You are stuck. You need to impress someone with the perfect bottle of wine–that first at-home dinner date that promises romance, a wine-geek friend about to celebrate the big five-o, the new job that seemed an impossible dream just days ago. It’s time to celebrate and you’ve been assigned to get a bottle of wine and it has to be the right bottle. Who are you going to call?
If you head over to the southeast corner of Cerrillos and Saint Francis in Santa Fe, you’ll find your answer at Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits. The moment you walk in you’ll notice the huge variety of displays from Oregon, California, Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, and more. There will be wines you’ve never seen before. But most importantyl, there will be help. Before you get very far, you’re sure to encounter Susan or one of her knowledgable sales staff who will offer assistance and guide you toward your purchase. You might walk out with a bottle you had not anticipated buying or even knew existed, but you know it’s just the right bottle. “That was easy” you tell yourself, but as with every successful retail businesses, there is a lot of planning, hard work and experience that made that transaction possible. This store thrives because they understand Santa Fe’s wine scene and instinctively know what people want in their wine experience.
Santa Fe’s special wine culture starts with its restaurants. In so many other markets when you go out to eat, you see the same nationally distributed wines on the wine list or by-the-glass. While many of them are excellent and reliable, they may sometimes feel overly familiar. When winery representatives come to Santa Fe, they are often surprised by the selections offered on premise, whether it’s a steakhouse, diner, sushi bar or upscale white-tablecloth restaurant. Our restaurants will experiment with a southern Oregon Tempranillo, a Portuguese red from Estremadura, an Apremont from Savoy, Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc or a Sicilian Fiano—and will have the food to pair with those offerings. It is not a big market, but the eating establishments display big-city sophistication when it comes to wine and food.
But what happens when you try and find one of those wines to take home? The restaurants often provide the initial exposure, but a store has to provide the opportunity to follow up, and as this magazine has shown in its series of stories on Santa Fe wine retailers, this town has an outstanding collection of retail establishments with very good buyers. Each store has unique strengths and assets to recommend it. What makes Susan’s different is the time the owner has spent in the industry here.
Susan Eagan has had 18 years of experience working in restaurants back East and in New Mexico, plus 20 years in retail in Santa Fe. (She laughingly emphasizes that she started at a very young age.) Her Santa Fe résumé includes gaining management skills The Steaksmith, Santa Fe Trail Fine Wines and Kelly Liquors. Over the years, she eagerly associated herself with several knowledgeable people in the wine industry who became her mentors, names from the who’s who of New Mexico wine celebrities that long-time residents will recognize: Randy Breski, Ken Shoemaker, Pierre Seronde and Andy Lynch. She learned everything she could from them, constantly tasting wines and enriching that knowledge with travel to wineries in France, Italy, California and most recently Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
In addition to building a databank of comprehensive tasting notes compiled during her tenure as a long-time retailer in Santa Fe, Susan has also built up an extensive contact base in the industry. With this experience she can locate a wine or liqueur for her customers and sometimes have it in the store the next day. Unlike the national or regional chain grocery stores, she does business with all the wine and liquor wholesalers and does not need to go through a centralized corporate office to find and order a wine. Looking for a rare single malt Scotch or Crème de Violette for a recipe or special mixed drink? A prized Nigori sake? Perhaps a Treixadura from Ribeira, in northwest Spain, a txakoli from the Basque Country, a Banyuls dessert wine from southwest France, a Dolcetto di Dogliani from the Piedmont in northern Italy? Susan carries these products, and, if necessary, she will convince the wholesaler to bring it in or even inventory it for her. She recently succeeded in bringing in a line of French white Burgundies that had been discontinued by the wholesaler. “Because of our good working relationship, we can elicit a response from sales representatives and actually serve our customers needs… as they deserve.”
Few buyers spend more time with their wholesale representatives finding out what is available than she does. That investment of time requires support, and hers is outstanding. It starts with her partners. Susan co-owns the store, a family enterprise, with her first cousin Frank Bowlin, his wife, Nirmala Ganapathy, and Nirmala’s sister Prabha Ganapathy. Frank and Nirmala provide business and information technology expertise and work actively behind the scenes.
In the store itself, Susan has assembled an excellent staff. She met Michael Waddington when he came in shopping for what is now a rare bourbon, and he eventually became her assistant store manager. She describes him as a “voracious learner and the state’s go-to beer guy.” He is also one of the city’s more knowledgeable Scotch aficionados and is rapidly reaching that level with fine wine. Steve Dietz has worked for several restaurants in Santa Fe and has developed a great instinct for wine and food pairings. Kat Schilke (who loves to tell the customers “I am not Susan”) has had retail experience in Vail, Colorado, and is a passionate cook, because “it’s all about the food.” Rounding out the team are two energetic and enthusiastic Millennials who grew up in Santa Fe: Blas Ramirez, a specialist in single malts and sake, and Justin Boyes, who manages inventory and is also the resident artist for the wine displays. The staff lives and breathes Susan’s own brand of retail philosophy. As she puts it, “There is no shame in saying ‘I don’t know, but I can find out.’” She is also fond of telling her employees, “We don’t sell up; we sell to. Listen as closely to the person wanting a $20 gift as to the one wanting a $100 gift.”
Now in her sixth year in business with staff in place, ownership secure, and a solid customer base, Susan was ready for the the next step. Where does a burgeoning business in a recovering economy go? Physically, not far at all. While exploring the idea of growing, Susan discovered that her customers liked her existing location at the intersection of two of Santa Fe’s busiest thoroughfares, Cerrillos and St. Francis. When the larger space next door became available, committing to moving was an easy decision, and the extra room gave her the idea of including a bar to give customers a chance to sample new wines and old favorites. Susan’s Friday afternoon tastings, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., have always been well attended, and the new wine bar will bring the store to the absolute cutting edge.
Susan has been preparing to move since January, but, as is often the case in Santa Fe, commercial relocation has not been easy. With completion scheduled for mid-September, the new space will be ready for the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, will be more shop-able and will make the holiday season that much more enjoyable. For Susan, the future looks solid. She feels that her business niche is well established, “because chain stores have gotten more corporate and rigid in their buying habits and inventory control, and we can establish a creative environment and be responsive to customers’ needs and special orders. We can provide a level of service that is above and beyond.”
Her formula for success is deceptively simple. “You have to like people. It’s all about listening.”
Susan’s Fine Wine and Spirits is located at 1005 Saint Francis Drive in the Crossroads Center at Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. 505.984.1582.
Story by Philip de Give