If your wine-buying strategy at Big Box discount stores typically involves grabbing a case and getting out poste-haste, you might want to reconsider sticking around for a chat with Syd Birenbaum, the unexpected wine specialist at the Costco in Marina del Rey (known as the Culver City branch).
Need a really great reason to gear up for Costco? Birenbaum has a long history of working in the wine business, from importing/wholesale (restaurants, hotels) to retail wine shops and Napa tasting rooms (Ehlers among them). But there's no place quite like Costco to see the diversity of American wine buyers in action, from bulk buyers of $6 blends to enthusiasts looking for that special occasion Pinot. Birenbaum is exactly the sort of knowledgeable, no-nonsense guy you want to talk to about your dinner pairing expectations, without an ounce of price-point ego. This is Costco, after all.
Get more on the Costco wine buying experience, from a particularly memorable $18,000 sale to the one thing Birenbaum wants wine buyers to consider ("What I want to talk about for sure is [customer] headaches").
Squid Ink: The obvious question. How did you end up at Costco?
Syd Birenbaum: Well, I was consulting in media technology [for] small little start-ups that would find content for entertainment companies. Basically they were looking for studio connections. But in 2009, the environment in digital content was starting to solidify away from independent companies to major companies, and my small clients were starting to waver. Around then, I was actually in the Costco where I work now and happened to be talking to the general manager about something [unrelated]. I asked him if he'd ever thought about having someone to help customers in the wine department. I saw people standing around the wine looking clueless. He said, "Actually, yes, I am looking for someone for the holidays to do just that." And with that I started working just a few hours, weekends mainly, while I was still doing consulting. As that digital side started to fade even more, I jumped on more hours. And here I am 3 ½ years later, working four days a week.
SI: You must see an incredibly diverse range of customers in terms of both wine knowledge and price point at Costco. How do you deal with that?
SB: I have a filtering mechanism to see where someone wants to go. First, you have to assess who you are talking to, get the basics.
SI: What constitutes the wine "basics" today in your retail environment?
SB: OK, so I start with a series of questions. First, are you a red or white wine drinker? Sweet or dry? And how much do you want to spend?
SI: So if I walk into Costco, you know nothing about me, and say "Red, dry, $12"?
SB: Then are you interested in Cabernet, or a blend? Domestic, imported, full bodied or medium bodied?
SI: A lot of questions!
SB: Yes, that's the other side. If I give them too many choices, they get confused. Ultimately, I often make a choice for them.
SI: Is the wine novice your typical customer?
SB: There are a surprising number of customers here who will hold up bottle of red wine and ask me, "Is this red or white wine?"
SI: But it's florescent lighting in there.
SB: You'd be surprised. But I've got the other side, too, which is part of the reason I like what I do. Here's an example on the opposite end. I've had the head of [an academic department] at USC, a professor who only buys first growth Bordeaux, as a customer. But I've convinced him to try a handful of other wines. There's quite a range of people I deal with in terms of wine experience.
The other thing that's good about working at Costco is there is actually very little talk about price. That's pretty unique in a wine retail setting. When I point to something and say it's a good deal at $75, they know they are in a place with deals. Price becomes a mitigated factor.
SI: Interesting. As is your mention of first growth Bordeaux. At Costco?
SB: We haven't in years, but when I first started we had a huge range in wine prices. I had bottles as low as $5 and first growth Bordeaux for $500 to $600 a bottle.
SI: Really? We must have missed them all these years.
SB: Oh yes. Here's a story on that. When I started here in November 2009, I was only working a couple days a week. It was the holidays, and I was still trying to get oriented. From across the department, I see a woman loading a box of wine, and she's putting $40 bottles of Chardonnay in her cart. I took notice. Two hours later, she had pulled out her black Amex and had spent $18,000 on wine. It was mind-boggling to me. She was following a list someone had written for her, I presumed her husband. I figured it was a mistake to spend so much/buy those bottles, and she would be back the next day returning much of it. They must have been a hit, as she came back the next day and spent another $3,000. I had the wine stock back to sell to her then. Now, I don't have that type of wine [price] diversity.
SI: What's your upper price range now?
SB: The most expensive bottle I have is Phelps's Insignia, $160, and we've got Cristal [Champagne]. What's available at Costco varies greatly from location to location. Marina del Rey, for instance, is very different than others. I've got 250 or so skews right now.
