Jerry Burger, owner of the Grand Cru Shoppe, nestled within Saks 5th Avenue at Beachwood Place, loves to bring a touch of showmanship to his business, especially when it comes to displaying the depth of the shop's cellar.
He proffers a "lovely" 1998 Chianti at $24.99, but that's just to get rolling. "As you know, certain things age well Oh!" he feigns surprise as he pulls a bottle from farther back on the shelf. "We happen to have a 1972 here for you. And if you're looking to give something away as a gift that's spectacular, I just happen to have a 1966, a '67 and, whaddya know? Waa-aay hidden in the back over here, I happen to have a 1965!" One after another after another, he's producing bottles like a stage magician pulling a chain of handkerchiefs from his sleeve.
"So we have little hidden treats," he says coyly.
Having a few gems tucked away came in handy when a woman on a mission walked into his shop, searching for a "different" gift for her wine-connoisseur husband with his own 3,000-bottle cellar.
Burger reached into a shelf and smoothly pulled out a 1933 Malmsey Madeira 1933, one of only six bottles in the entire state of Ohio, to his knowledge all in his possession.
A distributor had secured them from the sale of a wine collector's estate in France and Burger bought the lot. He appreciates the risk in such an arcane purchase, since only a handful of customers will plunk down $270 for a bottle of Madeira. But, he adds, "there's also only a half-dozen bottles of 1933." Bringing those two small numbers together is the sort of single-digit addition that has made the Grand Cru Shoppe take off since it opened more than two years ago.
ÙWhen somebody comes in here, they're not looking just for the ordinary," Burger explains. "Yes, we carry some very lovely wines at $17.95, $15.95, whatever it is. But what they're looking for is something unusual."
He can deliver unusual.
Anything less than a full case often doesn't show up on a computerized inventory, so Burger coaxes and cajoles his distributors into physically searching their warehouses for clientele's special requests. That has paid off in some delightful finds for his customers, bottles otherwise unavailable.
"I pulled some strings; it's my job," Burger says simply. "There's this new concept that we operate on. It's called 'customer service.' Brand new."
Through his extensive network of contacts, Burger has also been able to convince vintners to release to him some of the back vintages from the vineyards' own wine libraries. That gives Grand Cru Shoppe customers rare access to vintages that have vanished from the marketplace.
One of the carrots Burger can hold out to the vintners is that cooperating with him may help them become part of a nationwide expansion of Grand Cru Shoppes. He and Saks' management hope to build upon the success of the Beachwood experiment to implement the concept in other Saks stores. Burger is confident that he can make it work, translating his "concierge" service to other markets.
"We would expect the same type of cooperation from distributors in other cities that we get here," he says. "Whatever support we're getting on back vintages from the few distributors we're getting now, as we grow the number of stores we expect that the number of vintners that would open those cellars to us is going to increase by geometric as opposed to arithmetic progression ratios.
"You couldn't ask for a better partner than Saks 5th Avenue," he adds. "They have been so supportive of us. It's been unbelievable."
Next to the Grand Cru Shoppe, Burger has converted Saks' former stockroom for men's apparel into a 2,500-bottle cellar with a small workroom for making up custom gift baskets and a space for private tastings attended by members of the shop's exclusive Cellar Club.
Grand Cru carries something for every taste and every pocketbook, whether money is no object or the object is not to spend a lot. Chardonnays, for instance, range from $9.99 to $65. Burger doesn't jack prices up over the minimum retail.
Selection is impressive, especially considering the small space the shop occupies in Saks.
The Grand Cru Shoppe stocks every major brand of champagne, including Moët et Chandon, Dom Perignon and Taittinger. You can also find current vintage ports, Madeiras, dessert wines and ice wines. If you want to sample without springing for the full-bottle price, Burger carries quite a few half-bottles.
A tantalizing array of other gourmet treats and high-end giftware fill the shelves, from tapenades and imported beers to crostini to loose teas to Arthur Court handcrafted aluminum serveware.
There are even handmade gourmet dog treats for pampered pooches. The miniature tacos, pinwheels, "peanut mutt-er" cookies and mini-croissants are preservative-free and, according to Burger, "healthy enough that a human could eat them." We'll take his word on that one.