When buying a serious bottle of wine, most people might envision a little boutique-like shop, where they have to whisper, and some character with a few grey hairs behind the counter who makes them feel too intimidated to actually buy anything.
We may not have such a shop in Ferndale, but we don’t need one. Ferndale’s turns both of these stereotypes on their ears. Rising above people’s notions of “grocery store wine,” the store offers a selection of somewhat eccentric yet approachable wines that constantly surprise and delight regular shoppers such as myself. It’s easy to find great bottles in the $15-$20 range, and there are many decent bottles under $10. If you want wines to cellar for a few years, or a “special occasion” bottle, they have those, too. And this impressive collection is overseen not by some middle-aged erstwhile wine snob, but by 26-year-old wine manager Jarred Gild and his assistant, 25-year-old Lewis Hickson.
Gild rose to his position as the wine buyer in 2008 in a twist of fate, after having worked at the store a mere month. He was hired to assist co-owner Steve Selvaggio with beer purchasing and stocking, but Selvaggio had some health issues which kept him from his wine-buying duties. Gild offered to manage the department in his absence. Over the three months Selvaggio was away, Gild discovered he had a knack for tasting and selecting good wines, and convinced his boss to let him take over the wine buying permanently. Over the following year, he threw himself passionately into learning everything he could about wine. He confessed he probably spent $10,000 that first year buying wine, just to taste and experience as much as possible to build his knowledge.
Strolling down the store’s wine aisle, it's immediately apparent that this isn’t your average grocery store wine selection. Where most grocers would reserve displays for bestsellers like Kendall-Jackson or Robert Mondavi, Western has a whole shelf devoted to different types of Beaujolais. In place of the pre-printed “shelf talkers” (cards made by wine companies to brag about the number of points a wine received), you’ll find chatty, informative signs typed up by Gild and Hickson.
These signs reveal a great deal about Gild’s wine tastes and philosophy. Some of them extol a certain grape variety, like the aforementioned Beaujolais; others describe specific bottles such as an Argentinian Bonarda Gild refers to as “bunny wine.” One thing most have in common is that they sing the praises of natural wine. Gild tends to eschew overwrought, jammy or oaky wines in favor of wines with earthy, funky flavors. Most of these are what is considered natural wine, i.e., a wine that has been left to its own devices and manipulated as little as possible by the winemaker.
The store’s selection is unapologetically heavy on the wines Gild’s palate prefers, so you’ll find a disproportionate number of French wines, with Italians a close second and Spain trailing behind. New World wines are less well represented, in part because these wines are more likely to be industrially produced and/or manipulated for a target audience that prefers very oaked or fruit-forward wines. Gild refers to inexpensive industrial wines as "hot-dog wine." No, not because they pair well with wieners, but because they are a mixture of odds and ends, forced into a uniform end product.
However, if your wine knowledge begins and ends with Yellow Tail, have no fear. Rather than make people feel inferior about their preferences or lack of knowledge, Gild’s mission is to try to turn people on to things they may not even know they would like. His motto is, “It’s what’s in the glass that counts.”
“Some people come in saying they like Merlot, for example. I say to them, ‘Does it matter that you’re drinking a specific type of grape, or that what’s in your glass is a delicious wine?’" he said.
Gild has all of the youthful enthusiasm you’d expect from someone his age, and pours it (pun intended) into his work. He recently helped put together an introductory wine tasting course, and just returned from a tasting trip to Germany’s Mosel wine region. His enthusiasm is contagious when he sells you a bottle (or six- why not get the 10% discount?), which can be dangerous, but always fun.
“I just want people to drink great wine,” he said, excitedly. To this end, in addition to prominently displaying his favorites instead of big brand names, many of the wines are priced very competetively. This isn’t necessarily a bad business strategy, however, since it allows people to try more things, and those happy customers tend to come back for more.
Gild is all about building a relationship with your wine seller -- the more a person shops, the more he can become familiar with a customer’s tastes and better assist them.
What better excuse to pick up a few bottles and try something new? As one of his signs instructs: “Just ask for Jarred the wine guy."