From Bob Sweeney’s perspective, the challenge for many people to jump from buying those $8 mass-produced grocery store wines to hand-crafted but more expensive bottles is a lot like the lost art of going to the video store. “We’d stare at the rack of videos, figuring out what we want to watch, and you wind up renting a movie because the label is nice,” said Sweeney. “But when you’re spending $30-$50 blindly on wine and have a bad experience, you’re not gonna do it anymore.”
To help people make that leap, Sweeney, a Santa Ynez Valley resident whose background is in marketing and wine tours, developed the Boutique Wine Sampler. The six-pack of high-end half bottles from Santa Barbara County is now on sale for $50 at nearly 40 Costcos across Southern California, and the Paso Robles version is being sold statewide as well. “People need to explore things like wine and taste it to get a sense about it before they commit,” said Sweeney. “The nature of the beast is that boutique winemakers don’t make very much wine, so they don’t have access to the marketplace as much. This is a bridge for folks who are curious about upgrading their wine palate but have no idea how to jump on it.”
The participating wineries are no joke, either. From Santa Barbara, there’s Stolpman syrah, Badge pinot noir, Blair Fox petite sirah, Carr cabernet franc, Andrew Murray chenin blanc, and Larner grenache rosé. The Paso package includes Cass malbec, Brian Benson zinfandelgrenache, Alta Colina grenache blanc, Bodega de Edgar tempranillo, and San Marcos Creek grenache rosé. Full bottles of the same wines will be available to buy through Sweeney’s website when they are released by each winery.
With the guidance of cofounder/chief storyteller Tim Jones, who’s run his own creative agency since 2001, each producer is also featured in a professionally shot short film that can be accessed from a QR code on the side of the box. “As this rolls out, it’s gonna be like 60 Minutes did a piece on every one of these guys,” said Sweeney.
The idea is such a good one on so many fronts — it’s essentially half-priced wine for consumers and almost priceless outreach for these small producers — that everyone Sweeney approached wondered why this hadn’t been done before. “Two answers: It’s really hard — there are a lot of moving parts — and two is the economy of scale,” explained Sweeney, who paid the winemakers a premium price. “You have to do it large enough so that everybody makes out.”
In this case, that amounted to 11,000 six-packs, for which Sweeney spent months corralling interested parties, setting up bottling dates, and dealing with other operations headaches. His math indicated that they needed to get $70 a box to make any money, but Costco, the number one wine retailer in the country, wanted to sell it for $50. “They got hugely behind it,” said Sweeney. “We don’t want you to cut margins,” said Costco reps to Sweeney. “We are gonna cut our margins.”
Sales are already brisk, and Sweeney plans to expand to other regions, such as Sonoma, Napa, and Oregon in the near future. He’d like to be selling six regional six-packs by next summer, and then mix and match regions as well to give people a broad sense of West Coast wine.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Sweeney. “We think this is gonna sell really fast.”