This is TJ Douglas, owner of two boutique wine stores in Boston, The Urban Grape. I first encountered their store in Chestnut Hill over a year ago, as I drive by it every day on my way to and from work. I must admit I was intimidated – it’s a beautiful store, with none of the typical shelves that I usually hide behind as I attempt to figure out what wine to buy, everything is displayed floor to ceiling against the outer walls of the store. Aside from being a personal fan, they do have a growing presence in the Boston area, so I thought that the owner would be a fun person to profile on the Coravin blog’s Working in Wine series. It turns out that I was right – TJ is one of the most engaging and genuine people I’ve ever met, and was more than thrilled to share the philosophy behind the store with me. A philosophy, I might add, that completely explains every experience I’ve had in either Urban Grape location.
We started way back – he first entered “the industry” at age 14 as a dishwasher, to make some extra money so he could “take girls out to movies and mini golf.” He quickly realized, however that he didn’t like being in the kitchen, because he couldn’t talk to anyone. He started busing tables when he was about 15, and from then on was always at the front of the house. He continued working in restaurants, through several Boston “institutions” in a variety of roles through the early 2000’s. One experience in particular was at Todd English’s Rustic Kitchen.
At Rustic Kitchen, he met Cat Silirie, Executive Wine Director for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. At a family event, where she was conducting a wine tasting, TJ had his “aha moment” (a concept we love at Coravin): Cat pouring a 1999 Barbera; as she was explaining the flavors and the mouthfeel, it was the first time he thought “oh my God, I actually taste that, I actually smell that, I actually feel that, and it was the first case of wine I ever bought.” That started his obsession – he was “done for.” After Rustic Kitchen, he became the GM of Armani Café. That experience gave him the opportunity to manage a staff and a “carte blanche” to write a wine program. He re-wrote the program based on Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (explained in detail below).
Time for a change
At this point, he had been drinking wine, tasting wine, and talking about wine for a few years, and he wanted to get out of the restaurant business. The wine industry seemed like the next logical step. He went to work for Ruby Wines as a sales representative, with notable accounts like the Boston Harbor Hotel, Coppa, Toro, and Clio, to name a few.
After a couple of years, however, he felt his enthusiasm waning. He still loved wine, but he missed the one-on-one relationship, and felt disconnected from the end user. He would pick out what he thought was the best wine in his portfolio for the chef’s menu, for the clientele, for the bar manager’s budget, but would have no way of knowing if anyone liked it unless the manager came back and ordered it again the next week.
He also noticed something else, a major disparity in quality of wine stores. “You either had this 19 year old kid at the register that was too young to even drink wine, let alone make an informed recommendation, or you walk into other places that make you feel dumb for not knowing where the Loire Valley is.” He wanted to open up something different, to make wine more accessible and less intimidating.
TJ’s goal was to open a “hospitality-driven” wine store; a place that was not intimidating, non-judgemental, and focused on learning people’s taste preferences. Their entire staff is trained to treat each customer individually, and to try to learn their taste profile preferences. They use their progressive drinking scale to determine the types of wines that their customers already like, as well as identifying somewhat similar wines that they very well may like, but just don’t know about yet. They host weekly tastings and other events, which draw both from a loyal customer base and a fast growing fan base.
Their tagline, which you can see displayed everywhere in the store has two meanings. The first is growth, which TJ likens to drinking coffee: no one starts out drinking coffee black when they’re 14 years old. You start out drinking “Dunkies” (*for those of you not from New England, this refers a Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, often ordered “extra extra,” with extra cream and extra sugar), and then you get into hot coffee. One day, you don’t have any cream in your house, so you use milk and it’s okay…so you back off on the sugars, and before you know it you’re drinking black coffee, because your palate has progressed. The same thing happens with wine, according to TJ: “We all started off drinking cheap, sugary boxed wine in college; 1) because we could afford it, and 2) because it tasted like juice. You progressed from that to zinfandel – big, juice, not too dry, still pretty cheap. Then you went to Shiraz, then maybe a super juicy Pinot Noir, and onto Malbec. That’s all the same wine drinker, they’re all about the juice and fruit, not a lot of tannin, but you’ve progressed to a more evolved palate.”
The second is the way the store is set up; the Urban Grape doesn’t look like any wine store you’ve ever been in before, there are no shelves in the middle of the store, there are no aisles. Wine bottles line the walls, almost floor to ceiling. They’re not organized by region, which is how most wine stores are set up. These wines are all organized by body, and labeled as such on a scale from 1-10, one being the lightest (skim milk), and 10 being the heaviest (cream), first whites, then reds. Customers are taken through the entire scale from 1-10, and given recommendations based on their palates – wines they know they will like based on their existing taste profile, and others that they might not know about yet.
So what’s next?
TJ and Hadley are full steam ahead with the two existing stores, focused on making them as approachable and accessible as they can be, and to help the Boston area learn about and enjoy wine. TJ says that he’ll do this until he doesn’t love it anymore, though I can’t imagine this type of enthusiasm waning. He says another store isn’t out of the question, if they find the right location.