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Champion Wine Cellars

New owners take Champion into the future

Emile Ninaud and partners opened Champion Wine Cellars in 1969 – theirs was the second license granted in Washington. The first licensed store went out of business, but Champion continues on 51 years later. It says something about both the staying power of the store and how much Seattle-ites appreciate wine!

The lower Queen Anne location was set for demolition and a new building. Emile (80 years old) and his wife Stephanie were not in the mood for a move. He called sommelier friend Cyril Frechier (Rover’s, Campagne/Café Campagne, Marche Bistro and Wine Bar, Petit Monde Wine Merchant, now with American Northwest Distributors) to see if he’d like to buy the store. Cyril’s answer? “Hell no, I’m too old for that! But I know someone who could do it.”

Owner Erin Lyman

Cyril was referring to Erin Lyman who started her hospitality career at 15 in Honolulu. As Erin explains, “Cyril has been my wine mentor for years and we’d been talking about my next step. We hadn’t come up with much when Emile called. I was, ‘Retail? No!’ I took it to my partner, Suthap Manivong, thinking he’d get a good laugh out of it as he’s an accountant who has worked with 11 different restaurant and bar accounts over the years. Instead, he wanted to see if the numbers made sense.”

Erin and Suthap had been thinking about what their future might look like. They took the money they had been saving and bought the wine shop in 2017. “It was months of logistics; everything had to happen at the same time and were all contingent on each other. Plus we planned a tight time crunch. Emile wanted to keep his shop open as long as possible and we all wanted as little lag time as possible between closing and re-opening. Emile closed April 20-21 and we moved to the new store on the 23rd. At least that’s what we planned. The wine had to be on the premises per the license. But we weren’t ready, so we rented storage units while we finished construction.”

Erin’s parents jumped in to help. Her dad made the ceiling panels out of 2 x 4s, made the barn doors, bought welding equipment to create a table. Emile’s old table that came from his Le Taste de Vin restaurant is in the new shop. “I took instruction from dad,” laughs Erin. “He started the flooring so I wouldn’t go crooked and I put the rest in. It takes a village!”

They looked at Queen Anne and Ballard locations, but prices were too high. “We lucked out on this spot in Greenwood. We liked it because it has great visibility. The best part is that the neighborhood has welcomed us. Some of the original Champion supporters have come along with us as well.”

Some things have changed, others haven’t. “We have less space now than Emile did; it isn’t as much of a cave and has fewer nooks and crannies. It’s worked well for us because it’s easier to manage. Emile also had an expansive Washington wine list. I thought I would but found that our customers have their favorite Washington wineries, are often members of several clubs, and drive to Woodinville whenever they want. When they come here, they want wines they haven’t tried before. My focus has become Old World wines which is really my background anyway.”

The old shop had weekly tastings, Erin has them more frequently. “We include information on pairing with food recipes and have an educational aspect as well. We’ll talk about food in that region and how people drink there. People here love to cook, so they’re interested in wine pairing. Our tastings have been a good thing, people are excited to come in. We have a suggested $5 tasting fee which is waived with purchase, although we don’t like to be heavy-handed about it.”

What remains unchanged is the emphasis on personal service, like their wine club. Customers complete a form about their preferences and Erin finds wine they’ll enjoy. She creates pamphlets for wine club members about the wine they buy. She lists the wines; gives background on the wines, wine growers, winemakers; pairing ideas; how long to let the wine breath, etc. “It definitely takes longer to do this, but it helps people enjoy their wine more. It also helps me with inventory. Wine club purchases show me what people are interested in so I can buy things I think they’ll like.” She also researches wine for special dinners in peoples’ homes, or just everyday drinking.

Parking has been an issue (street parking only), but they have worked hard to help customers. When they aren’t at the shop working, they deliver wine orders for free within Seattle city limits. They’ve also lowered the number of bottles people have to buy to get a 10% discount. That discount is normally on case buys. “We lowered that number to six bottles because many of our customers live within walking distance. They can carry six bottles, but not cases.”

Erin looks younger than she is; she has an extensive background in the beverage industry and is very knowledgeable about wine (click here to read). She and Suthap are currently the only owners of a classic wine shop led by a woman of mixed  heritage. “We have people who come from other areas who come here because they look like us. It’s a big thing to me that we value everyone and make wine more inclusive.

“Emile told me recently that in France there’s a movement to eschew large companies and support small businesses. I love that because we feel there’s nothing as good as talking to a real person who listens to you and learns your likes/dislikes in order to curate wine for you, not me. Small businesses can do that.”

Connie Adams/February 2019

Champion Wine Cellars
8503 Greenwood Ave N
Seattle, WA 98103

Click here to learn about Erin's background


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