Insider Wine Sleuth Hunts Bargains for Online Sales: Elin McCoy
Jon Rimmerman, aka the Garagiste, is late. He’s sending out his daily online wine offer from his BlackBerry in his room at New York’s new Hotel Americano.
It’s a 2006 Ansata from biodynamic producer Marc Kreydenweiss priced at $6.99. This red usually goes for two to three times as much. The bottles sell out in an hour.
Once a day, Seattle-based Rimmerman, 45, pitches one to several little-known, quirky, artisanal and often stellar collectible wines from small producers in an e-mail that includes no dramatic photos of people, vineyards or labels. Since the mid-1990s, he’s relied on prose alone to evoke a wine, a place, and the vicarious thrill of being a wine treasure hunter.
“I want to give people a dream,” he says as we head to the hotel’s restaurant. His garb is almost zany: lavender sweater, black and white plaid jacket, worn green shoulder bag. Messy grey curls and long sideburns add to a rebel look.
Over prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches, he explains how he managed to take a $500 advance on his VISA card to a wine business that generates $25 to $30 million a year from his 23,000-square-foot (2,136 square meter) temperature- and humidity-controlled Seattle warehouse. His 120,000 faithful fans around the world include old friends, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and plenty of people in the wine industry. He doesn’t advertise, has no partners and says he’s never had a business loan. For many years he had no website (now http://www.garagistewine.com).
Rimmerman likes to compare his company to Seattle’s indie record label Sub Pop, which brought the world the grunge band Nirvana.
“We try to find the important artists in the wine world before the rest of the world does,” he says. He’s been known to e-mail offers of his discoveries from the middle of a vineyard.
On the road hunting wines for four months every year, Rimmerman has just rolled in from Virginia.
“It’s the most exciting emerging wine region in the country,” he says. Next stop, France.
We sample the wine Rimmerman is offering today, March 5. It is a deliciously complex 2008 Domaine Labet Fleur de Marne La Bardette chardonnay ($25) from a young producer in the Jura. It tastes of salt and stones and seems an ultimate wine for seafood.
Rimmerman described a previous vintage as “pulverized fossils and calcium carbonate caught in the most elaborate intertwined dance with elegant and feminine citric fruit.”
The native Chicagoan’s path to wine and food started at the age of 5, with the smell of a Cotes-du-Rhone and the taste of Steak Diane.
A summer construction job on Starbucks’ first Midwest retail shop while he was in law school introduced him to company boss Howard Schultz and how to market and conceptualize a product. He gave up law, moved to Seattle, and sourced food products in Europe for a gourmet grocery business.
When he brought back local wines and faxed stories about them to a couple of dozen friends, they wanted to buy. Garagiste, named for a group of revolutionary Bordeaux winemakers, grew from there, helped by the new power of the Internet.
One of Rimmerman’s finds was cult wine figure Frank Cornelissen.
“At a trattoria outside Naples, I heard about this guy who was out of his mind making natural wine on the ash and rock slopes of Mt. Etna,” Rimmerman recalls. He headed south to Sicily in his tiny rental Fiat. Cornelissen, in the middle of harvest, wouldn’t see him.
Eventually backpacking friends sleeping on Cornelisson’s couch convinced the winemaker he should talk to Rimmerman. He tasted, bought, and then sent the wines to the nearest port in a refrigerated pharmaceutical truck. The offer was the first time Cornelissen’s wines were sold commercially in the U.S.
During the late 1990s dot-com bubble, dozens of online wine sites burst on the scene, only to bite the dust a few years later. Others, like Wine.com, morphed from version to version, shedding bosses like so many snake skins. The economic downturn brought a new wave of “flash sites” offering surplus inventories of expensive labels at discounts of 30 to 70 percent.
Sites like WinesTilSoldOut, founded in 2006, superficially resemble Garagiste. They too send out an email offer of one well-priced wine for a limited time, no more than one day. During Winestilsoldout’s quarterly “Cheapskate Wednesday” on Feb. 15, each offer was up for only 15 minutes. Some labels sold out in 45 seconds. The day’s take? More than $1 million from 87,000 bottles.
WinesTilSoldOut, and newer U.S. sites like Gilt Taste, Vitis, and Lot 18, which started in the U.K. last week, don’t have the singular personal vision, philosophy of wine, and evocative stories of Garagiste.
“I have to stay ahead; I have to offer things no one else has,” says Rimmerman.
Tomorrow, he has the 2009 Fattoria Galardi Terra di Lavoro Roccamonfina, a rich seductive red from Campania, where grapes grow in the volcanic rocks of Vesuvius. It goes on sale for $55.
I feel the twitch his customers are addicted to: Can I pass this up?
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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