In the 15-odd miles between Waltham, Massachusetts and downtown Boston, Rick Gordon and his sons David and Kenny own five retail stores operating under the Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors name. While Rick remains integral to the business, David and Kenny are ushering in a modern era for the 85-year-old retail empire. Indeed, Gordon’s has a long tradition of shifting gears to meet the demands of the marketplace, and successive generations have never been afraid to shake things up in order to move the business forward.
In 1976, Ira Gordon took over from his father, company founder Milton, expanding into new markets and moving into the wholesale business. After Ira’s untimely passing in 1983 at age 57, his 28-year-old son Rick became the company’s president. Early in his tenure, Rick oversaw Gordon’s departure from the wholesale business, choosing to focus solely on retail and making fine wine and spirits the twin pillars of the company.
Today, high-end wines, especially Old World staples like Burgundy and Bordeaux, are the defining feature of Gordon’s, as are private-barrel spirits and other luxury products. In the face of increased competition from big box retailers, Rick, David, and Kenny are cementing Gordon’s place as a neighborhood destination, where customers can foster personal relationships with employees and access a wide variety of top-notch wine and spirits. For their creation of dynamic neighborhood stores that have readily adapted to the changing Massachusetts beverage alcohol retail climate, Rick, David, and Kenny Gordon have been named 2019 Market Watch Leaders.
Fine Wine Finesse
For nearly four decades, Gordon’s has been active in fine wine. Rick made the first move toward building up the luxury wine side in 1984 after a trip to New York, where he visited some of the market’s top wine and spirits retailers, including Zachy’s and Sherry-Lehmann. “I placed a full-page ad in The Boston Globe, all for fine wine,” Rick says. “That opened a lot of eyes, as nobody in Boston was doing that back then, and it kicked off our fine wine focus.”
Today, Gordon’s tilt toward upscale wines is more noticeable than ever as the retailer fights to differentiate itself as a neighborhood jewel amid the ongoing influx of big-box stores throughout Massachusetts. “It’s a whole new world for beverage alcohol retail in this state, especially as more supermarkets enter the marketplace,” says David. “We’re constantly asking how we can set ourselves apart. Usually, it’s by investing in more space for higher-end products.” Chief among the luxury wines on offer at Gordon’s are releases from Burgundy and Bordeaux. “We’re trying to get to the level of premier New York retailers,” David notes. “To that end, we’re doing fantastic business with Bordeaux futures and Burgundy pre-arrivals—and building an extremely high-end clientele that will spend anywhere from $1,000 to $400,000 per visit.”
Burgundy and Bordeaux both have their own dedicated buyers who cultivate what Gordon’s calls its Burgundy List and Bordeaux List. Each highlights specific brands and features lengthy blog posts by staff members, as well as regular email newsletters, with email blasts going out twice a week for Burgundy and once a week for Bordeaux. Wine director Ian Halbert oversees Gordon’s Burgundy selection, which includes around 1,208 red wines and 750 white wines, making Burgundy the single largest category at the store. The selection starts at $10 a 750-ml. for As Apero Sympa Rouge Et Cassis and goes all the way up to the 1988 A. Rousseau Chambertin ($3,425).
While Burgundy has long been the most important segment for Gordon’s by both volume and value, greater emphasis is now being placed on Bordeaux—thanks in part to Bordeaux specialist Guy Davies, who joined the team in 2013. At the behest of Rick, David, and Kenny, Davies has expanded the Bordeaux program at Gordon’s, and drummed up a more substantial futures business as well. Though much of the Bordeaux selection is at the high end, Gordon’s actively fights the perception of Bordeaux as being purely expensive or rarefied. In reality, Davies notes, there are many stunning Bordeaux wines that start at price points as low as $10 a bottle. Gordon’s stocks around 450 Bordeaux wines—and some 120 of those are futures—ranging from the 2010 Haut Bardin Bordeaux Rouge ($9 a 750-ml.) to the 1986 Château Léoville Las Cases St. Julien ($5,045).
