Total Wine & More officially opened Corbin’s Corner store on June 24.
By Ronni Newton
A tour of West Hartford’s new Total Wine & More store is like taking a trip around the world – but that has nothing to do with the store’s 15,000 square foot size. Total Wine & More prides itself on having the largest selection of wine, beer, and spirits in the state – with offerings from local craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries as well as unique and hard-to-find bottles from the far reaches of the globe.
The price points are also wide-ranging, from $2.99 specials to a $4,999 (that’s not a typo) bottle of 2005 Chateau Petrus Pomerol that, along with other rare and specials wines, is displayed in a locked and temperature-controlled wine cellar.
“We have hard-to-find Italian wines that we are able to offer through our ‘Winery Direct,'” Store Manager Alton Blakeslee said. Because Total Wine & More has 136 stores, they form partnerships to import wines directly from Italy and other countries, and are also able to buy exceptional wines in greater quantity than smaller stores, allowing for a greater selection.
Connecticut tightly regulates the sale of wine, beer, and spirits, including the setting of minimum price points. The ability to import directly cuts out levels, and also avoids those state minimums, Blakeslee said. “We can’t sell below cost, but we can discount,” he said.
Some of the grand opening special wines – many of which are priced below $5 per bottle – are manufactured by big name wineries, but Total Wine & More imports them directly under a different label.
A tour of the store naturally begins at the front – the “WOW” section, Blakeslee said, with bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay for $7.99. State law allows for one item (one SKU) per month to be sold at 10 percent below minimum price, and each month a new offering will be prominently featured.
The other “WOW” element is a glossy black baby grand piano that’s set up for the grand opening, and music will be provided courtesy of Playhouse on Park, Total Wine & More’s charity partner for the weekend. The store will donate 10 percent of sales revenue from June 24-26 to the West Hartford non-profit. When a pianist is not present, the piano continues to “play” itself through WiFi, Blakeslee said.
The tour continues with a stop at the fine wines, which in addition to the Petrus Pomerol includes many hard-to-find California Cabernets, and large-format special bottles.
The front of the store also includes a display of a popular new item – the “latest and greatest,” Blakeslee said. The current feature is Iter Chardonnay and Pinot, banking on the success of last year’s popular Iter Cabernet.
Do you follow Wine Spectator ratings? There’s a section of the store where a selection of “Highly-Rated” wines are kept all together.
For those who may not know, or remember, what type of wine they like to drink, head to the “Style” area. There the wines are arranged based on taste, with areas for “sweet,” “fruity,” and other styles.
The wines are also broken down by “old world” and “new world” regions, and by country. There’s an extensive selection of California wines, but also a great selection of French, Spanish, and Italian wines. There are harder-to-find wines like a Grüner Veltliner from the Danube Valley of Austria.
“Rosés are one of the fastest growing wines, a great summer selection,” Blakeslee said. Several displays are devoted to the wine, which is served slightly chilled and for those who have not tried the modern rosé, know that they bear no resemblance to the old pink-colored White Zinfandel.
If you don’t know what you like, or want to try something new, Total Wine & More offers a free tasting bar every Friday through Sunday. An average of four to six wines are offered each week, with the selections listed online. Offerings are generally outside of major name brands, and “aren’t shy on the price point,” Blakeslee said.
“I like educating customers. There’s a lot to learn and people can be scared to try different varietals,” said Wine Supervisor Rebecca Terry. When customers doesn’t really know what they like, Terry said she asks them what they like to eat, and comes up with selections that complement those foods.
“The difference we offer is service,” Blakeslee said. Employees receive 150 hours of training before being allowed on the sales floor. They start with “Wine 101,” and move through a selection of courses. “You haven’t experience life until you’ve tried a variety of vodkas at 8 a.m.,” Blakeslee said, quickly adding that although they are tasting, everything is spit out.
“We’re service-based, not task-based. In Connecticut you can’t really compete on price.” In addition to service, having a top-of-the line selection with some great value wines not otherwise available differentiates Total Wine & More, Blakeslee said.
There’s a classroom that seats 24, and classes on wine, beer, and more are generally offered for $5 each. The room can also be rented for private events.
Moscow Mules, served in chilled copper mugs, have become a popular trend. Total Wine & More has a “mule bar,” suggesting different takes on the trend.
“Whiskey prices in West Hartford are pretty high, but we’re very competitive with a great selection,” Blakeslee said. There’s a huge assortment of other spirits at a variety of price points, as well as a large selection of mixers.
Total Wine & More’s “Brewery District” claims to have the largest selection of beers in the state. And they offer customers the chance to sample at a tasting bar, or to put together a customized six pack. A selection from Stratford, CT-based Two Roads Brewing will be on tap for tasting on grand opening weekend.
“We try to offer every single beer we carry in a six-pack, and you can also make your own six pack,” Blakeslee said, avoiding waste in case you try something you don’t like.
There are shelves and shelves of IPAs, micro-brews, Connecticut brews, and beers from all around the world. “Summer is definitely a huge season for the beer industry,” said Beer Supervisor Ryan Tavenor, pointing out an entire section devoted to “summer” brews that included many fruit-infused offerings.
New Belgian Fat Tire was just released in Connecticut on June 20, and Total Wine & More already has a large display, Tavenor said.
Kegs are also available, as are a selection of beers for kegerators.
The “& More” part of the store’s name also includes gifts – a selection that is larger than most West Hartford package stores. There are glasses, carriers, corkscrews, and bottle openers. Total Wine & More also sells Coravins – a device that inserts a needle through a cork and allows for small samplings without need to open and potentially waste a bottle.
A humidor, that showcases a broad selection of cigars, completes the tour.
Grand opening specials at Total Wine & More will last through July 31, other than the 10 percent donation to Playhouse on Park which runs only from June 24 – 26.
Blakeslee said that the company will continue to support local non-profits, and has a corporate team dedicated to charity partners. Anyone seeking a donation can contact the company online by clicking here.
“Today’s customers are seeking increased information from retailers about the products they see and like, and Total Wine’s new, ‘next-generation’ environment delivers on all of those fronts,” David Trone, who co-owns Total Wine & More with his brother, Robert Trone, said in a statement. “We focus on delivering market-leading prices, selection, and service. We have expanded our objectives to ensure that we are also technology leaders in our industry. You will leave our store feeling smarter about how best to select and enjoy the products you buy.”
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