Why Costco Rules the Wine Retailing World: One reason is Brian Ellis

In his first three months at the Costco in Castleton, Indiana, Brian Ellis increased wine sales 80%. He did it by simply hanging out in the wine section of this store in the Northeast suburbs of Indianapolis, extending a handshake to anyone who got close to a bottle of wine, having a ready smile, and asking customers his well-honed key question: “What’s the last wine that you drank that you really liked?”

These are great tips for successful wine salesmanship – but there may be only one Brian Ellis. If there are more, Costco is hiring.

Blessed with a remarkable sense of smell and a memory for the essence of every wine he’s ever tasted, Brian is a cornerstone of this store. When he joined Costco a few years ago, he managed to imbue all the other Castleton managers and staffers in the store with his enthusiasm about wine.

I feel privileged to have spent 90 minutes with him today. And Costco is probably glad too. I came in determined to buy only two more bottles for my Indianapolis-brother’s wine rack. Six bottles later, I am really happy.

This adventure with Brian at Costco started out when I went to update my membership card and figured out it was easier to do that while visiting Indianapolis than to wait in a line of 80 in San Francisco. Mark, the membership services guy at the counter, showed the usual Midwestern openness and asked what brought me to Indy. I told him briefly about the videotaping I’d done for the Hoosierwinecellar blog and the plan to go to the Indy International Wine Competition event. Mark brightened, and said, “Oh, too bad Brian is not here today. You really ought to meet him.” Mark explained that Brian was a wine steward at the store. Wine steward –AT COSCTO? Business card at the ready, I asked Mark to please have Brian call me.

We met at that fine dining establishment, the white formica tables in front of the “Polish Sausage and Soft Drink, $1.50” sign. Trained as an electrician, Brian said he switched careers after an accident on the job many years ago. Deciding what to do was easy, since he discovered fine wine in the late 1970’s. He’s been drinking and learning about wine, and collecting it too, for almost 25 years now. Brian’s first wine industry job was as a wine salesman for Midwest Wines, a promoter. He did an event at the Castleton Costco, and sold so much wine during the event that the store manager asked him to consult with them. After doing that for a few years, he signed on full time in 2008.

Brian has two secret weapons: his outgoing personality, and his wine memory. “All I have to do is taste a wine once, and I can remember it,” he says. His eyes got that distant sensory-experience look, as he recalled the 76’ legendary German Rieslings of his early wine loving years.

In his spare time, Brian does educational tastings for civic and professional groups. He has a few first-principles he imparts to beginners: “You need to know European wines before you know any others. Start with French wines, then learn Italian wines, then Spanish.” “Pinot is such a difficult grape to grow; of course it is expensive. But when it is good, it is the best. When it is bad, it is the worst.”

He does some home winemaking in order to keep learning about the process. Along the way, he found this out: “Most winemakers decide in advance what the wine will be like. Then they just help nature along.” Brian tries to make truly classic vinifera style wines using what Indiana has most of: fruit. His best so far is a cherry/plum blend where he said the fruit simply transcended itself. He thinks that adding sugar to a wine after the fermentation is done is cheating, and he won’t do it at home and he won’t recommend a commercial wine where that’s been done.

Recommending wines to customers at Costco has its limitations. Those limitations have to do with the constraint on numbers of wines that the regional buyers supply to the stores. But after a few years of steadily nudging the office in Chicago to stop tilting toward California wines so much, Brian has been able to secure a good selection of European, South American and Australia/New Zealand wines, even the occasional South African wine. No customer of Brian’s ever walks away disappointed!

Brian sees his main job at Costco as that of educating customers. “Trust is the currency I have with my loyal customers,” he says. Those customers have his personal e-mail and cellphone number, and ask him for advice frequently – most often around the holidays, he notes. “True wine people are always looking for something different. I try to move the customer who is used to buying by brand name to a more experimental outlook.”

It’s easy to experiment with wines from Costco. I’d bought a Cline 2007 Ancient Vines Zinfandel there for $11.99. Just for curiosity’s sake, I’d done an internet search on this wine on http://www.wine-searcher.com/, and the best price I saw was $12.80. The median price was around $14.00. “Costco negotiates prices,” explained Brian. “That, of course, plays a huge role in what’s distributed to the stores. But the good news is that it is corporate policy to sell wine at only a few margin points of profit. Customers benefit tremendously.”

What’s the worst thing about working at Costco, I asked.
“Walking through the detergent section,” Brian replied.

He then tapped his nose...


I have these wine conversations with my brother the doctor every evening when I visit him. I cook; it’s my way of repaying his hospitality since his busy physician’s schedule in Indianapolis doesn’t give him much time to visit me in California. I’m not a great chef, but he’s grateful for a hot meal at the end of his 11 hour days.
He’s been pleased to see a glass of wine at his place on the dinner table, and he usually says the same thing as he sits down: “I hope you didn’t pay more than $7 a bottle for this, it all tastes the same to me.” This week, thanks to Brian’s help, he’s learned differently. I think. As my sibling, he’d never confess it, if so.

Brian’s choices under $30 (available at Costco in Castleton IN, mid-June 2009)

Chateau Olivier 2005 Grand Cru Classe de Graves, Pessac-Leognan, France $26.99

Pio Cesare 2006 Barbera d’Alba, Italy $15.79

Santa Rita 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve, Medalla Real, single estate D.O. Maipo Valley-Chile $14.99

Luigi Bosca 2006 Malbec, Reserva – Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza- Argentina $12.99

Etim Seleccion 2006 Montsant, Spain $9.99

Bodega Tamari 2008 Torrontes, Reserva, Mendoza-Argentina $9.99


1 comment:

  1. In past years I have had the distinct opportunity to do several wine shows and personnal tastings with Brian. His knowledge about wines from all over the world is extrodinary and as you say his sense of smell is perfected for wines. He has a gifted personality that shows such enthusiam for the wine that the customers just have to try it. I have seen customers come into the wine area disappointed if Brian is not there.
    He would be a tremendous asset in any aspect of the wine business.