Ka-Ching: Filling up at The Station: A Chat with Jenna Congdon

A great number of pundits in the wine industry seem fixated on The Millennials; What are they drinking? How can the wine industry court them? How much do they spend on wine versus beer? I’m no social anthropologist, but the Millennials I know do not seem that different from my older friends, or much younger friends, for that matter. That’s the thing about generational labels; they often rob individuals of the nuances that makes humanity interesting and wildly diverse. The Millennials I know are as varied and complicated as everybody else I come across.

I suppose a wine industry marketer or pundit might peg Jenna Congdon, the Wine Buyer and Manager of The Station in San Luis Obispo, California, as a Millennial, but, like all of us, she’s much more than a facile label. She’s a hard working, inquisitive, mother of two who has created a unique wine retail and event space in this bustling college town. Recently, I sat down with Congdon at The Station, where she is manager and buyer, to chat with her about her small selection of curated wines.

The Station used to be an actual service station; the first one serving San Luis Obispo in the early 1920’s. Much of the building’s original charm has been preserved, while the modern art on the interior walls serves to move the mood into this century. Dynamic, brightly colored paintings of cars, by local artist Keith Ogren, hang against a red brick walls. The room in which we chat is flooded with natural light; the perfect light for observing a glass of wine. Immediately, one feels comfortable in this pleasant space, and ready to taste some wine. While we chat, Congdon opens a bottle of Giornata Sangiovese from Paso Robles; an unexpectedly varietally-correct Sangiovese that’s light on its feet and brooding, all at once. “They are making the best Italian- variety wines in California,” she says while opening the bottle.

The works of local artist Keith Ogren are featured at The Station

At any given time, Congdon only carries about 50 to 60 different wines. On average, they tend to range from $10 a bottle, to $30 a bottle, though she does carry a few more expensive “special occasion wines.” Customers can taste wines at The Station; the selection of wines at the store’s wine bar changes frequently so that return customers can count on discovering something new. Recently, Congdon ordered a case of Teroldego by Elisabetta Foradori, but later worried about her choice. “I thought the wines were great, but I wondered if anyone would buy a Teroldego at  $25. I thought, ‘It’s going to be a tough sell.’ But, in 6 or 7 days, the case was gone. I poured it by the glass for two days, but then I had to pull it off the menu because it was going too quickly. My staff gets upset with me because I’ll move on to other wines really quickly. They still ask me, ‘What about that Teroldego? Please get that back in!’ The same thing happened with a Terra Nere Etna Rosso that I stocked recently. It sold out so quickly. People really loved the wine. If they taste it, they fall in love with it. There’s a life, vibrancy and tension level to those wines.”

I ask Congdon how she goes about hand-selling some of these more obscure, lesser-known wines and varieties. “That’s part of the benefit of having a small number of wines to sell. I have a small staff and everyone gets to know the wines pretty quickly. I might have 25 reds on any given day and 25 whites. When people come in here, they’re used to local wines; they’re used to seeing the variety printed on the label. So, I ask them to tell me what they normally like to drink. I’ll ask them if they plan to drink that wine on its own or with a meal. That’s a really good stepping stone to knowing what they might like to try. If someone comes in and says they love Pinot Noir, I’ll pour them a Pinot Noir from the Jura. That helps bridge the gap for them; they’re willing to try something new and be adventurous, but it’s still a Pinot Noir.”

Congdon also gravitates towards natural and biodynically-farmed wines, but, she says, “I don’t choose those wines because “natural” and “biodynamic” are the buzz words of the day. People around here don’t ask for those wines. There isn’t a demand for them. I don’t choose those wines because I think ‘that’s what’s going to sell.’ The added passion, care and attention paid to most of those wines just speaks to me personally. Also, I find a buoyancy in those wines I don’t find in more conventionally processed, overly-manipulated wines.”

Many of Congdon’s customers are local, Central Coast winemakers. They in particular tend to gravitate towards Congdon’s imports. I ask her why she thinks that might be. “If it’s your passion, if you’re a winemaker, there should be a curiosity about wine; that sense that you’re never done learning. Also, the Central Coast is a relatively new region, so I think to taste wines from regions where they’ve been making wines for hundreds of years is so important. Also, it’s so expensive in California to make wine. The challenge with making wine in California is that you then have to sell that wine. And, I think that’s where the safety-net mentality comes in with some winemakers. They make their wines in the style that people are used to in California wines. It’s really exciting, though, that there are more and more producers in California really pushing the envelope. There’s always this argument that California wines are the way they are because we have so much sunshine and so much heat and the vines are young. But I think they’re often the way they are because of growing, picking and winemaking decisions. Wines can be made in an Old World style with California grapes, but not if you’re a winemaker saying, ‘I always use 35% new French oak. I always inoculate at this particular time. I always use these yeasts, etc.”

