Excerpts from Market Watch, publishers of The Wine Spectator .
It's a blistering July day, and a refrigerated 18-wheeler packed tightly with 800 cases of French wine is late arriving at Robert Sprentall's shop. Sprentall waits outside the mustard-colored building, trying to escape the late morning sun and avoid thinking about what the heat could do to the $90,000 cargo traveling the state's highways.
B-21- for "be 21 or be gone" - has, for 50 years, sold beer and spirits in Pinellas County - the last 35+ in Tarpon Springs, a coastal town well-known for its sponge industry and Greek heritage. And it is here, in the northern tip of the most densely populated county in Florida, that Sprentall is changing the shop started by his father and grandfather, who moved to Florida in 1950 from Detroit. Gradually he's building one of the best stocks of fine wine in the Southeast.
"If this were to sit in port, we'd get a lot of cooked wine and seepage, says Sprentall, as he carefully opens a case of 1996 Cotes-du-Rhone blanc. He lifts a bottle from the box and gently twists the cap. The bottle is cool and full. "You don't get it in like that at the grocery store," he says.
But Sprentall's store has at least one grocery store quality - B-21 has gone high-tech. Sprentall knows how much inventory he has, how long it should last and where every bottle of wine is stored. Through his computer he's able to print and distribute a national newsletter advertising his selections.
The home for most cork-finished wines is a 70-degree air-conditioned warehouse. The most precious bottles are chilled at 55 degrees in a refrigerated cellar. Behind the cellar door, customers rent space to store their favorite beverages. Yet another air-conditioned room has been added by to take care of the ever-expanding wine list.
Sprentall's wine list is developing because he's willing to study, to learn and to grow with changes in the industry, says Richard Watson, an importer with Robert Kacher Selections in Washington, D.C. "Bob sets himself apart by having wines not everybody can get," Watson says. "This industry is tough enough, but when everybody is fighting over who can sell the same national brands the cheapest - well, one of the toughest tasks is to find items to sell at the necessary margins to survive on."
Sprentall or his managers travel to Europe once or twice a year, visiting different growers and tasting new wines to ensure the store can offer a unique selection to customers. "He learns more so he can get a jump on things," Watson says. "By early in the spring, he will know which wines will be available in the fall. He can afford to work close if he gets the money on a futures basis."
Futures means that Sprentall's customers buy wine on his expert recommendation before it even arrives in town. This, however, means travel. He personally goes to the vineyards, tastes the wines and purchases those he thinks his clients will like. A modest man, Sprentall hesitates to call himself an expert. But he knows what he likes and what tastes good to his clients. He's not a drinker, but he's formulated a method of testing up to 100 wines a day. His secret: "Taste and spit."
Ten years ago the wine selection was limited to a couple of rows. Today it extends across half the store. "Every time I come over here the wine jumps an aisle," says George Jurch, a chemistry professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who stocks his refrigerator with new wines from across the globe. "The prices here are exceptional. Not only that, everybody in this store knows their stuff. They're always looking for new things, and they know how to take care of their wines.
So Sprentall continues to experiment and to look for new markets…. and, is forthcoming when talk turns to his own dreams about the future. Someday he'd like to become a Master of Wine, joining that elite group who knows everything from vines and rootstock to the topography of wine- producing regions of the world. But for now, he says his concentration is focused on the store and his family.... "As it should be."
Excerpts from Market Watch, publishers of The Wine Spectator . The article: "Doing It Right" by Jeff Stidham, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida.