[Cross-posted at www.popandpour.ca]

The best word to use to describe Richmond Hill Wines as you pull into the parking lot is “unassuming”.  Located just north of Richmond Road in a quiet strip mall just off of 51st Street SW, it has the almost dreary, sleepy look of your average neighbourhood liquor store.  This Clark Kent exterior hides an absolute gem of a wine shop on the inside, one whose longevity is almost unparalleled (it opened in 1991) and whose staff are some of the most knowledgeable and qualified in the city, not to mention the longest-tenured.  In an industry where high turnover and staff attrition are entirely expected, Richmond Hill has a number of long-time employees who have been with the shop for years, helping to maintain loyal customer relationships and giving the store a sense of consistency and permanence that is tremendously rare in the world of retail wine.

One such employee is RHW manager Dave Amadio, who was the first guy I met when I first walked into Richmond a couple of years ago and who continues to remember me to this day even though I only manage to frequent his doorstop once every few months.  I use the term “manager” loosely because, as Dave puts it, “we don’t really do titles at Richmond Hill”; the actual job description that he provided was “manager/purchaser/pusher/overly opinionated wine guy”, which more or less sums it up.

Amadio’s journey to a career at Richmond Hill is a story that comes full circle.  While in University, he was first introduced to wine by a friend that worked at…Richmond Hill.  Weekend home tastings led to an increasingly serious interest in the subject, until “I found that I was spending more time reading wine literature than my textbooks.”  Amadio took a job at Varsity Wine Merchants during school, and afterward he contemplated continuing a career in wine.  Thanks to some invaluable assistance from Richmond Hill owner Gary Jennings, he and a couple of his friends at RHWwere fortunate enough to get the opportunity to do what every wine lover dreams of:  work hands on at a winery at harvest time.  “I had the crazy idea that if I was going to be involved in wine for a living and speak on it with some authority, I had better figure out how it is made,” says Amadio.  He devoted himself to this pursuit, working 7 different vintages in the Southern Hemisphere (5 in Australia and 2 in New Zealand), complemented by a full year at an Australian winery.  At the end of his year Down Under, Amadio contacted Jennings at Richmond and asked for a job.  “I landed back in Canada on October 19th and was working at RHW two days later, and I’ve been here for 11 years now.”

Amadio is but one of many RHW staffers who have direct winery experience, something that not only allows them to gain a firsthand understanding of what goes into wine production but also gives them the ability to approach their work in the retail side of the industry in a more well-rounded and appreciative manner.  When you have seen the bottle you’re selling come out of the field and have tended the fermentation tanks when it was turned into wine, you’re bound to approach it with increased respect, and that emotional investment in your product will rub off on customers.  I don’t know of any other store whose ranks are filled with so much on-the-ground wine experience.  Amadio believes that this level of investment in the industry forges bonds with producers and leads to increased business opportunities for the shop:  “When you work day in and day out in a winery, side by side with the winery staff, you develop a relationship.  I can’t even count how many brands we have here that started with a pint and a ‘Hey, my friend is making some really cool stuff up in the hills!  Want to go have a look?’”

If you weren’t already familiar with the store, it would not be immediately evident to you what has kept Richmond Hill a major player in the Calgary retail wine scene for 22 years.  The shop’s layout is sparse and utilitarian, free of the trimmings and luxury touches now seen inside some of its younger competitors.  The store isn’t massive, and the shelves aren’t overflowing with selection, tending to display a carefully chosen collection of select wines from key regions instead of a multitude of more widely available options.  I didn’t set foot in RHW back when it first opened (I lived in another city at the time…and was 11 years old), but I would bet you that it looks more or less the same now as it did then.  So without the prime inner city location, immediate visual impact and shelves full of immediately recognizable brands, how does Richmond Hill remain successful?  “Customer service and value,” states Amadio.  “There are no shelf talkers or BBQ giveaways.  We put so much emphasis on value that there is little room for anything else.  We don’t have a bottle of Mondavi or Wolf Blass on the shelf; instead, we have hand-picked our whole store and can provide an equal or better match to our customers looking for those types of bottles.  Most of our products are exclusive to us and therefore we have in a sense removed ourselves from any sort of head-to-head dynamic that would result from competition.”  This ongoing quest to offer a unique product, backed up by the service and knowledge necessary to make it familiar to buyers, has created a large and loyal customer base that keeps coming back regardless of RHW’s not-exactly-high-traffic location.  It’s a grassroots approach to retail that, 22 years later, often draws people to Richmond Hill on reputation alone.  “There is rarely a week that passes when a customer doesn’t walk in the door and say ‘I had no idea you were here, but I’ve heard about you for years’.”

