Until very recently, buying wine in Charlottesville was relatively peaceful and, with the exception of the recent statewide flap over winery self-distribution, undisturbed. It worked the way it does everywhere else in the country, operating under the Byzantine, three-tier system of selling alcohol (a throwback to Prohibition), whereby the wineries must sell to distributors, who must sell to retail shops or restaurants, who then sell to the public. It was all very chummy, with relationships between some distributors and retailers stretching back for decades. But in the past several months, a small group of people doing things differently has thrown the local community into a ferment.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes,” says Will Richey, photographed with fellow board members Chris Doran, Evan Williams, Stephanie Giles and Lisa Richey, but the Wine Guild never intended to clash with local wine stores and their suppliers.
Last January, I was one of nine people who met to discuss an idea for a wine club, a place where like-minded souls could store their wine and meet to drink it. The plan quickly developed into a for-profit, private buyers club, offering dues-paying members the chance to buy wines at prices well below retail (original membership levels were $150 or $350, but those prices have now increased). When the club became more commercial, I bowed out. The remaining members rented an office, procured a license, and on November 12, held an open house to inaugurate the Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Included with the launch literature was a sample price list showing the wholesale prices of several wines, the typical retail mark-up and the price for members: up to 26.5 percent less than in the stores.
“The response was very negative,” says Will Richey, owner of Revolutionary Soup and a Guild board member. Immediately following the opening, several distributors were furious. They said that by advertising how much wine actually costs retailers, and how much lower the Guild’s mark-up is, the Guild would force distributors to undercut the shops and restaurants that are their most important customers. Several distributors vowed not to do business with the Guild and a few local retailers threatened not to buy wine from any distributor that did. “Some people are comparing us to Costco,” Richey says. “That is the farthest from my vision.” Their aim, Richey asserts, is to be more of a social club, and the plan ultimately extends to events like classes, charity auctions and dinners.
The strife over the Wine Guild highlights the reality of doing business in a small town, as well as the growing pains accompanying the expanding local wine world. Clubs like the Guild have long existed in other markets, but they are new to our cozy scene (consider this for coziness: some of the Wine Guild’s board work or have worked for local wineries, wine shops, distributors and restaurants). Richey readily admits that they haven’t gone about things in the best way. “Naively,” he says, “we did not see where we were being destructive. …We’ve made a lot of mistakes because we haven’t meant anyone harm.”
Unprepared for the negative reaction, the Guild has tried to curtail the damage by assuring the local retailers and distributors that they pose no threat. “I went to the people that I heard were most upset,” Richey says, “some of them very close friends of mine…and tried to explain to them what exactly we were doing…why I didn’t think it was going to be any more competition than the other two wine shops that just opened in town.”
The Wine Guild currently has around 25 members and is purchasing wine for them. Most retailers and distributors are cautiously resigned to The Guild’s existence, but a few remain itching for a fight. “I know for a fact,” Richey says, “that certain members of the community who don’t like what we’re doing are going to…try to make doing business difficult for us.”