Events & People: Vance Gregory of Edmond Wine Shop
EA: Vance, tell us the story of how Edmond Wine Shop got started.
VG: Well, I left my job at Byron’s in August of 1973 and knew at the time I wanted to run a wine type store, because I had been out to California and had seen how those were successful there. That’s what excited me and I could see the potential for me was real obvious at the time. That’s what interested me as spirits and beers didn’t interest me that much.
So I came back and I wanted to do some things at Byron’s that the owner did not really care to do and
didn’t want to follow up on. So we had a philosophical difference on how we wanted to proceed and I left. I kind of kicked around for a couple of months trying to figure out how to get the funding to open the kind of store I wanted to open and I had a wholesaler friend who had a friend who had guaranteed the note on the inventory in the store in Edmond, and that store had failed basically.
There was very little inventory left and it was unsustainable. Because he had guaranteed that note, the guy at the store couldn’t pay that note off, he didn’t have any money. The guy that guaranteed that note was left holding the bag, so to speak, with about a $12,000 balance left. So I got together with my wholesaler friend at the time, convinced him I could run the store even though I had no money and he had the debt he needed paid off and didn’t know how to run the store, so we cut a deal that was basically a sweat equity deal that I would pay off the note and I would own the store, if he would also advance me more money to increase the inventory. I had to do quite a bit of talking, (laughs), especially considering I was 24 years old at the time, and I had somehow convinced him to do that. And luckily, I had gone to high school with his daughter, who was 4 years ahead of me, so he had some sense of who I was, and because our mutual friend had recommended me. That’s how I got the opportunity to get Edmond Wine Shop off the ground, and at that time making Edmond Wine Shop only the 2nd store in Edmond as Edmond was much smaller then.
EA: What was Edmond like then?
VG: Well, for one, Boulevard was only two lanes. Pretty much everything south of 33rd was just non existent, it was just open fields. If I recall, you could go east on 15th and it was a dirt road past Coltrane, and they had only recently then extended the Broadway Extension so that you could drive into Edmond, I believe in the late 60’s, before then you stopped at 122nd or Hefner, I can’t remember which. I think it was Hefner and you couldn’t go any further north on the Broadway Extension at that time.
EA: So 24, kind of talking your way into the business, what made you think you could do it?
VG: I just think I was young and passionate, and I didn’t know any fear and didn’t think I would fail. I just didn’t think I would. I ate peanut butter sandwiches for about two years, almost every lunch. I had one helper there for awhile and then my second year, I hired a second employee.
I would have to put a sign on the door when I went to the restroom so I wouldn’t lose a single customer. I remember every customer, and I still feel this way, every single person who walked through that door was appreciated. I mean there were some days where there were only 30 to 40 customers in one day, and that was a big deal. I’d fight for every customer I could get.
EA: You mentioned there were two liquor/wine stores?
VG: There were two, and there really weren’t any wine stores then at all. Everything then was centered around spirits and beer, and wine was an after thought.
Wine was like a little closet in the back where you had Lancers, Matuse, Blue Nun, Reunite, BMeister Crock bottles, Asti Spumante was pretty new then, Boones Farm was cooking back then. Then you had the really quality wines like Annie Greensprings, Ripple…(laughing), Thunderbird, Ariba
was another one, so you had all that stuff. A smattering of imported wines like a few
Bordeaux, a few burgundy’s, some Italian Red’s and that was about it. There were very few serious domestic producers back then.
We had 2 Cabernet’s when I opened the store, Paul Masson and Louis Martini, and that’s all we could get at that time.
EA: In the 70’s is when the west coast wineries were really getting started, when did you bring the change in the wine culture in Edmond?
VG: They weren’t available in Oklahoma. They weren’t available much outside of California. In
fact, most people in the United States in general, especially those on the East Coast and especially those in Chicago, looked down their nose at domestic wine production. They didn’t prove themselves until the Paris Tasting in 1976 that Steven Spurrier organized in Paris using French judges one on one, Cabernets against Cabernets, and judging the Domestic wines against their French counterparts, and White Burgundy’s against California Chardonnays. That put California on the map. Those of us who tasted those wines and believed in them weren’t surprised, but it was a huge shock and it made the cover of TIME magazine and it was a really big deal.
EA: Aside from the movie, do you actually remember all of that going down?
VG: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Ok, so when I was first starting out and did this, everyone thought I was crazy. My parents thought I was crazy. I had an electrical engineering degree, which I wasn’t using, which made my dad crazy (laughing).
EA: Did your parents pay for college?