Thanks in large part to owner Gary Jennings’ connections with the Australian wine industry and the RHW staff’s collective Oceanic winery experience, it is no surprise that Richmond Hill is well known for its eclectic and impressive lineup of high-quality Australian wines.  Despite the end of the Aussie Shiraz boom of the early 2000s and the increase in the number of wine consumers willing to explore other vinous options, Amadio still sees a healthy demand for the products of his vinicultural training ground.  “To be honest, we are bringing in as much Australian wine as we did years ago, if not more.  The key is that we have always focused on what we think is good wine, quality wine”, as opposed to the trends of the moment.  Of course, Richmond is far from a one trick pony, also boasting strong collections of wines from the USA, Germany, Spain and France (including the exclusive Canadian allocation of legendary white Burgundy producer Domaine Leflaive, whose wines are absolutely mindblowing).  The eye-popping array of premium classed-growth Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-de-Pape and Grand Cru Burgundy bottles that casually line the back walls of the store (sitting in the same type of display case as the $25 Shirazes across the way — no locked glass-walled cabinets here) make a visit worthwhile all by themselves.

Once you make the trek southwest to Richmond Hill and walk through the doors to see Dave behind the counter, what’s he going to tell you to buy?  I won’t leave you in suspense — the official PnP/CIA Richmond Hill Buying Guide has all your answers below:

Q.  Out of your currently available inventory, what’s the one bottle that you bring home the the most for personal consumption?  What’s it like?

Dave Amadio:  Well that’s easy:  Montrose Rose ($15.95).  I love dry Rose.  This one is clean and crisp and has a balanced acid component.  The nose reminds me of underripe strawberries or even a hint of spring radishes before they develop that tart bite.

Q.  If you were going to sell me one bottle of Australian wine that encapsulated where that industry is at right now, what would it be?  Where’s the Aussie wine industry heading going forward?

Dave Amadio:  Rockford Basket Press Shiraz ($69.95) — the 1999, or maybe the 2001.  This one bottle shows what Australia can and should be doing with their industry.  As for where they are heading, in my opinion their industry is really divided right now.  There has always been a strong undercurrent of focused, naturally ripe wines that will stand the test of time.  However, in the last 10 years we have seen the rise of a huge export segment of overripe, super-extracted unbalanced wines — for lack of a better term, “Critter” wines [Author's Note:  So named because of their propensity to have a cartoon animal on the front label.  Think kangaroos and penguins.].

Q.  Each month Richmond Hill features 8 different affordable wines that it puts on sale.  How about a sneak peek to a November Feature must-have?

Dave Amadio:  November must have…well, on our next release there will be a little white wine from France.  It won’t be on our monthly feature but we wait each year for this to be released!!  It’s the 2010 Jean-Louis Chavy Bourgogne Blanc ($23.95) — it tastes like you’re getting a Grand Cru Puligny-Montrachet for 1/4 the price!  OK, maybe that’s a bit much, but it’s really good.  As for the current features, look for the 2009 Ravenna Riesling (reg. $19.95, sale $14.50).  I have always been a huge Riesling fan and am in love with this Washington State wine!

Q.  I ask this question to every retailer I interview.  What’s your top “black sheep” bottle, the one that is generally ignored by your customers even though you feel it should be flying off your shelves?  If you want, you can give me a black sheep from both the red and white side of the aisle.  

Dave Amadio:  OK, one of each:

- RED — 2010 Jean-Marc Burgaud Morgon Cote du Puy ($24.95), a Cru Beaujolais.  I once had a client look at me after suggesting this wine and say:  “Did you just try and give me Beaujolais?  What did I do to you?”  These wines and this region are among some of my favourite wines in the world:  fresh, clean, and with young bright fruit!

- WHITE — (Any vintage) Mesh Eden Valley Riesling ($33.00)!  A joint venture between Robert Hill Smith (Yalumba Family Winery) and Jeffrey Grosset (Grosset Wines, and Australia’s foremost Riesling specialist), this is super clean and crisp, with acidity that will rip the enamel off your teeth if consumed too early.  Given some time and patience, the reward of this wine is great!  [Author's Note:  I've had this before on RHW's recommendation and can vouch for both its awesomeness and its crazy acidity.  Well worth a try.]

Q.  Let’s go from paupers to princes to wrap things up.  (1)  What’s your top bottle in the shop for $15 or less?  (2)  If I had an unlimited budget and wanted a superlative unforgettable wine experience, what would you pull for me?

Dave Amadio:

- $15 OR LESS — 2010 Castillo de Maluenda Garnacha Vinas Viejas from Spain ($13.95).  Why?  Well, to start, it’s made from 40-100 year old vines, creating rich dark fruit notes with an underlying spiciness that balances well with the softer tannin structure.

- UNLIMITED BUDGET — One of the wines that I would step over family to get at has always been Krug Clos du Mesnil Champagne — any vintage, I don’t care ($650-$800+).  My first experience with this wine was in 2001.  I couldn’t tell you if it’s actually the wine or the manner in which and with whom I drank it, but each time I feel like I have just committed the most gluttonous crime, yet I am not ashamed.

Richmond Hill Wines is located at #108, 3715 – 51 Street SW.  They feature one of Calgary’s largest selections of Joh. Jos. Prum German Rieslings, so they are my friends.