I do a little shopping of my own while I’m at The Station and pick up six bottles of obscure imports that I might not otherwise readily find on the Central Coast. Having been in the wine business myself for many years, I wonder how Congdon comes across these hard-to-find wines. “Most of the importers I order from are not represented on the Central Coast. They have sales reps in Los Angeles and sales reps in San Francisco, but no one comes to San Luis Obispo. Usually it takes longer for me to put orders together because I’m very careful about what I decide to bring in. The tough thing is getting to taste the wines because the reps for these types of wines just don’t come around here. So, I have to go to trade tastings in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Or, when I’m in the Bay Area, I will sit in Ordinaire, a great wine shop in Oakland, and I’ll call my reps who work in the Bay Area. I’ll then ask them to come by there at 2:00 PM, and 3:00 PM and 4:00 PM, so that way, I’ll be able to meet with several reps in one day.”

I first heard about The Station through Instagram. Congdon maintains a dynamic presence on social media. I enjoy both her wine-centric personal feed (@jennasuz) and The Station’s feed (@thestationslo). “Social media is really the only promotion we do; Facebook and Instagram. I am a very social person. I love to share. I don’t necessarily have a goal of seven posts per week. The tricky part is to find that balance between promotion and something you’re personally excited about. I would hate for every one of my posts to be about selling. I struggle with having so many events, because I’m constantly having to promote them. I think social media needs to be a conversation, rather than ‘this is what I have to sell you.’ We’re already overwhelmed in America; we’re being sold stuff every minute of every day because it’s a capitalistic society. It’s better to be interactive with one’s community than just try and sell, sell, sell.”

Congdon makes full use of The Station by regularly using it as an event space. “We try to bring in art, culture and education. We have at least two seminars a month that are wine-based. We hosted a seminar called “Loire Love”; a gloss over on the wines from the Loire Valley. We had a flight of 10 wines; five reds and five whites. We did a Vermouth seminar which was a sold-out. I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of people out there who love Vermouth as much as I do. That one was really fun. We have an upcoming seminar on dry Portuguese wines.”

Congdon also engages with a company called “SLO Record Swap”, and hosts regular events wherein attendees buy, sell or trade vinyl records. The vinyl swap parties typically occur on Saturday nights. “Vinyl sounds great in this space!” On the day that I meet with Congdon, she’s getting ready for an upcoming Bowie-themed vinyl swap party. “I’m hoping we can move the tables back so that people are inspired to dance a little bit.”  

During the course of our time together, I learn that Congdon has two small children and ask her how she balances her work life with motherhood. “It’s tricky. I want to be here for every event. When we put the calendar together, I’ll think ‘Wow! That event sounds like so much fun!’ But, I won’t be able to attend because I want to be home with my children. I want to read them stories at night. I don’t want to miss that window that I have with them every day. I’m very fortunate, though, that my husband has a very flexible job. He owns his own business. He’s able to be there when I can’t be.”

When I ask Congdon if she has an epiphany wine, she answers that she has an epiphany winery: Lopez de Heredia in Rioja, Spain.  “Time stood still in 1905 in that winery. They don’t use any modern technology that didn’t exist in 1905. I visited the winery.  I thought it was such a beautiful property and you can feel the soul of the winery there. They release their wines in a unique and cool way. They hold on to them for so long before they release them. They know consumers typically pop and pour, so they do the aging for you.”

As we start to wrap up our talk, I ask Congdon if she ever gets burned out on drinking wine since she’s surrounded by it all day. I wonder, when she gets home after a long day’s work, does she want to have a glass of wine? “Oh absolutely! Since I’m not meeting with reps at the shop often, I do my homework outside of work. I don’t actually drink or taste a lot during the day, so I don’t have palate fatigue when I get home. That’s actually the most fun part of my day; deciding what I want to bring home to enjoy. I get in trouble with my husband because I have a full locker of wine; probably eight or nine cases, sitting in that locker that are ‘already paid for,’ as he reminds me. I guess I should search through it. There are probably some gems in there. Instead, I find myself asking, ‘What’s new? What do I want to bring home today?!’  Congdon’s favorite food and wine pairing? “My favorite is Champagne and potato chips. Just that dichotomy of having something as low brow as potato chips paired with the echelon of luxury in wine is really fun. I like the Terry Theise portfolio of Champagnes and I love to pop grower Champagnes and pair them with different types of potato chips. Salt and vinegar chips are great with Champagne. But so are ridged Lays potato chips.”

Congdon politely walks me out when we wrap up our meeting. Soon, she’ll be opening up the shop and receiving customers, but for now, she’s busy herself straightening out this thoughtfully appointed little collection of well-appreciated wines.

-- R.H. Drexel

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