In addition to the Bordeaux and Burgundy Lists, there’s the Reserve List, designed for customers seeking top-scored wines from Spain, Italy, and the Napa Valley. Recent highlights from the Reserve List include the 2016 Failla Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay ($55 a 750-ml.), the 2016 Joseph Phelps Insignia ($250), and the 2015 Oddero Barolo Brunate ($105). David notes that Italy, in particular, has become a growing sector for Gordon’s, with greater emphasis now placed on upscale offerings from the country’s top regions.
But Gordon’s also offers a significant number of wines from elsewhere in the world, which are advertised regularly in the retailer’s Daily Flash, an email newsletter that spotlights fine wines from both Old and New World regions. A recent Daily Flash included the 2016 Marc Deschamps Pouilly-Fumé Les Champs de Cri ($26 a 750-ml.) from the Loire Valley and the 2017 Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar Albariño ($18) from Spain. Rhône wines also make regular appearances on the Daily Flash, as do such top German producers as Müller-Catoir and Jos. Christoffel. Across all stores, Gordon’s offers some 7,413 wine SKUs, with the Main St. flagship store carrying 1,000 labels and the newest store in Downtown Crossing stocking 400 different brands. Although the share numbers differ by store, about 55% of Gordon’s total sales come from wine.
As Gordon’s luxury wine business grew to target a more high-end clientele, a new business—full-service wine storage—developed in tandem. “We had a lot of customers who were either living in the greater Boston area or moving back into the city, asking ‘My apartment is full of wine, what do I do with it?’” says David. “We opened our wine storage facility three years ago, and business has been incredible, as it’s a useful service for current customers and a great way to bring new customers into the mix.” The service has proven so successful that the retailer’s sole storage facility is nearing capacity. To keep pace with demand, Rick, David, and Kenny are installing additional lockers at the current site, and also eyeing more warehouse space. David notes that customers who lay their wine away at Gordon’s storage facility often attend wine events hosted by the retailer, resulting in regular gatherings of a Gordon’s-centric community of wine lovers.
Spirits are the second-most important segment at Gordon’s, generating around 30% of sales. In keeping with national trends, brown spirits are driving the growth, with the number of labels rising accordingly. Gordon’s now stocks over 300 single malt Scotch whiskies—including such ultra-rare expressions as The Macallan M ($4,600 a 750-ml.)—as well as 200-plus Bourbons and ryes. Bourbon and rye outpace all other segments, with nearly every brand performing well, among them Henry McKenna 4-year-old Bourbon ($13) and James E. Pepper 1776 rye ($28).
Private-barrel whiskies have become a cornerstone of the Gordon’s spirits section in the four years since they first appeared in store, with Kenny leading the charge. “Kenny has become one of the leading experts in the Boston area when it comes to whiskies,” says Rick. “He’s passionate, and he has the knowledge to back it up. When he visits the distilleries, he can select barrels that profile our customer base. He’s done a remarkable job, to the point where some of these private-barrel whiskies are selling on the secondary market for four times what we sell them.”
Gordon’s private-barrel business kicked off with a WhistlePig rye bottling; Kenny, a longtime fan of the brand, reached out for a collaboration and ended up securing what was, at the time, WhistlePig’s first private-barrel partnership. Since then, a number of other brands have become an integral part of Gordon’s private-barrel business, with Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Widow Jane, and several others among the recent brands tapped for inclusion. Around 25 private-barrel whiskies are released each year, retail-priced at $45-$250 a 750-ml. More recently, Gordon’s has branched out of private-barrel Bourbons and ryes to include gin, rum, and Scotch expressions as well, partnering with such brands as Bully Boy, Privateer, and Gordon & MacPhail.
Beyond brown spirits, gin also has driven sales at Gordon’s as of late. “There’s a gin renaissance going on,” Rick says. “A lot of boutique distilleries are popping up, and we’re happy to explore them. We carry over 70 gins now.” Though Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater, and their ilk still line Gordon’s shelves, craft offerings from the likes of local producer Bully Boy and London-based Sipsmith are playing an increasingly important role. Tequila, too, is on the rise, according to David—especially brands that fall at the super-premium and luxury tiers.
