Video

Christy Frank on Finding Success as a Retailer in a Changed Era

The wine shop entrepreneur shares her retail expertise and her newfound industry activism

Christy Frank
Christy Frank.

In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their techniques.

Christy Frank is a partner at Copake Wine Works in Copake, New York, which she opened in 2015 with her husband Yannai Frank. Her original retail shop, Frankly Wines in New York Citywhich she launched in 2007 and sold 10 years laterwas often touted as one of the top small wine shops in the country. Frank is also a marketing officer at Wine Australia, where she focuses on education initiatives in the New York City area and she oversees publishing and copy editing for Alice Feiring’s The Feiring Line newsletter. 

Originally from the small town of Tiffin, in rural Ohio, Frank moved to New York to attend Cornell University in Ithaca as an undergraduate, receiving her bachelor’s degree in government, economics, and international relations in 1993. From there, she went overseas to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she earned a Master of Science in accounting and finance in 1994. She then returned to the U.S., relocating to Boston, where she explored various roles in the financial and data management sectors, and ultimately got her start in the wine and spirits industry when she took a part-time retail job in the wine cellar at Deluca’s Market in 1996. In 1998, Frank moved to New York City to pursue her MBA at Columbia Business School. She’d been thinking about going into fashion or cosmetics, but toward the end of her program, she interviewed with LVMH, and ended up landing a marketing role with the ultra-premium wine and spirits importer Schieffelin & Somerset, an LVMH subsidiary. She went on to become Schieffelin’s senior brand manager for Hennessy cognac in 2002, and then in 2004, she took on the same role for 10 Cane Rum and then the Australia/New Zealand portfolio within Estates & Wines under Moët Hennessy USA

Even with more than 20 years of experience, Frank continues to expand her wine knowledge. She earned her Advanced Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in March 2019; she also holds an advanced certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is chipping away at her Diploma. After shooting Frank’s Supertasters video, SevenFifty Daily spoke with her about operating a retail shop during the pandemic, as well as her leadership role in fighting wine tariffs and how she is rethinking issues of social justice and equity in the wine industry. 

SevenFifty Daily: What has life been like at Copake Wine Works during the pandemic?

Christy Frank: We joke that up in Copake, social distancing is a way of life, but as far as shop logistics go, we still made quite a few changes: one customer at a time, masks required, reduced hours, strongly encouraging advance purchases, curbside pickup and delivery. We already had an e-commerce site up and running, so our main logistical challenge was managing deliveries. Celene Santiago, my shop manager, held down the day to day operations and I would come in every morning before she arrived to grab the day’s deliveries. Although we had our three best months ever this spring in terms of sales volume, it’s a lonely, stressful way to sell wine. We’re starting to open up a bit more, but we’re a long way from the sort of in-store tastings and community-building activity that we love.

Before COVID-19, you were on the frontlines of the wine tariff battle, testifying in Congress on behalf of small retailers. What did our industry learn from that experience?

As an industry, we were playing catch up and needed to quickly understand a very complex process and where and how to apply pressure. I think it was a rare situation in which everyone—all three tiers, on-trade, and off-trade, owners and employees—was aligned in the desired outcome and how to achieve it. It definitely taught everyone that as a fragmented network of small businesses, we need to advocate as a group. But once we move beyond tariffs, that alignment isn’t always so easy to come by.

I imagine you are referring to the wine industry’s mixed response to the Black Lives Matter protest movement. How do you think we can create real change and real inclusion?

Black Wine Professionals founder, Julia Coney recently said: Wine is a communal product, but where’s the community? I’ve been listening hard to the conversations about the anti-racist work that I need to be doing to make the industry a more inclusive, equitable place. It’s clear that this is not just about access to wine education, but access to mentorship, sponsorship, paid work experience, and especially, capital. Urban Grape in Boston just launched a wine studies award and Domestique Wine in D.C. started a fellowship that just might be the ideal models for this. 

On my end, I’m taking a close look at how to ensure my shop is a welcoming place for BIPOC. And personally, I’m sorting out exactly what anti-racism work looks like for me; what it means in practice to pull up and step aside in a long-term, sustainable way. One thing I absolutely know for certain: this industry is already so much stronger, vibrant, and exciting with these voices in it, as customers, colleagues, and fellow business owners. 

What are your most important pieces of wine retail management advice?

First, on a wine buying level, spend a disproportionate amount of time selecting your bread-and-butter wines. Anyone can fill the shelves with great wine in the $25-and-over price category, but picking out an under-$15 Pinot Grigio that overdelivers on margin and value and that you can purchase from a rep you really like working with—that’s gold.

Second, spend as much time focusing on developing your team as you do on buying the wine.

Third—and this is something that’s even more critical while operating the shop during a pandemic: The customer is not always right. It’s great that wine shops were considered “essential,” but let’s be honest, no one dies if they don’t get their wine within an hour, or even the same day, that they order it. If the exact bottle that a customer wants is out of stock, life will go on. Yes, customers do have to wait in line, and absolutely must wear masks. Having a few simple boundaries and the ability to push back keeps my team safe and sane. 

What’s something people get wrong about the wine business, and how do you push back against those misconceptions?

Many people get into this business because they “really like wine.” That’s not much of a business plan. This business is really about people—the people working the vines, making the wine, selling it, buying it, and the people that work for you and with you. I have a fair number of conversations with people who want advice on opening a shop, and what I always say is that unless you really like life behind the counter, keep your money and just spend it on wine. It’s a much easier life.

What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?

I just brought in Mimi Casteel’s Hope Well Pinot Noir because I’m newly obsessed with regenerative agriculture and polyculture farming. Of course these are traditional concepts rooted in indigenous farming. One of the former managers at my old shop was deeply involved in this sort of sustainability work—and years later, it’s finally rubbed off on me. I’d like to see our conversations about wine go back to its roots, literally.

What was the epiphany that led you to choose wine as your career? 

There wasn’t really a formal epiphany—I got a part-time retail job because I wanted to learn about wine and didn’t want to keep paying for classes. A shop job seemed the most economical way to learn more. One thing led to another, and here I am! Okay, it was a little more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea.

How do you stay current with trends in wine?

Honestly? I’ve almost given up on it! The pace of change and the quest for the next new thing is breakneck. I’m at the point where I want to spend more time going deeper on regions and producers that I’ve loved for years. 

What wine region would you most like to visit when we are once again able to travel—and why?

I’ve never visited Italy. I think it’s about time. Sicily is top of my list. 

If you could change one thing about the wine industry, what would it be?

I wish the industry wasn’t seen as quite so “romantic.” That romance can make it easy to avoid more pointed conversations about the financial realities of our individual career paths, our access to capital, and what it means to make a living in the wine industry.

What’s next for you?

Back at the beginning of the year, my big goal was to finally get the Copake Wine Works newsletter back on a regular schedule. That’s evolved considerably. I’m now trying to figure out how to best use my privilege to help make this industry a more inclusive, accessible, community driven place. But yes, I do still need to get that newsletter back on track.           

Jen Laskey is the former executive editor of SevenFifty Daily. She is also an award-winning wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and editor based in New York City, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate. 

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