When national big-box wine and spirits chains arrived in Delaware in the early 1990s, it appeared to foreshadow the demise of the small, locally owned shops. While customers always valued the expert selection process and personal touch found at Collier’s, the Wine & Spirit Co. of Greenville, Franks Wine and Kreston Wine & Spirits, one might assume that lower prices and a larger selection would win out.
But that hasn’t really been the case. Though the new entries may have changed some business dynamics, local shops have survived and even spawned some interesting new ones. Their bespoke services cover both everyday drinking needs and the sort of special occasions that warrant cellar selections.
After living in Europe for a time, Linda Collier opened her eponymous store in downtown Wilmington, Del., nearly 40 years ago. “That first shop was open because of self-preservation, as there wasn’t much of anything I could drink in the state at that time,” she quips. “After opening, I did meet a couple of people who had a selection that would’ve worked fine for me, and I continued to joke with Walter Rabe (the legendary proprietary of Ward’s on the city’s west side) that if I’d first discovered him, I may not have been so driven to open my own shop.”
Collier opened a second location in Centreville, Del., in 1990, and she continued to run both locations for several years before closing the original shop. Over the years, she’s discovered that serious wine drinkers are looking for something different. “Once they started thinking a bit about what they’re going to have each night with what they’re eating, the weather, their mood, who they’re sharing it with—once all of those thoughts enter into the equation, then they’re serious wine drinkers.”
David Govatos is newer to the business. He worked in wine distribution for several years before opening Swigg Real Wine, Craft Beer & Spirits. Swigg’s customers are a somewhat younger crowd, though certainly well past their college beer-drinking adventures. “We’d always been on the forefront of carrying non-interventionist wines—farm to glass, if you will—from importers like Rosenthal, PortoVino and Kermit Lynch, which have producers I’d certainly deem natural,” says Govatos of his Wilmington shop. “We’ve also been on the cutting edge, carrying wines from specifically natural importers like Jenny & François, Selections de la Viña and Zev Rovine. We’ve always been a champion of what they do. And now, we routinely have people come to us specifically for natural wine.”
Collier places a significant emphasis on wine education, offering various in-store tastings and evening classes, which are often sold out. To keep palates pleased, the shop continues to bring in many new wines each month. Just don’t expect to find Kendall-Jackson and other mass-market brands on her shelves. “People came to me then for the new, different, unknown—and they come to me now for the same reason,” says Collier.
Not surprisingly, almost all locally owned shops have faced the challenges—and opportunities—posed by the rise of craft beer and spirits. Govatos has been championing Amaro and Vermouth of late. Both, he says, are gaining a following. “Craft spirits have really taken off for us,” Govatos says. “We’d always catered to the craft cocktail crowd, and I’m finding that a lot of customers are becoming exploratory in this segment— trying different things rather than the larger, well-known brands.”
In light of all the demand for different options, consumers still want experience. “I believe all wine stores—or any type of single-person-owned shop, for that matter— take on the personalities of their owners,” Collier says. “Collier’s doesn’t just sell alcohol—we sell an experience.”
Collier’s customers could save time buying a mixed case of wine, but they prefer to pop in daily on their way home. “I believe people will gravitate to a store that makes them feel comfortable and happy,” she says.
Despite the many changes the industry has experience, discerning drinkers still enjoy that personal touch, which is apparently thriving locally.