"This is probably the best time in history for a wine drinker to be alive," Richard Kinssies says, adding, "There are so many wonderful wines being produced almost everywhere in the world."
He should know: Kinssies has been a trend-spotter and major player in the Washington wine industry since the 1970s, as the wine buyer for a major grocery store chain and then as a consultant, teacher (at Seattle Wine School, which he founded, and elsewhere), and wine columnist.
Although he still holds on to his other wine-related pursuits, since last March he has become a price-slashing retailer at Wine Outlet, a bare-bones warehouse in Seattle's SoDo.
His new mission is simple but unusual: He negotiates directly with distributors and wineries to bring to consumers high-quality wines that have been discounted for various reasons―the label might be changing, or the producer is going from cork to screw cap, or there's a surplus because a grocery store bought only part of the inventory it had originally committed to. That translates to substantial savings for consumers.
But we're not talking Two Buck Chuck. Kinssies tastes everything he buys and only sells the wines he loves―bargain wines as well as collectibles (which occupy about a third of the store's shelf space). And there are always a few bargain bottles open for customers to taste.
The thrill of the hunt
Part of the fun and excitement of retailing this way is that his inventory is always changing. "I find wines as they become available from wholesalers, wineries, and importers, and I have to take advantage immediately," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to get in, and neither do my customers. I may have no Merlots on a particular day, and the next, I may have half a dozen, and none again for six months."
He tries to balance his stock with the seasons―lighter wines and rosés in spring and summer, sparkling wines and reds around the holidays. However, within that context, he takes what he can get. "I'm an opportunist," he says.
"If I like the wine, I generally take everything the distributor has." Sometimes that's 20 cases, sometimes it's 100.
This approach to wine sales is unusual in itself, but even more noteworthy is the way he embraces wines other sellers won't touch. He points to a bottle of Sibyl Riesling as an example. "This wine wasn't selling for the distributor. The bottle's weird; it's a dry wine made by an American in Germany. I tasted it, and it was fabulous. But everyone thinks they hate Rieslings, and no one wanted to try it."
Kinssies kiddingly "forced" his customers into sampling a taste from a single bottle he had open in the store. "In a day or two I'd sold every case, before I even had it in the store. If I'm convinced of a wine, I can sell it."
For every wine, a story Although he's a self-proclaimed risk taker, Kinssies has proved he has a popular palate. Recently he managed to sell 1,200 bottles of a particular wine in only six days, and after only four months in business he had turned his complete inventory five times.
His success can be credited in large part to his engaging personality. At any given moment he'll launch into a story that piques your curiosity about a wine enough to buy it. "Once, when I was in Portugal," he says, "I tasted a famous Portuguese wine called Vinho Verde. It was awful―highly acidic, highly tannic, a luminous purple. To me, it was a useless wine!"
Then one day he was served bacalhau, dried salt cod, drizzled with olive oil and singed with onions in a wood-burning oven. "They served me Vinho Verde along with the meal, and I was dreading it," Kinssies remembers. "But with a bite of fish in my mouth, I took a sip, and it was a marriage made in heaven. Aha! I thought. This is why they make that wine! They don't make it to be on a restaurant wine list or reviewed by Robert Parker. They make it for bacalhau in Portugal! That was an epiphany for me about wine and why we drink it."
Kinssies strives to open customers' minds to new possibilities of what might appeal―and to help them save a few bucks along the way. He points to a bottle of Washington white wine, made with Roussanne, a Rhône grape generally used for blending.
"The producers were overly optimistic," he says. "They made thousands of cases, but had a hard time retailing the wine because so few people recognize the grape. But I liked it, I put it on my tasting bar, and I'm selling a lot of it. My customers like it because it's something very different and because it's a quality wine.
"That's the sport of wine. It's not buying the most expensive bottle on the shelf. For that, all you need is deep pockets. The sport is in finding something just as good … for 10 bucks. And I help people do that."
INFO: Wine Outlet (1701 First Ave. S.; 206/652-1311)
Wine collecting 101
Determining when a wine will reach its peak is always at best an educated guess, but Richard Kinssies has a few tips. It's a good idea to cellar wines that will improve with age or may increase in value, he says, but don't expect to get rich on wine speculation. Buying older vintages (anything over 10 years of age is considered old) is risky, largely because it's impossible to know under what conditions the wine has been kept. But if the price is right and the wine is in good shape, the risk is often worthwhile.
Ask your wine merchant for advice. The balance of a wine's components (acid, tannin, sugar, and alcohol) is a crucial factor in how well it's likely to age. Today, most red wines are produced in a big, "fruit forward" style. As wines like this age, once the fruit goes, there's little left. So ask about balance when buying.
Consider white wines. When it comes to cellar wines, most people think of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is indeed a good choice. But many whites have a naturally high acidity, which acts as a preservative. Good whites for the cellar include dessert wines such as late-harvest Riesling and vintage Ports, plus Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc do not age well.
Don't let your cellar get out of control. There may come a time when you realize you have more wine than you could possibly ever drink. Knowing that most wines don't age over 10 years, you'd be wise to control your inventory.