SI: Best sellers and your favorites right now?
SB: Definitely everyday table wine is the biggest seller. If you came in right now, I've got an Argentinean Cabernet that I think is worth the money, a couple of Italians, mostly Tuscan blends, a French Syrah, a Spanish Tempranillo that's really good. Very little from California I would recommend right now, I'm sorry to say. We have a good-sized batch of members that have come to rely on me to pick out what is a good value, make recommendations.
SI: When we were there, one 30-something customer who waved at you looked like he was only at Costco for wine. People actually wait in that crazy check-out line full of packed carts just with one or two bottles of wine, as if they are at a small wine shop?
SB: Oh yes, I have a lot of customers who do. But what I have varies greatly. Everything I see on the floor is filtered, I don't know what wines didn't make the cut on our buyer's end.
SI: That must be tricky. In a dedicated wine shop you would be working closely with the shop's buyers, telling them what wines customers are requesting. But you're dealing with a wine buyer for the whole chain.
SB: Yes, I come to work and what is in stock constantly changes. But I know my customers well.
SI: Obviously, you're extremely good at finding the balance. And hey, variety is good when it comes to wine. You mentioned earlier that you wanted to talk about something, was it California Cabernet?
SB: What I wanted to talk about for sure is headaches.
SI: Right. We were talking about the trend of so many high alcohol wines today.
SB: Yes, I have a tremendous cross section of people who come in. One thing I've noticed is the rise in complaints from customers across the board these days about headaches from a certain wine. Twenty years ago, you didn't hear that. Most people still tell me it has to do with sulfites -- which, by the way is a myth. Do the research and you'll find while they're not a welcome addition in excess in any wine, but they're also not the cause of all those headaches. Anyway, so I go through a list of questions, ask my customers to tell me what kinds of wines are giving them headaches. A lot of people also still think they don't get headaches from European wine. These are broad generalizations, of course. And then they'll say California wines give them headaches and also list a few other wines. What's going on here? The alcohol [percentage].
SI: Cue Syd handing over a wine bottle and pointing to the 14%+ ABV on those bottles.
SB: Yes. I was just asked this very question, actually, by a customer. Of the changes in the wine industry, what's really been intriguing is the "whys" of phenolic maturity in grapes. When you pick grapes when they are very mature, they have a higher sugar content, and thus increases the alcohol. By sheer math, people are getting much more alcohol per glass than they would have 15 or 20 years ago. You also get more fruit flavor. But alcohol also goes up to 14% or 15%, some California Cabernets are at 15.5%. When I first got into this business, that was a dessert wine alcohol percentage. It's an accepted part of the industry now. Those wines also tend to get higher scores [from critics], which drive sales. It's an endless cycle.
SI: Hence your headache theory: We're drinking the same number of glasses of higher alcohol wines. Surprise! We're getting headaches.
SB: Yes, sometimes I do talk about histamines in red wine. Which can be problematic, but really, alcohol is the big industry change.
SI: Any wine favorites right now? Doesn't have to be from Costco.
SB: Right now I'm moonlighting at Lincoln Fine Wines. I was there the other day when August Wine Group came for a tasting. Their goal is to bring in organic, hand-grown, farmer produced wines from Italy. It's an extremely limited production, all pre-sold. [The rep] went through 8 whites and 8 reds, $10 to $20. I was astounded by the quality of these esoteric white grapes, esoteric reds, for the price, all with alcohol at or below 13%. It makes me just want to move to Italy and live there.
SI: Don't we all.
Birenbaum typically works Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Costco Marina del Rey/Culver City (310) 754-2003, though his schedule varies.
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Note: We initially had trouble confirming his schedule via phone calls: "I can't give out employee schedules" was the stock response (Plan 2: ask for a manager and convince them you are not a crazy stalker, just not keen in sitting in traffic, or going to Costco at all, if Birenbaum is not there). When we arrived, we couldn't find him in the wine aisle or elsewhere. "Syd is here somewhere, on break, who knows," replied pretty much every employee, which doesn't get you terribly far in a warehouse store on a packed Saturday. Our lucky break: a customer broke a bottle of wine, and Birenbaum suddenly appeared with a mop. In lieu of breaking a bottle of wine, when you do find Birenbaum, simply ask for his card. He'll gladly confirm his Costco schedule for you via email.
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