When speaking about his 35-year (and counting) career in wine, Michael Teer believes it was down to luck. When he started working at a liquor store at the age of 20, he never would have imagined his life or the industry to turn out like it did.
Teer's acquaintance with Pike and Western Wine Shop began with a few tasting classes in the late '70s; eventually cofounder Ron Irvine offered him a job. He worked there for 11 years before he bought the store from Irvine in 1990. Through the store Michael met his wife, Pamela Hinckley, now Tom Douglas's CEO, and became a notable figure in Washington wine. The store, nestled on the corner of Pike Place and Virginia, celebrates 40 years in business this month.
What first interested you in the wine industry?
After two years studying journalism at UW, I felt like I wasn’t making the best of my time. I decided to take a break and with no real plans, I ended up as a clerk in a Washington state liquor store. They had a small wine section and I was the only one interested in it. I started taking some tasting classes at Pike and Western and went back to college and received my degree. Ron Irvine, one of the founders of the store, then offered me a job in 1980.
What was it like to be there at the beginning, a time when people started to sit up and take note of local wineries?
When I first started, early pioneers in the industry like Chateau Ste. Michelle were starting to make some noise and it was very exciting and new. It really blew up however in the late ‘90s. Competition got greater and people had to decide whether it was just a fun hobby or a way to make money. For a lot of people it was a lucky happenstance. Not many wineries planned on it being a lifelong business but it became that because it was new.
How has the neighborhood changed?
Pike Place Market was another world back then. It was a local market and there was no competition. People from all over the city would come here. Once Washington wines started to get some notice and the food scene changed we started seeing visitors from all over the country. Today we're not so much a farmers market. There's more places for farmers to sell and tourism is getting bigger and bigger. Today we struggle to get the locals to come down to the market but saying that we still have a loyal local following. The tourism keeps some people away from the market. The market was built for a certain purpose but now there's too many people for it to handle.
What has kept the store alive all these years?
We have always been a ‘help me’ store. You can walk in here with $10 or $100 and get a person talking to you for as long as you need. People are definitely open to new things. We encourage that in our customers and promote it openly. Instead of telling customers to buy ten boxes of one vintage, we'd rather them drink eclectically. It's much more fun too.
The store stocks wine from all across the world with a focus on French, Italian, and local wineries. How important is it to you to support local labels?
When I started you couldn’t make a living just selling Washington wines. You still can't today. We have always had strong ties to France and Italy. People moved here from all over the country and brought these tastes with them especially in the east coast where European wines dominate. We’ve made friends with small family businesses all over the world but we've always made a commitment to the local industry.
Is it more challenging for wineries to get noticed now?
There are so many new labels but not many places to sell them. You can’t start a winery and expect people to just come knocking on your door. I was told by a mentor years ago to never worry about the wineries from my generation, it's the next generation that's a challenge. There's so much more competition to consume. It's still our mission to support local small wineries but frankly it's our mission to do that no matter where they're from. It's almost a political statement for me to run a small business so over the years we've made friends with wineries all over the world that are family owned operations. We try our hardest to support the up and comers and have the best for our customers. We did this with many now famous names from Leonetti to Ste. Michelle. I like having the connection with the people that make the wine and grow the grapes. There's no shortage of those small producers in the world either.
With so many new labels out there how to you choose one brand from another?
We taste and taste and taste. If somebody says, “Oh I’ve tasted everything,” I guarantee you they haven’t. It use to be possible but now we just try to stay on top as best as we can. My staff and I taste more than anybody in town because we do it every day. When I taste wine I’m always cataloging, it’s a moving object that never is the same.
How has Washington wine changed?
In my lifetime the style of Washington wine has changed from a more European style to a more California style. We have two unique growing regions within driving distance here in Seattle: Oregon and Washington. Oregon focuses primarily on pinot noir and in general their wine is lighter and a little bit more delicate. Washington wines are bigger bolder flavors but it didn't start out that way. Our top cabernets that got us noticed back in the day were all around 13 percent alcohol. Today they are 15 percent and sometimes higher. There's been a decision to go for riper fruit, longer hangtime, and bigger wines.
Where do you see the store in years to come?
In a perfect world, I'd like to pass the store down to a longtime employee who understands it and keeps it going. I bought the store from one of the founding partners. I had been here 11 years and I felt like I hit my ceiling. Ron Irvine decided to sell it to me and I've been here ever since. This neighborhood is only going to move forward. There will always be challenges but I think it's only going to get better. There’s certainly easier ways to do it than how we do it but that’s not what excites us.