When Matt Chaney moved from Winter Park, Colorado, to Kennebunk, Maine, he and his wife were seeking a different way of life—milder winters, closer proximity to family, life on the coast. A few months after relocating, he bought the local wineshop and Down East Wine Imports was born. Chaney already had 12 years of retail experience in a resort community under his belt, and he was prepared for the challenges he knew he would face.
“We had to budget for the off-season, heavily,” Chaney says. “We do 20 percent of our yearly sales in July and August, yet our overhead essentially stays the same year-round.” This takes some savvy financial juggling for him, particularly because Maine is a cash-on-delivery state. He has to pay for fall releases long before he’ll sell most of them. But Chaney has loyal summertime customers who count on being able to walk into Down East and find bottles that they can’t get anywhere else locally. This clientele also tends to buy bottles that are double or triple in price what his year-round clients typically spend on an average bottle. Rather than going for $10-to-$15 bottles, they’re more likely to shop for bottles in the $30-to-$45 price range.
And while the surge of summer travelers does pay most of his bills, having a steady local business is important to Chaney, too. Down East is open all but two days a year, unlike other retail establishments in resort towns that close for long stretches in the off-season. “It took a while for locals to understand that we wouldn’t do that,” Chaney says. He also keeps prices steady year-round and offers a loyalty program to locals.
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Keeping his inventory fresh is key. “If I’m grabbing a bottle to take home at night and I’m bored with my selection, my customers must be bored, too,” Chaney says. On top of his longtime retail experience, he was also a wine sales rep for nine years. He has the sales reps he now works with do exactly what he used to do when he was in their shoes: regularly walk through the store with him and examine what’s on his shelves. “I don’t want to get lazy because I’m sticking with what I know,” he says. “I ask them to find any holes [with regard to] a region or varietal. I also look to them to tell me if there is something trending and selling exceptionally well that I’m missing out on because I don’t have it on my shelf.”
Chaney has bolstered his sales by paying close attention to what his customers want—and his efforts are not always limited to wine. When he found out that the gourmet shop across the street was closing, he expanded his cheese and cured meat selection. After several customers expressed disappointment that the neighboring cigar shop had shuttered, Chaney hauled his personal humidors into the store (and then bought a state-of-the-art humidor for the shop). “If people are asking for [something] repeatedly,” he says, “I need to be the source.”
But wine is ultimately the reason customers head into Down East. The relationships Chaney’s built over his more than 20 years of experience in sales and retail mean that highly allocated wines land on his shelves. He received one of the 10 6-liter bottles of Billecart-Salmon Champagne that crossed the Atlantic this year, and all six bottles of 2014 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 that were destined for Maine went to Down East.
Chaney hosts tastings three Saturdays a month, each time uncorking six bottles ranging from $10 to $100. “I choose wines that I would be interested in trying if I were invited to a tasting,” he says. Knowing that some people are hesitant to drop $100 on a wine they haven’t tried, Chaney wants to give customers the opportunity to try them without a financial commitment. When they need a bottle for a special occasion or a gift later on, they’ll be more comfortable buying a wine they’ve tasted.
Being a wineshop owner in coastal Maine, Chaney is frequently asked what wines pair well with the local seafood. Here are his top six choices.
2015 Pianogrillo Grillo ($23)
“This is a beautiful, aromatic white from Sicily. The Grillo grape has been grown for centuries to be paired specifically with briny seafood. Notes of white flowers and a hint of tropical fruit in the nose are accented on the palate by a light acidity and minerality. The finish is clean, yet with a heavier weight and complexity than one would expect from a Grillo. The fruit is all harvested by hand, and the winemaking techniques are all done manually, from punching down the cap to bâtonnage.”
2015 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc ($50)
“After facing years of gender discrimination in the wine industry, Merry Edwards has paved the way for many women winemakers, while making some of the most delicious wines coming out of the Russian River Valley. Her Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite representation of the varietal worldwide. The nose is so appealing, with notes of grapefruit, citrus, and orange blossom. The palate also shows honeysuckle, peach, and melon. The finish is creamy and complete, while being balanced by a wonderful acidity.”
2015 Liquid Farm White Hill Chardonnay ($43)
“This is one of my absolute favorite seafood wines, made by one of the nicest, most genuine, and passionate winemakers I have met in the industry—Jeff Nelson. Liquid Farm is a relatively young winery (its first vintage was barreled in 2009), yet each and every successive release has been remarkably delicious. Chablisiane in style, this wine has floral, citrus, and tangerine aromas that continue onto the palate. There is great acidity and minerality up front, followed by a creaminess and lemon curd characteristic.”
Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve N/V ($63)
“Billecart-Salmon is my favorite Champagne house, and their nonvintage Brut Reserve is the perfect wine to complement any bivalve dish. This winery is one of the few remaining in Champagne that is still operated by the founding family. The Brut Reserve is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the bubbles are tiny and bountiful, and the straw-yellow color is enticing. Green apples, a floral fragrance, and ripe pear notes in the nose. It’s very elegant, with a wonderful texture on the palate, a smoky minerality, and a hint of ginger and honey. Finishes bone dry.”
2016 François Chidaine Touraine Rosé ($18)
“This winery produces some of the Loire Valley’s finest wines, especially for the price point. This rosé is made with estate-grown Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Grolleau. The calcareous limestone rock in the region adds to the wine’s complexity. [It has] a slightly darker hue than the more well-known and traditional Provençal rosés and you’ll find fresh summer red berries in the nose. On the palate, those [flavors] continue to sing, joined by a mineral note and some tartness. Finishes dry. This ‘porch pounder’ leaves you wanting more.”
2014 Ken Wright Canary Hill Pinot Noir ($63)
“Ken Wright’s single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are hands down some of the best produced in the country. His Canary Hill Vineyard is his lightest and most seafood friendly—especially with Maine salmon or bluefin tuna. After sourcing fruit from Canary Hill for years, he bought the vineyard in 2006. The French say that you should be able to read a newspaper through your glass of Pinot Noir, and this wine fits that ideology. Cherries, blueberries, and spice in the nose, joined by cranberries, raspberries, and plums on the palate. Soft, light tannins meld seamlessly with a bright acidity in the finish.”
Carolyn Malcoun is a food editor, recipe developer, and craft beer nerd. She came to Vermont to attend the New England Culinary School and fell in love with the state. She lives outside Burlington, where she’s a wannabe homesteader, hiker, and cyclist and aspires to pass the Beer Judge Certification Program.