When the 10,000 folks who voted in Traverse Magazine's Red Hot Best of Northern Michigan MyNorth.com poll chose The Blue Goat in Traverse City as the "Red Hot Best Wine Store That Knows Its Vino"—for the third year in a row—well, we decided it was time we knocked on the blue door. Manager Ryan White fills us in on the shop’s history and some of the secrets behind its success.
Your parents, Ron and Nona White, actually own the business. What is their history with it?
We’ve owned it for about 13 years. We used to live in Battle Creek. My dad was CEO of an employment company that worked with General Mills and Kellogg’s. He was ready to retire. We’d vacationed up here and loved it so we decided to move up. That was when he kind of fell into the wine business, found out he loved it and then rolled with it. Our first wine shop was the Wine Country Market next to Mary’s Kitchen Port on West Front. We owned that for five years before The Blue Goat. After that we decided to combine the two stores and just keep The Blue Goat.
They paired perfectly as one store you might say?
Yes, the Wine Country Market was more new school wines—California, Washington, local wines. When we got The Blue Goat it was Old World—French, Italian, Spanish. So we put them all under one roof.
The building with its brilliant blue doors, shutter and awning, wedged between Peninsula Drive and E. Front St., is a Traverse City landmark. Tell us about its history.
The building itself is from the 1880s. We’ve heard that it was Traverse City’s first General Store. It became a specialty shop called The Blue Goat in the 1960s. About five years before we bought it, the previous owners changed the name to The Village Wine Shop. The Blue Goat had been such a hit in town we decided to bring the name back.
So your dad was a neophyte oenophile when he went into the wine business. How did he learn the trade?
He took learning about wine very seriously. Among other things, he went through Wine Spectator School. He was actually one of the first people to go through their schooling. Dennis Carol on our staff also went through the school.
And you’ve learned from them?
Yes, just by being here. It’s taken a lot of time to learn everything. You have to study your countries and their languages. As long as I’ve been doing this I still have trouble with Italian wines because of the language! You have to know the wine growing regions and what grapes they grow. Tasting is one of the best ways to learn different wines. But you have to have an open mind and open palate and listen to other people who know what they are talking about explain how the wine is made and about its character.
Explain The Blue Goat philosophy for choosing what goes on the shelf?
It’s a simple process. We only pick stuff up for the shelf if we think it is good quality. And we do a lot of tasting. I’ve tasted almost everything in the store. Between the three of us (Dennis and also Eric Hallman) we’ve tasted everything. We only bring it in if we’ve tasted it.
The shop feels jammed back. How much do you stock?
We carry around 3,500 labels and stock about 10,000 bottles of wine.
Given the store’s accolades, you, Eric and Dennis must have a way with customers. Care to explain?
I work with people every single day on trying to pinpoint what they are really looking for. Every day is interesting. For instance, they might tell me they love sauvignon blanc, which is very dry, but hate chardonnay because it is too buttery. Then I’ll explain that there is a whole other chapter to chardonnay that isn’t oaked—and may taste similar to a sauvignon blanc. With the big wine movement in Traverse City we see people becoming more open minded about tasting different wines.
It sounds like your conversations could get pretty complex. How much time do you spend with customers?
It depends on how much time a customer has. I’ve spent over an hour going through specific wines with customers before.
Given all your research, you must have some favorite wine growing regions.
That’s a tough choice. I love a lot of different wine. I’m a really big fan of Chile and Argentina. I love big bold reds and they are big into red blends. And the price range is very reasonable.
Which brings me to the prices at The Blue Goat. What’s your lowest-end bottle?
Barefoot for $6.99. Barefoot is a staple here.
Cristal Champagne at $300 a bottle.
What would you send me out with if I came in and said I was packing a picnic for the beach and needed a bottle of wine?
Depends on what you had packed in your picnic basket. But a cold bottle of pinot grigio is always good on a hot beach day. Verterra winery in Leland has a great pinot grigio and it is reasonably priced at just over $10.
How about if I were serving a really fine cut of red meat for dinner?
A nice steak dinner? I’d steer you to a boutique wine. Waugh Cellars in Napa has a high end cab that is reasonably priced at $60 a bottle. This winery only makes 200 cases a year and most of it goes out their tasting room door.