Good Grapes: Wine Riot Store Seeks To Take The Mystery Out Of Buying Wine

By Seth Daniel

There’s always been some mystery surrounding wine, and unless one has a formal education on the proper vintage, getting a good bottle of wine can sometimes be a frustrating stab in the dark.

That’s what Tyler Balliet and Morgan First sought to put an end to when they began hosting their Wine Riot special events in 2009 – with the first one coming at the Castle in Park Plaza. The tasting were as much about information and education as they were about tasting the wines that were featured, and the easy to read info panels and format of the conferences ballooned – quickly spreading to San Francisco, New York and Chicago. Now, this summer, breaking all of the promises they made about never opening a retail store, they have returned to the South End to open a retail store.

Wine Riot opened about one month ago in the South End at 519 Tremont St. and the owners said they began to see it as a no-brainer to capitalize of the 25,000 or more visitors to their events in a retail setting.

“The idea is we have all these people coming and tasting the wines and educating themselves on wine every year,” said Balliet. “At every event, people naturally want to buy the bottles of wine they like during the tastings, but in no state can you get a license that allows you to sell wine at a tasting event. Finally, we decided we should do retail. It just made sense.”

First said they were very opposed at first to going down the road of retail ownership, as they believed their calling was in hosting festivals dedicated to wine. That changed recently, though, she said.

“We started this company eight years ago to help people be more educated to make better buying decisions,” she said. “For a long time, we said we would never want a store. We eventually saw how wine stores worked  and we said, ‘Why not do that too?’”

Part of the interest in their store is they’ve brought the popularity of their tastings to a retail environment.

The walls at the Tremont Street store are filled with detailed maps and information about the types of wine produced in certain places. In fact, there is an entire education on Spanish wine painted on the walls of the store – not to mention every other region. One doesn’t need an extensive course to understand what they are buying and the adventure that they are part of within the winemaking process. In fact, 10 minutes in front of the wall gives customers about all the information they need to make an educated choice.

“Wine is supposed to take you on an adventure,” said First. “It’s hard to have it take you on an adventure when most companies don’t put much information on the label at all. We were able to provide that information to customers and help them along on that adventure.”

Balliet began his quest to educate people on wine after working in a liquor store in the Back Bay several years ago. After learning a lot from store owner Howie Rubin, he held his first event that included 30 people in one room of his apartment. Each person was charged $10 and he educated them on the various wines – and it was very well received.

Soon, he had joined with First and they were able to propel Wine Riot to a leading tasting company in the country.

In their new retail store, they’ve expanded to offer spirits, beers and even sake. For all their products, they host tastings in their store. Recently, they hosted a sake tasting and had some of the top brewers of the Japanese spirit in their store.

The brewers were able to tell their personal story about how they started their company, and also inform customers about the products and processes they use.

Balliet said they have so many relationships with wineries – about 400 in total – already, that they were able to leverage those relationships to get information that people wanted.

“We used those relationships with the producers to get the information about the product,” he said. “We can call the wine maker and they answer and we can ask them how they did what they did. That’s something people want to know now, and it’s something we want to expand on eventually.”

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