At Seattle's oldest wine shop, Champion’s wine sleuth adapts
By Bill Thorness, special to the Phinneywood Blog
Erin Lyman is a case study in adaptation. Like most small businesses, her Champion Wine Cellars at 8503 Greenwood Avenue N. has been thrown for a loop due to the pandemic. “It’s been a rollercoaster!” she says. But people have responded as she’s remade a high-contact shop into mostly touch-free.
“Go Greenwood!” she says, with enthusiastic appreciation for her customers, many of whom are helping her business remain viable through word-of-mouth.
But: no more wine tastings. No more casual browsing the colorful shelves of the tiny, windowless shop (unless you make a private, scheduled appointment). Mostly, she doesn’t allow shoppers past the improvised front door that’s been turned into a “wine window.”
Instead, she’s added free, same-day delivery within Seattle (six bottle minimum), curated wine packages based on popular price points, collaborations with pasta and dessert artisans, and even gift-wrapping with a notecard. And as the 30-something owner of Seattle’s oldest wine shop—begun in 1969 at 1st and Denny by Emile Ninaud—she offers an extensive website, email newsletter, virtual wine tastings and Instagram flashiness.
Barring the Door
She stepped onto the roller coaster a week before the mandatory shutdown when she voluntarily closed the store and moved a portable bar in front of the door to create a window where people could pick up their orders from a distance.
That barrier was the polar opposite of her business model to “bring people into the store to taste wine,” she says. Tastings “would make it easier for me to make suggestions based on their preferences.” Erin, a former wine director at Café Campagne, brings the restaurant approach.
Rolling that bar into place also went against her goal of making people “a little more comfortable about wine.” She wants to banish the ideas that a wine shop would be too expensive or they would feel a little put off if they didn’t know a lot about wine. Hence, “no judging” and an entire wall in her shop with wines $15 or less.
More Than ‘White’ Wine
“Wine shops tend to not be the most welcoming place for a wide variety of people,” she says. That includes people of color, which especially concerns her, as both she and her partner are in that demographic. She is Asian-Hawaiian (and grew up in Hawaii) and her partner Suthap Manivong is from Bellevue but his heritage is Lao.
“The wine industry is really white,” she says, catering especially to men 40 to 60 years old. Women are also often made to feel unwelcome or ignored, as she herself has felt “until I got to the register.”
So she wants her shop to be “a place where people can come in and get good wines and good service and be a welcoming spot to whoever.” Hers is “a quiet fight,” she says, “one of bringing access to people.” She hopes society changes for the better “as a result of all the attention that has been brought to inequality.”
Testing Your Taste Buds
If you’re used to supermarket wine choices, Erin’s small-producer selections will be a delight. And if you’re environmentally conscious, you’ll appreciate her focus on organic and sustainable wineries.
But it’s the sleuthing of your tastes that Erin finds most rewarding.
“I call it decoding,” she says.
“I’ll usually ask them the last glass of red wine that they had that they really enjoyed, and if they can tell me what grape it was based on, or what restaurant they were at when they had it, or even a photo of the bottle, I can often find wines of a similar style or texture.”
Tasting is the key, she says, so she’ll send a new customer off with one bottle, then adjust her approach when they return. It’s the same for six-bottle packages. “I track what people order and when they come back I can change it up based on their preferences.”
She thinks mood has a big effect on a person’s tastes, and that is especially significant in these times. “If you’re feeling anxious, you want something that will make you feel good. And if you’re feeling happy, that’s when you want to celebrate or venture out into something totally unique. When you’re feeling tired or exhausted, that’s when you want a wine that will pick you up, give you a little more energy.”
Through wine, you can take the temperature of the town. Right now, she says “people need something bright and bubbly,” so sparkling wine is in.
Seeking comfort also dictates taste. “When people find a wine they like, they’ve really been stocking up on that wine, rather than being more experimental,” which resonates with her.
She expects more comfort will be needed this fall. “I feel like people waffle between optimism and despair pretty quickly,” she says. “It’s so gorgeous outside right now and it’s sunny and the minute you turn on the news or look at a New York Times article, you’re like, ‘oh my goodness’.”
Food Pairing for Home Chefs
More home cooking also has driven wine choices, and Erin’s restaurant experience—plus Suthap’s prowess in the kitchen and her collaboration with artisan producers—has added a great food-pairing dimension to her offerings.
Don’t want to cook on a warm summer night? Try a cold vermicelli bowl, maybe with a red wine that can be briefly chilled due to its flavor notes and tannin levels.
Or try a seasonal pasta or a special dessert, each with appropriate wines. You can get Megan Barone’s pastas at Champion on Saturdays, of course with a wine suggestion. Once a month, order a dessert box from Fremont pastry chef Jasmin Bell Smith and pick it up at Champion with a paired wine.
These offerings just started during the pandemic and “we would love to continue doing collaborations with other small businesses, people who make food,” Erin says. Chefs, are you listening?
Eventually, Seattle will be post-pandemic, and Erin dreams about resuming tastings, and allowing 83-year-old Emile to again make guest appearances. Perhaps even open a wine bar or do private food and wine pairings. Meanwhile, she’s at the other end of the line, waiting to sleuth out your wine preferences.