Tasting a Bit of France and Other Countries in the National’s Capital

Written by admin on February 13, 2007 – 4:18 pm -

One of the things French residents miss most when they’re in the US is getting their fill of French wines and cheeses. Washington’s Steve Silver is one of the people in the industry who’s impacting and educating customers’ palates. In addition, he’s stopped print advertising and uses the Internet as his only marketing tool. He saves $200,000 to $250,000 per year on print advertising.

At least three times a week, subscribers receive e-newsletters announcing special promotions and tastings. Silver won’t say how many people are on his list but admits he adds approximately 200 email addresses per week.

No longer does he concentrate on hard liquor sales (where there’s a $1-$2 margin per bottle) but now focuses on wine. Steve (or others at Pearson: Larry and Mike) orders some wines in huge quantities; but other purchases would be considered “boutique” vintages that frequently sell out the same day the e-newsletter comes out. Every Saturday afternoon, plan on forging your way into the store to sample (remember – spit – this is NOT a remake of the movie Sidways where the protagonists get rip-roaring drunk.)

When sipping at Pearson’s, put your learning cap on.  Be prepared to taste wines from many parts of the world.  You’ll learn about a wine’s bouquet, nose and the types of grapes, which give wines their specific flavor. You might even have a very Capitol Hill discussion about politics. I gravitate there to practice my French since some of the customers and many of the wine reps are French and/or Francophiles.

Over the past 20 years, California wines have become the number one seller, with French wines clocking a close second. Americans (at least, Washingtonians) tend to drink 75% red, whereas the ratio in France is 80% red versus white wines.  Has the weakness of the dollar impacted sales when it comes to French wines?  Silver says not really, “Unless it’s a Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild Grand Cru where the prices have gone out of sight.”

It wasn’t so long ago when it was nearly impossible to buy a respectable Côtes du Rhône wine from the region of Provence, where I’ve lived part-time for more than a fair number of years.

Fifteen years ago, when I’d make periodic visits to Washington, DC, I was constantly amazed by how few bottles representative of  the area where our country home is located, were stocked on liquor store shelves. In recent years, that’s changed as Pearson’s owners Steve and Rae Silver and importer Robert Kacher have made it their business to stock the best of the region.

Yes, you could choose from a decent selection of Bordeaux, Beaujolais and bien sur Champagne.  But where were the Côtes du Rhône wines?  During my recent extended time in Washington, I’ve discovered a store I’ve come to think of as my home away from home.  Pearson’s (www.pearsonswine.com), located in upper Georgetown, is an institution. In 1933, Pearson’s Pharmacy had the right to sell liquor by prescription in addition to drugs. The liquor division was so successful that Doc and Sarah Eisenberg made the plunge and opened a liquor annex a few doors down Wisconsin Avenue from the store. Not only was it substantially larger, but it had a parking lot, which in subsequent years would be a blessing, as upper Georgetown came into its own and parking became a premium.

I’d been spoiled. In Provence, we could drive any direction and within two miles, fill up a 5-10 liter plastic vrac with wine pumped from what looked like (and undoubtedly is) a gas hose. Wine was always on the table and we didn’t feel guilty about not recycling bottles that tend to accumulate while waiting to be taken to the trash dump. Even though the French are recycling conscientious, it’s invariably a drive to dispose of glass. This phenomenon has always been a mystery to me.

Some people would appear at the cave-cooperative or their favorite vintner (we’re talking about those  who bought many, many more liters), fill up mega jugs, load it into vans, bottle it and let the wine “rest” until its time had come.  This preceded what’s now known as the “bag-in-in box” carton (yes, the French call it the same thing but with a tres charmant accent, where there’s an interior collapsible plastic bag to preclude the remaining wine from becoming aerated. These boxed wines last a minimum of three months – not that any lasted that long chez nous!

Was Steve Silver always a wine connoisseur?  Not at all. He and his wife took over the store in 1976. Steve was an accountant and an insurance salesman.  He came into help his father-in-law with the books and found he had a new career. Now Pearson’s stocks 2000 labels, and receives and sells 400-500 cases per day, totaling a $6 million yearly business. Pas mal.  Even though Steve does travel to see the areas from where he’s purchasing wine, it’s more for background (he needs and wants to experience the area that he’s writing about in his e-newsletters) rather than buying trips, Rae, his wife of 40 years, has sworn off flying.

None of his team has to leave Wisconsin Avenue since 30-40 representatives of wine importers come and call on this eclectic wine store one to three times each week. Being stocked in Pearson’s as well as four or five other DC liquor stores gives wines a caché. It’s not unusual for Pearson’s to buy out an entire stock.

It’s really a family business. Employees come and stay. They know the majority of the regular customers. Some neighborhood residents stop in daily while other clients never miss a Saturday tasting unless they’re traveling.

Even though Pearson’s has an importers license, they don’t use it since Steve likes to buy in smaller quantities and finds it more efficient. Pearson’s doesn’t even deliver. If you don’t want to pick up your order, the store has a courier service which will deliver within the DC limits for $25.

Are all DC liquor stores like this?  There are a few, but Pearson’s is special. Perhaps after this article is published, I’ll get my very own tasting glass (without a stem, merci), rather than a tiny plastic goblet.  In France and when I’m touring for Bonjour Paris : Travel,  Hotels, Food, Wine, Restaurants, Paris France, tasting wine out of plastic would be considered a veritable sin.

Information and Directions to Pearson’s

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