The NYT magazine has an extensive profile (and terrific photo) of Jon Rimmerman, owner of Garagiste, a wine retailer that operates exclusively by email. The article says that he has over 136,000 subscribers to his emails and that he does “on average” $30 million of sales each year out of his office in Seattle. Even though his “florid, self-mythologizing” emails go out daily, he only ships twice a year in the cooler months. Since he doesn’t have a traditional storefront and is able to source the wines directly and often pre-sell the wines months before delivery, he has some efficiencies that can either increase his margins or decrease the price to consumers, sometimes both.
I don’t subscribe to his emails but I’m glad that he has been able to make a successful business connecting consumers with wines from the far-flung corners of the wine world (in this 2009 video, he said he has 3 million air miles). His style is akin to the erstwhile J. Peterman catalogue. But just as you might have gotten caught up in prose of J. Peterman and end up with a sun hat you might not ever wear, so too have people bought wines they aren’t wild about once they arrive: a commenter on my Facebook page said there are “WTF Did I Buy From Garagiste? tasting parties” in various cities after the semi-annual shipments go out; also, Garagiste offerings have been the subject of a never-ending thread over at wineberserkers.
As heartwarming as it is to hear more about an iconoclastic and successful person in the wine business, I was left wondering about the article’s larger point. Rimmerman’s email-only sales style seems a legacy business model and not one that a newcomer would select today. Similarly, setting up a business selling wine via a virtual storefront when 39 states don’t legally allow wine shipments from retailers would seem a dicey proposition. And Jon’s swami-style (not a retailer but rather a “conduit of culture” or “The Wine Whisperer”), anti-Parker persona seems to replicate Parker’s style of vino-omniscience right down to the claim that he is a super-taster and that he can remember every wine he’s ever tasted. Um, blind tasting, anyone?
So Garagiste is interesting, even if there appears to be some tall tales in the emails, but largely sui generis. While wine scores wane in their importance as consumers learn more, I’m not sure that rambling prose with no images is a replicable sales strategy. Gary Vaynerchuk seemed to be headed in a direction that was more notable for its changes in the wine industry, before he headed on to the greener pastures of social media marketing. The article also had some oddities, such as the line “pesticides have been found in bottled wines at every price point including world famous Bordeaux.” Or Alice Feiring saying that Rimmerman has found wines through her blog posts (she later tweeted that she was misquoted).
What’s your take on Garagiste if you’re a subscriber? Or on the article, currently the #8 most emailed at NYTimes.com?