Rounding out the Gordon’s mix is beer, accounting for just 15% of sales. Craft beer performs well, with the majority of the 500-SKU beer portfolio coming from craft producers. David notes that, given how experimental today’s consumers are, no single beer label is a recurring top-seller. “Our customers love new releases,” he says. “There’s no brand loyalty, and they love when new items come in. We’re constantly rotating our beer selection as a result.” Recent local craft beer offerings include Jack’s Abby’s Calyptra IPA ($16 a 12-pack of 12-ounce bottles), Allagash Brewing Co.’s River Trip ale ($13 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans), and Berkshire Brewing Co.’s Busker Czech-style Pilsner ($19 a 12-ounce bottle).
Gordon’s launched its flagship Waltham Main St. location in 1934, and added three suburban stores across Waltham, Watertown, and Newton over the next several decades. The 7,000-square-foot Main St. store was renovated in 2009, with an events space and kitchen added for wine and spirits tastings, seminars, and dinners. The three additional suburban locations are smaller than the original, carrying fewer SKUs and averaging around just 3,000 square feet.
In 2015, Gordon’s made its first play in Boston proper with the debut of a store in Downtown Crossing, a pedestrian shopping zone in the city center. “We were the first suburban retailer to go into the city,” Rick says. “And when we opened the downtown Boston store, we brought a different dimension to the business, exposing people to a greater selection of whiskies, wine, and craft beers.” The new 3,000-square-foot store features over 1,000 different SKUs, putting it behind the Waltham flagship. A tasting bar sits front and center, as do three sets of Enomatic wine machines, which feature up-and-coming wine regions, offerings advertised in the Daily Flash, and staff picks, all rotated regularly.
David notes that while there’s been a steep learning curve in conducting business in downtown Boston, the store’s success speaks for itself. “The foot traffic has been fantastic, and the store’s broad focus and selection position us as an attractive option, especially amid the wide swath of boutique retailers that surround us,” David says. Indeed, while the focus at Gordon’s Boston location is first and foremost at the high end, plenty of lower-cost items are offered, including 3-liter bag-in-box wine, canned wine, 30-packs of Bud Light, and mixers that sell well and bolster the store’s Drizly orders. Given the location’s success, Rick, David, and Kenny are now eyeing additional opportunities in downtown Boston.
While the Boston store has expanded Gordon’s reach, so have the numerous events the retailer has hosted over the years. Rick, David, and Kenny have made large-scale events an integral part of business, staging such major wine and spirits tastings as Vino Voyage—a 2015 cruise around Boston Harbor that involved 50 different wine brands and had over 300 guests in attendance—and “A Spirit-ual Experience,” a major spirits tasting held each September since 2015 within Boston that caters to 400-plus guests and features over 300 different brands. “As the company grows and its focus on the high end gets more pronounced, we’re prioritizing these sort of events,” says David. “What we’ve found, especially in luxury wine, is that people aren’t coming to the store like they used to—they’re ordering online. We’ve got to reach everyone, and these events attract people who are interested in specific categories, but might not have stepped foot in the store otherwise.” Earlier this year, the retailer hosted a 2016 Bordeaux futures tasting at Cyclorama, a creative arts center owned by Boston Center for the Arts, with some 73 producers and 350 guests in attendance. The event was inspired by Gordon’s inclusion in the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting for 2015 futures, held in 2016 in UGCB’s chosen sister city that year, Boston, which had at that point been the retailer’s biggest event to date.
On a more regular basis, Gordon’s hosts Whiskey Wednesday every week at the Downtown Crossing store. The event has built up a regular following, with roughly 40-50 people normally in attendance. Generally, a single brand is featured; a recent Whiskey Wednesday spotlighted Loch Lomond Distillery’s single malt Scotch whiskies, with Kenny speaking to customers about his recent trip to the distillery and tasting them through various expressions.
While Rick acknowledges that it’s sometimes jarring to see the changes taking place in the beverage alcohol market, he’s pleased with the direction Gordon’s is moving and the work his sons have undertaken to push the family business into the future. “What we’ve been doing is redefining ourselves, asking ‘What direction do we want to go in? What do we want to be?’” he says. “Every generation has done something different and accomplished something unique in the mission of growing the business. Now, the fourth generation is taking it to the next level.”