté ($12) is 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah, medium-bodied, and great with the smoked fish.
Here’s hoping you have a great summer, with lots of opportunities to enjoy food and wine with friends and family!
1 pound cream cheese, softened
8 oz. smoked whitefish, pulled or cut into small pieces
5 oz. can of water-packed Albacore Tuna, drained and the chunks shredded a bit with a fork
¼ to ½ cup prepared horseradish (start with less and add more if you’d like to)
¼ cup Cholula hot sauce (or other similar hot sauce)
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
Put the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor and whip until fluffy. Add the remaining ingredients to the cream cheese; whip or pulse gradually until smooth and incorporated. Be careful not to whip the mixture too fast or too much to ensure the proper texture.
Serve with pita chips or crackers.
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil and spices (like from the olive bar at the grocery store)
1 red onion, sliced, then caramelized in a skillet with a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar
After cooking and slightly cooling the onions, put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until incorporated and smooth-ish. For a smoother texture, chop the sun-dried tomatoes into a medium dice before pulsing.
Serve with pita chips or olive oil crackers.