VG: (Laughs) No, I was on scholarship actually, and I would have thought twice had my parents paid for school, and they supported me all through college. No one in Oklahoma was doing a wine store around the wine selection. And I had so many people in the industry basically to my face tell me I was crazy, that I was going to go out of business, and I really needed to reverse things or I was going to go broke. And you know, I almost believed them for awhile.
EA: Why do you think they said that, was it because it was Oklahoma?
VG: You know, it was just the mentality at the time. These were old whiskey guys. And whiskey is what made money back then. Scotch, bourbon, and vodka. That’s what everyone bought and wine sales were minuscule back then. I still believed that was going to change. It was just too good in California and I could see people responding to it there.
And quite frankly, I was persuaded by people in the business. Robert Mondavi was a passionate, ardent believer in the potential quality of his wines and the quality of California wines. You know, he
would not let it drop. Every time someone gave him the opportunity to talk about it, he would bend their ear about how good his wines were. It paid off but it just took some time getting it going.
EA: Ok, so back to the previous question, how long did it take to change the culture and really introduce people in Oklahoma to wines?
VG: Well, it helped that we started to get some really good restaurants in the area. There
were a couple, I believe John Bennett had one called the Grand Boulevard restaurant which was at the site at the present Flip’s and they had a great wine list.
There was a restaurant called Casablanca which opened in the late 70’s to early 80’s and it was in Paseo, the country clubs began ordering and having special wine lists, and at that time it was illegal selling wine until about 1984 or 85.
EA: Wait. For those not from Oklahoma, restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol?
VG: No, not legally. You had to be a member of the “club”. There were all types of dances i.e. workarounds you had to go through. Depending on the mood of the enforcement people or the political pressure at the time, restaurants would get busted and their entire wine or liquor inventory would get confiscated and later sold or destroyed. That didn’t change in Oklahoma until the mid 80’s. We started seeing more and more interest in wines and we started to build on that. It wasn’t until the late 80’s when people in the industry that would go out to California and tour the wineries. And the wineries finally figured out that Napa was kind of like adult Disneyland.
They thought if they could promote Napa and their wineries, and sell direct to people, that they could make the whole profit. They would discount to the wholesale marketer who would discount it to the retailer and with all noted mark ups, the wineries would still make a similar profit as at their winery.
Well obviously, if you don’t have to discount that, you can sell it there at the winery, you would make
a whole lot more money. But beyond that, they also discovered the loyalty of people
have toward certain wineries.
People visit the winery, they have a nice experience, the hospitality, the wine, the ambiance, then people go home and they want to drink your wine. If you came home and the wine wasn’t available, people would come to me and say they’d like to request certain wines. So, people like me would go back out to California and see if we could bring those wines back and I did that quite a bit.
With the rise of the tourism industry, with the avid amateur wine aficionado – people from Oklahoma started going out to California and educating themselves at different wineries, then they would come back home, entertain their friends, show off these wines, then their friends would want to do the same thing. This all started to explode by the middle 90’s here in Oklahoma and we were rocking and rolling in the wine business.
EA: So when do think the trend started in Oklahoma where people started to come in and request specific wines?
VG: Probably in the 1980’s. By then most of the wineries had gotten established. The 90’s saw the rise of the high end, low production incredibly expensive wines like Screaming Eagle and Harlan, and some of those like Opus 1 who had opened up by then. It’s just been a steady development.
I remember vividly going to Napa the first couple of times I went out and it was mostly horse country dotted by wineries, and now, you can’t find a horse farm. They also used to have walnut groves and olive groves there because you could make more money in that business than you could growing grapes. It’s really been fun to see that progress, and be vindicated in what I thought was going to happen.
EA: Did this trend catch all of the Oklahoma liquor stores off guard or do you think everyone just changed with the times?
VG: For the longest time, there was only about 10 or so stores that had a decent wine selection. I think that changed in the middle 80’s as at some point, it just couldn’t be ignored any more because it was becoming too pervasive and the demand got to a certain point. The other stores weren’t really educated, and I invested I don’t know how many trips out to California to get an understanding of winemaking just so I could be intelligent enough to talk with anyone who came into the store, well almost anybody.
EA: Let’s talk about the law. I know Oklahoma has a pretty strange history with alcohol. What are some of the laws that prevented you from doing what you wanted to do with your business?
VG: The most restrictive law that really kept us from getting bigger right off the bat was that we were not allowed to advertise. You could not advertise your store, and you couldn’t advertise liquor at all. The head of the ABLE Commission, that extended to not being able to have plants inside my store as the plants were considered an inducement inside my store to try to get people to come inside my store.
