About a decade ago, around the time that Byron Collett had sold his audio company and was working part-time at Esquin Wine & Spirits in Seattle, someone told him about the cheap wines on sale at Grocery Outlet. The discount supermarket chain, which was founded in San Francisco in 1946, was rapidly expanding into the Pacific Northwest at the time. So Collett checked one out and quickly found a $50 bottle of Bordeaux wine from France that was just $10. He was hooked.
“I couldn’t pass one in my car after that,” said Collett, who was already flush in wine due to his job and years of collecting, but he couldn’t skip out on the bargains. “It was the thrill of the hunt.”
Today, Collett plays the warden of that hunt for shoppers at the Grocery Outlet on De la Vina Street in Santa Barbara, where he oversees the store’s ever-changing, always discounted wine section. Prices range from about $3.99 to $19.99, with most wines sold at a 50 to 70 percent discount off the original retail price. That drops even 20 percent lower during annual sales in the spring and fall, when Collett recently sold 2,000 bottles on the sale’s last day in November, on top of multiple 1,500-bottle days.
“We do double the average of most Grocery Outlets in wine,” said Collett, who moved to Carpinteria about six years ago. After helping an owner of numerous liquor stores improve wine sales, Collett joined with the Grocery Outlet in Santa Barbara when it opened three years ago. He attributes the high sales to a wine-savvy populace, but he also takes some credit. “I like to run my area more like a wine shop,” he explained, which is distinct from most of the other Grocery Outlets that he’s visited.
Collet’s route to semi-retired wine salesman is complex. He lived in Africa until he was 13, the son of evangelical missionaries. “I didn’t have much access to wine in those days,” laughed Collett, who wound up working for the McDonald’s corporation in Oregon. Wine became part of business dinners, but then one colleague in Eugene, who knew Collett was into hi-fi audio, invited him over to listen to some music and sip on a nice bottle of wine.
The year was 1979, but the bottle was a 1973 Robert Mondavi reserve cab. Collett was floored. “I don’t know if it’s the year, I don’t know if it’s the maker, but I wanna know,” he told his wife on the phone when back at the hotel. “Before I returned home to Portland from that business trip, she had already signed us up for wine-tasting lessons.”
Trips around the world ensued, especially as their kids grew older, from Napa to Burgundy, Piedmont, and Tuscany. “All of our vacations were primarily spent visiting those places where wine was the thing,” said Collett.
In 2008, he sold the audio company he’d built and started working at Esquin to stay busy, becoming one of the pinot noir experts on staff. Six years later, his wife retired from her job and they moved to Carpinteria, where they live in the back house on a property owned by their close friends of nearly 50 years. “We decided to start our own senior citizen compound,” he said.
Collett heads into Grocery Outlet for the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, typically hauling a few dozen cases out onto the floor and making the section look inviting. Collett, who helps the owner with buying decisions but is not the store’s official buyer, said that the deals come from all sorts of situations, from wineries needing to offload older vintages to distributors who need cash or are facing bankruptcy. The selections are often European and South American, but the occasional Central Coast or Californian lot comes through and is often gobbled up right away.
“What a lot of people do is buy a bottle, try it, and then come back the next day to buy more,” he explained of the typical strategy. “It won’t be here next week, probably. There are days when I can pull out four cases of wine and it can be gone just like that.”
Despite now living near wine country, Collett doesn’t spend that much time exploring Santa Barbara County wines, instead buying all of his wine from Grocery Outlet himself. “You have to have a different mentality to work here,” he said, comparing his current role to when he worked in high-end and blue-chip wines at Esquin. “Every week is a different product. And for me to taste it, I have to buy it.”
While he prides himself on being able to find most customers a bottle of wine that they’ll enjoy, Collett admits that Grocery Outlet is not for everybody. “If you’ve got to have that Ménage à Trois or that Rombauer chardonnay, don’t bother stopping — Grocery Outlet is not your place,” he said. “But if you love the thrill of the hunt, like to try a lot of different things, and trust your palate, you can save money and have fun.”
2840 De La Vina St.; (805) 324-5124; groceryoutlet.com
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