When trouble strikes in retail, it’s often during the holidays. The two-week period around Christmas and New Year’s Eve is the biggest time of year for wine sales in the U.S. In 2016 the holiday season accounted for 69 percent more dollar sales of wine than the average two-week period during the rest of the year, according to Nielsen—and more than $1 billion in sales.
SevenFifty Daily recently spoke to retailers around the country about the craziness they deal with during the holiday season. Their stories run the gamut from outrageous bottle requests to a transit strike, a blizzard, a holdup, and a wild peacock. Here are some of the mishaps and horrors they’ve endured.
Withholding the Chateau Everlasting Gobstopper
“Holidays in beverage retail are a lot like holidays in restaurants. People who never go out to eat go out for dinner, and they don’t have realistic expectations or perspective about anything, from pricing to reservations to service.
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“That’s what Christmas is like for beverage retail. People who don’t drink wine are buying wine. They come in looking for their father’s favorite wine, you know, the 1978 Stags’ Leap or a 2000 Château Latour. Not only do I have to explain that I don’t have said wine—and if I did what the price would be—but there’s an expectation that I can just trot back to the storeroom and make that 100-point wine that was sold out two years ago magically appear.
“Those expectations are always the hardest to deal with, especially when they think I’m ‘withholding the wine’ for ‘special customers.’ The exasperation on their faces when I tell them they can’t have the ‘Château Everlasting Gobstopper’ just breaks my little heart.”
—Leonard Ruiz Rede, wine buyer, New Seasons Market, Mercer Island, Washington
Of Mystics and Mind Readers
“We’ve been through 9/11, a night of sitting up during the 2003 blackout because we couldn’t close the store’s metal gate, Hurricane Sandy, and much more, but for some reason, one incident from years back sticks sticks out. One evening, a well-dressed 40-ish man—not previously known to us—bustled in, came to the counter, and said, ‘I was in Prague over the weekend, and I had a glass of port that was fantastic. What was it?’”
—Jamie Wolff, partner, Chambers Street Wines, New York City
Sleigh Bells Ring, but They Aren’t Going Anywhere
“The first year of anyone’s business is a very stressful time, as you’re trying to figure out the many moving pieces. But it was the New York City transit strike that occurred during our fourth month of business at Appellation Wine & Spirits in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood that nearly killed me.
“The strike began on December 19, 2005, and getting to work was a nightmare. One employee walked from the Bronx; another couldn’t make it in from Queens at all. Every day, I’d ride my bike to the shop in the frigid cold—right past transit workers carrying picket signs—then return home late at night in even more bitter temperatures. Meanwhile, at the shop, the phone was eerily quiet. By the time the strike ended, shortly before Christmas, the season was over—many of our newly found customers had already left town.
“The store closed a couple of years ago, and I now work for Jenny & François, a natural-wine importer. Even 13 years later, I still have nightmares about that holiday season.”
—Scott Pactor, operations executive, Jenny & François, and former owner, Appellation Wine & Spirits, New York City
Credit Freezes and Snow Put Holidays on Ice
“Two years ago, a day before Thanksgiving, our credit card machine went down. The line of customers was out the door, and there was nothing we could do about it. No one carries that much cash on them these days. Eventually, we got a backup machine, but until then things were pretty horrific.”
—Jairo Triguero, manager, Grape Expectations, Tarrytown, New York
“Even worse was the blizzard that came in late December. Conditions were so bad that only a handful of customers—those within walking distance—could get to the store. That effectively ruins your year. You’re sitting there with no sales and no ability to make those sales up, because it’s Christmas. You could be down 25 percent in sales for the year just because of those couple of days. You buy a lot more wine for the holidays than you normally would, and a lot of that is special orders. Those bottles will sit there, unsold, for a full year. It can be devastating.”
—John G. Sarofeen, owner, Grape Expectations
A Christmas Robbery
“A few years back, two days before Christmas, I was on my break and my dad, who was working with me at a wine shop in San Bernardino, was filling a cooler when two guys in masks rush in, screaming. Dad doesn’t hear a thing because he’s in the cooler, and they don’t even notice he’s there.
“By the time I realized what was happening, one guy was already behind the counter. Then the other guy gets scared and is like, ‘Nope, this isn’t for me, I’m out of here,’ and runs out of the store, leaving his friend alone. The guy was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But he still wanted the money, so I handed him a few hundred dollars, at which point my dad turns around and yells, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ Then the guy takes out a second gun and points it at my dad. So now it’s two guns, one robber, and the two of us. We told him to take what he wanted and go, and then he ran out the door.
“The day after Christmas, we got the call that the guys had been caught—a couple of teens.
And for all that, they got about $300. You can’t even buy two pairs of Jordans with that.”
—Rani Ghanem, co-owner, Royal Oaks Liquors, Arcadia, California
Like Wild Turkey? Try the Wild Peacock
“Last year, I was working alone one day in the shop my dad and I own, when in strolled a peacock. Because it didn’t trigger the door alarm, I didn’t notice the bird until a customer walked in. The woman was speaking Spanish and trying to explain something to me, and I was like, ‘I’m not quite sure I understand.’ Then she said, ‘Pollo,’ and I did know pollo meant ‘chicken.’ So I walked around the counter to check out this chicken that was in the store—and it was a peacock. Actually, it was a peahen because it was female.
“I always thought peacocks hovered, like chickens, but they can actually fly, and this one flew straight at me, then started lapping the store, at which point I called 911.
“But here’s the thing: Peacocks and peahens are a protected species, so you can’t do anything to them, especially in the city of Arcadia. You can’t catch them, you can’t feed them, and you can’t kick them out of your liquor store.
“Eventually, the bird landed on top of a fridge and then moved onto a shelf. And that’s where it sat until the Humane Society arrived. With a fishnet. I kid you not: It was a fishnet. With the fishnet in hand, the Humane Society officer pokes at the bird, which just aggravates it, so it jumps onto a rack across from the wine display. Then, when the officer tries to pin it down there, it jumps onto the island wine display and knocks over a couple of bottles. It’s trying to get its balance, but the more it flaps its wings, the more bottles fall. Pretty soon the bird is flapping, bottles are falling, and the Humane Society guy is totally confused. Does he grab the bird or the tumbling wine bottles? Then, instead of catching the bird, he’s trying to catch the bottles with the fishnet.
“When I saw that, I realized I had to take matters into my own hands. I’m from Syria, and back in the day we had chickens. I figure if I can handle a rooster, I can probably handle a peahen. Eventually, the officer pins the peahen down with his fishnet, I grab the bird, and together we get him out of the store.”
—Rani Ghanem, co-owner, Royal Oaks Liquors
And a Bonus—Looking Ahead to Valentine’s Day
“In the Hudson Valley, skunk mating season is in February, which also happens to be a significant holiday season for wine lovers.
“I know that February is skunk mating season because we had a female skunk living in the basement of Copake Wine Works. We learned that when male suitors come calling, if the female isn’t interested, she’ll let off a stink to make her lack of interest known. Our resident female was apparently very picky. So we hired a skunk guy to come and catch the suitors. We figured he would get one, maybe two. He caught seven. And he was charging us by the skunk. We asked him what he was doing with the skunks he caught, and he told us he was taking them to the other side of the river. He also mentioned that he would sometimes let them loose at the houses of people who hadn’t paid him. Needless to say we paid him for all seven skunks, but we said no more. Now we’re waiting for all the skunks he took across the river to get caught over there and be brought back here.”
—Christy Frank, wine buyer, Copake Wine Works, Copake, New York
When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.