Sunday, December 7, 2003

Buying wine here is a social occasion

Enterprise insight

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Steve Dinnerstein (from left), Guy Discepoli and Marty Piazza say that listening to customers is more important than talking.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
The business partnership of Marty Piazza and Guy Discepoli had its roots in their six-month European backpacking trip in 1975. The trip did more than cement their friendship and build trust; it connected them with their Italian heritage and ultimately influenced the way they approach their business today.

Although the two vowed they would go into business together, their professional paths diverged for a while. Piazza went into banking. After a brief stint in the corporate world, Discepoli succumbed to the lure of the vine and spent some years learning about every aspect of the wine industry.

In 1989, Piazza and Discepoli established a wine specialty shop in College Hill. Discepoli ran the store while Piazza continued as a banker.

The store carried everything from light, sweet "starter wines" to wines that were more complex and expensive. Almost 15 years later, variety is still the company's watchword.

"Listening to customers is a lot more important than talking," Discepoli said. "You've got to ask the right questions. Customers will tell you what they expect you to carry."

"If we're doing our job, we're on the prowl all the time to find new wines to share with our customers," added Piazza. "But nothing comes into our store without us trying it first."

The business attracted customers from all over Cincinnati who appreciated the wide selection, Discepoli's prodigious memory for the attributes of the wines he stocked, and his ability to suggest a good liquid complement for almost any food.

"Guy has become an icon in this city," said Piazza. "I've never met anybody with a more discriminating palate. We carry about 1,500 labels, and he can go to each one and describe it."

Although the College Hill store became a wine lover's destination, it wasn't convenient for many. After several years of requests, the owners decided it was time for a second store. The east side seemed ripe for their brand of wine retailing, so Piazza retired from banking in 2000 to manage a new Piazza Discepoli in Madeira. Two years later they launched a third store in their native White Oak, and recruited Discepoli's brother Ron to run it.

(In fact, the stores are family-run. All the partners' wives help out, as do Discepoli's mother and father.)

Each location maintains a distinct flavor based on the character of its neighborhood and the tastes of its customers.

"In European towns, there's a real sense of community with everything arranged around the square and people out shopping and visiting," Piazza explained. "Cincinnati is in some ways an anomaly, because there's still a neighborhood tradition here, with small specialty retailers in those neighborhoods. We want to maintain that tradition."

One challenge was establishing new stores but keeping a hands-on, personal approach at each. Enter Steve Dinnerstein.

Even before the opening of the Madeira store, Piazza had received a message from Dinnerstein, who was winding down a career with Levi Strauss.

"The message said that he wanted to be part of a significant wine retail business," Piazza related. "We got together for a glass of wine but we told him it was highly unlikely that we'd consider taking on a third partner."

So Dinnerstein took a different tack: he learned the business by working for a wine wholesaler and taking the Piazza Discepoli accounts, checking in with them weekly.

Said Piazza: "We learned he had a tremendous work ethic. He listened to us and sold us a lot of wine. He was instrumental in getting our White Oak store opened and stocked."

So when Piazza and Discepoli decided to open a fourth store, they brought Dinnerstein into the company. He has operated the new Glendale location since its establishment in August.

"We each bring something separate and unique to the table," he said. "Between the three of us we have a vision for the future that we think will work."

Creating community

The three Piazza Discepoli partners believe they're on to something: retail stores that offer customers what they want, in an informal environment that encourages customers to get to know their neighbors as well as their wine merchant.

"That's our motive for growth; we do not want to create just a commodity-buying experience," explained Marty Piazza.

Each store hosts frequent wine tastings, which have developed a following. Discepoli said that, since 1989, one couple has missed only three of the monthly tastings in College Hill. The last time was when a family occasion intervened.

"They called during the tasting to announce the birth of their first grandchild," he said. "A lot of relationships have been forged through those wine tastings."

Piazza Discepoli Wine Merchants is at 5901 Hamilton Ave. in College Hill; 681-8466. In Madeira, it's at 7754 Camargo Road; 561-6956. The White Oak store is at 5872 Cheviot Road; 923-1300. The location in Glendale is 23 Village Square; 771-6611.


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