What they really wanted for the longest time was just to have a store that sold nothing but alcohol and they didn’t want it to be a pleasant experience or a place that people would consider enjoyable to go into. I entered a lawsuit with the ABLE Commission, because my store faced west and I had these blinds that I would pull down to screen the store from the afternoon sun.
At that time there was a rule that stated that if you had windows you were not allowed to obscure the view from the outside of the store to the inside of the store. I could have bricked it up to stay within the law.
For the 3 or so hours I would pull the screens, I actually had an agent come into the store and write me a citation. So I had to get an attorney. I went to court with another guy who participated with me who was in Lawton, and we had to get a court order against ABLE in enforcing the rule. The advertising issue was really hurtful. It was all word of mouth, I couldn’t do a newsletter, I couldn’t put posters on the window, I couldn’t hand out fliers and had to be really careful about what I said in public because theoretically they could have fined me for that. When we had sales, the lettering on the tags were only allowed to be an inch high. This really prevented me from growing for the longest time.
EA: What is the Blue Law now? What are you allowed to do and not allowed to do?
VG: We are not allowed to sell anything in the store except alcoholic beverages. No mixers, no glasses, no corkscrews, no cigars, just wines, spirits and beers. I am required by law to buy only from Oklahoma State Wholesalers. We can now promote via advertising through many outlets like our newsletter and EdmondActive, of course.
EA: You’re also not allowed to own more than one store, correct?
VG: That’s correct. We can’t own more than one store, well, actually my wife could own one so that would be 2 per married couple.
EA: So when are you opening your second wine shop?
VG: We’re working on it (laughs), but I’m a cautious guy. We were on the threshold of doing it in 2008, and then the economy went south. I am just being cautious about getting through this first. Also there is rampant talk about wine grocery stores, too, which would have a devastating effect on our local homegrown industry here.
“It takes a lot to run a successful business. It requires hard work, dedication, street smarts and common sense, but most of all it requires passion. If you ask any successful business owner, ‘what drives you?’ The number one answer will always be passion. If you aren’t passionate about your business you aren’t going anywhere. And if you are very passionate about it, you’re going to be around for a long time.” – Vance Gregory, owner of Edmond Wine Shop
EA: What do you think about the big box stores wanting to move in and sell wine,
spirits and 6 point beer?
VG: Well, they certainly want to sell wine, and they certainly want to sell strong beer, but spirits not so much. Now they do in some other states. 20 years ago no one was interested in selling wine in Oklahoma because there that much interest from the public. For those of us that have built up interest, it’s pretty hard to accept that someone from the outside like a corporation outside of Oklahoma can just walk in and take that from us. That’s the way I look at it.
EA: What qualifications do you look for in your employees (since there isn’t a lot of turnover here at your store), and how does that benefit Edmond consumers and Edmond Wine Shop?
VG: We look for really solid people in knowledge but also in character and work ethic. Right now John is taking a beer education course, Amie has passed her initial Sommelier, the first of three levels. They’re both motivated individually to improve themselves in these professionally recognized titles, and they are not easy to obtain, these tests are very difficult. Our other employees, we encourage them to educate themselves as much as they can while they are here. We are working on ways to change this in the future and it’s our core of John and Amie who are currently working on that currently.
EA: Do you give them some allowance to be able to try different selections?
VG: We do. For weeks, we let them pick some things that they have tasted, and there are other ways for them to taste as there are industry tastings that are offered by some of our distributors that licensees can attend, so they’ll attend some of those.
Or they’ll be at a restaurant or out someplace. We have something called Employee Picks and it changes every 4 weeks and it gives each employee a chance to contribute at their level of expertise and tasting style to contribute to the atmosphere of the store. A lot of people will follow a specific employee based on their tastes. It’s kind of fun to see each individual get a following
based on that.
EA: What’s the most gratifying thing about owning Edmond Wine Shop?
VG: It’s really gratifying for me, after 45 years, that I wake up every day and I still look forward to coming to the shop. When you talk to most business owners they won’t say that. I enjoy what I do even though I went out on a limb 45 years ago to do this, but I followed I what I had in my heart and what I thought would work. I guess it put a fire in my belly when they said it wouldn’t work and I wanted to prove them wrong. I’ve been able to make a living doing it and that’s pretty cool.
You can find Edmond Wine Shop at 1520 S Boulevard just east of Broadway on 15th
Their hours are Monday – Saturday 10-9 pm
Or visit online at Edmondwineshop.com