RETAIL: Shop seeks niche in lesser-known wines

The sour economy hasn’t crushed wine sales. For Chris Kern, that’s sparkling news. He recently opened Chris Kern’s Forgotten Grapes in Riverside. The store specializes in wines made from uncommon grapes or produced in lesser known regions.

“Alcohol sales seem to be pretty consistent through the good and bad times,” Kern said. “People are still willing to buy wine if it’s at the right price.”

Kern launched his business selling wines at lower price points. Most of his selection ranges from $10-$50. The four-employee, 1,200-square-foot wine shop also features a tasting bar and classes. Kern is planning to relaunch his Web site for the business.

“This is a really interesting and different store,” said Howard B. Golds, Riverside Chambers of Commerce chairman and partner at law firm Best Best Krieger LLP. “For every wine he has an explanation for it and he gives you a sense of every wine he’s got; personally I’m intending to spend some money before I leave tonight.”

Golds was at the grand opening of Forgotten Grapes, 1735 Spruce Street, Dec. 1. During the event, Kern showcased a variety of wines, offered free tastings and was recognized by the Riverside Chambers of Commerce with a certificate. The shop was crowded with people enjoying the festivities and buying wine.

In 2010, U.S. wine sales rose 4 percent to $30 billion after hurt in 2009 by the weak economy. Sales were down $2.3 billion in 2009, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, a trade association representing more than 1,000 California wineries and associated businesses.

Sales will remain robust, according to the “U.S. Wine Market Outlook” report from RNCOS, an industry research and information analysis firm. Wine sales in the U.S. are set to increase to $33.5 billion by 2013 and grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 3 percent from 2010-2013.

California is leading that growth. The state produces 90 percent of all U.S. wine. California is the fourth largest wine producer in the world after France, Italy and Spain.

Kern hopes to be part of the projected growth. He plans to one day open another wine shop in the Inland Empire. For now, he’s focused on marketing Forgotten Grapes and building clientele.

Kern started out in the wine business after he met a woman who was a seventh generation French wine maker. After several conversations with her, he decided to organize a writer’s retreat to France. After the trip, he was smitten.

After touring European countries and tasting wines from lesser known regions, he decided he wanted to share that experience with other people. In 2006 Kern began doing wine tours and trips with his own business, Words Wine, a tour and travel company.

Kern launched www.ForgottenGrapes.com to educate wine lovers about the various varietals out there. He wanted people to know that there are 5,000 types of wine grapes. People generally only stick to the “Big Eight”: chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris/pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz/syrah.

At the Forgotten Grapes shop, Kern tries to feature wines that are not made from the “Big Eight” and aren’t from famous regions like Napa. He tries to sell wines that are just as good from smaller, lesser known vintners, he said.

To help people understand the wines he sells, Kern paired some of his varietals with celebrity personalities. He calls some of the wines the doppelgangers of various actors and musicians. The shop also features explanations of the wines being displayed. Each wine has a printed explanation next to it disclosing the type of grape, where it’s from and what the wine tastes like.

“He provides a different service,” Golds said. “He provides something you haven’t seen or tasted before.”

Kern began participating in wine shows, tastings and other wine events to help promote the Forgotten Grapes varietals.

“It got to a point where we needed a place to sell,” Kern said. “So that’s why we launched the shop and decided to relaunch the Web site.”

Kern spent several thousand dollars to start his business. He painted the walls, built the wine racks, and got the permits. Sales have been good so far for the small store.

“The sweat equity is countless,” he joked. “I have my fingers crossed.”

An Orange County native, Kern moved to Riverside in 2005 to be closer to his girlfriend Teresa Rhyne. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for television stations as an audience researcher.

“Wine was a passion that turned into a career,” Kern said. “Now I’ve just got to keep going out there and hustling, maybe write a book on wine someday.”

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