Keith Mills loves wine. Not in the sense that he can’t live without it, but in that he believes it enhances the journey that we are all on. Ten years ago, he and his wife Linda opened a small shop in Milton that combined his knowledge of the grape with the European style of selling wine and cheese, not in bulk, but with the personal touch of a wine-lover.
Esprit du Vin, quite literally the “spirit of wine,” is a popular fixture on Central Avenue and Keith has quickly become the man you go to if you can’t decide what wine to have with your evening meal. A firm believer in dialogue, his recommendations will ensure that your choice of food is perfectly complemented with the right wine.
This week, Patch spent some time with the Milton resident surrounded by wines that he has personally tasted to ensure that they meet the standard that the neighborhood has come to expect.
Where are you from?
I live in Milton, but I’m originally from Ohio. I’ve been in the town for 14 years but have lived in this part of the country for 28 or 29 years. My family is from Brookline.
Why did you decide to open a wine shop in Milton?
We’ve lived here for years and we’re food and wine people. We found it was difficult to find the food, wines, cheeses and breads that we were looking for so we had to travel elsewhere for them. So, my wife and I decided that it might be fun to do something like this.
Do you have a background in wine?
No, but indirectly, yes. For 19 years I directed investigations on litigations for self-insured companies, but prior to that when I was in school, I got involved in an apprenticeship that led me to becoming a chef in a French restaurant. From there I really got the bite for wines and cheeses…food like that.
France has a global reputation for the quality of their wines. With competition from the New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa et cetera), do you find that the Old World wines are still popular?
It’s really hard to say. There are certain customers who want to drink nothing but New World wines, others that like Old World. My job as the provider or purveyor is to listen to what people are having for dinner or what they’re going to drink the wine with, what kind of wines they like, what styles they enjoy and then help them pick the appropriate one. We probably sell as much Old World as we do New.
You act as an in-house sommelier?
Exactly. I’m a consultant. My job, or whoever is working here, is to listen to what the customer wants and find it.
You do in-store tastings every Friday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. has this helped people find what they’re looking for?
It gives people an opportunity to try different wines that they may not normally try as well as cheeses. It becomes almost a social event where people come to taste wines and get to know each other. You get a lot of people from the neighborhood or from outside the area, it can be a fun event.
Do you think that the American palate for wine has become more educated in recent years?
In general, I’d say yes. There are followers of the written wine press; Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. People read those and follow their recommendations. In our store we don’t put any listings or points out from anyone. Everything that comes in, we taste to make sure that it fits in with what we’re looking for and my philosophy is that if it’s in here, it’s got our seal of approval.
It’s funny, if someone buys a wine here that is highly rated by a wine expert like Parker and he or she doesn’t like it, they’re not going to call him…they’ll come and see me! My feeling is that the buck stops here, the tastings of the wines is predicated on what we think.
Esprit du Vin is helping put people on the path to wine discovery…
We’re fortunate that after ten years there’s a good confidence built up with the store and with us. 60-80 percent of the sales are made because people come in to me and say ‘I’m having fish tonight, what do you recommend?’ People will wait until I’m done with another customer so that we can talk about the food and the wine. As a result, the majority of my sales are based upon my recommendations as opposed to people just pulling bottles off the shelf.
Where are your customers from?
The majority is from Milton, but we get a lot of customers from Dorchester, Quincy and Canton. Our area keeps expanding. I have a group of people that come up from the Cape every other week so it’s nice that we’re reaching out.
What makes Milton special?
It’s a nice small community; we’re still a town and not a city. There’s a general friendliness here, it’s a pretty place to live and to hang out.
What is the unique selling point (USP) of Esprit du Vin?
We are a “Mom and Pop” store. We’re local and we are on the corner. We feature 70 different cheeses, fresh breads every morning, a beautiful selection of hand-picked wines. We’re priced well and I think we give the best service of any similar store that is out there.
How do you compete with the stores that sell wine in bulk?
Usually, the wine that is sold in bulk is made that way. The craftsmanship isn’t quite there, there are a lot of wines that you can find that have an oaky flavor but they’re not taking the time. They’re adding woodchips or teabags filled with woodchips to get the wine to taste that way. They’re made in huge vats, the grapes are from all over the country and they’re blended together.
We’re looking for families like us; ones that grow their own grapes and make their own wine. They’re completely invested in what’s going on and, to me, there is true craftsmanship in a fine bottle of wine. If people are looking for a $6 wine, we might not be the right store for them, but our prices start at $8.99 and we go from there. The wines that we carry are from people who are invested in what they produce.
How has the business changed since you opened your doors 10 years ago?
Like everything, all businesses evolve. We started out our mission with more esoteric wines but we had to stream that back over the first few months because we don’t want to be that sort of wine shop. After listening to our customers, we found our direction. People are interested in trying different varietals, I think that between their palates becoming more educated and trying different wines. It’s been a good journey for all of us.
There is a certain amount of snobbery that can be associated with wine. How have you dealt with that perception?
I would use the word demystification. There has been a combination of things that have helped with this. We’re regular people, we’re not dressed in tweed and talking down to customers. We’re here to find out what people like and talk to them about it. We’re here to see what they’re interested in. There has been a general movement into health, people realize that drinking wine is good for them and I see people coming in who 10 years ago would only drink beer…now they’re tasting wine.
How would you brand Esprit du Vin?
At a certain level, we’re an unbranded store. If you look around, there are no case stacks of popular wines, there are no ratings. We’re all about service. We are here to provide direction and assistance. It’s a journey for all of us. I’m old fashioned, I like dialogue.
Is there anything new that Milton residents should know about the store?
We have a lot of new wines coming in with some great discoveries that we have found. I don’t want to use the word “cutting edge” but you can find some amazing wine and deals. We’re in-tuned to what is out there, and we want to be the best.