Ryan Tycholas & Che Bechard

Baseline Wine & Spirits

Going Big and Bold – In Edmonton, customers searching for that big Californian Cabernet Sauvignon or bold Aussie Shiraz know just where to go: Baseline Wine & Spirits. “Our focus is very New World-centred,” says owner Che Bechard. “We like the big, massive, rich Cabernets, Malbecs and Shirazes. We like them, and have cultivated many like-minded customers.”

It’s not just the bottles on the shelves that bring the customers in, though. It’s the store’s attention to service, education, and great tasting events. It’s a reputation that Che has built since he bought Baseline on May 1, 1998.

“I started working at this store, which I now own, when I was in university,” Che describes. As he was debating what to do with his career, the then-owners decided to sell, and gave him the opportunity to buy the business. Eighteen years later, he’s still here and loving it. “It seems like forever, and it seems like I just started,” he says with a laugh.

A lot has changed since Che began working with Baseline. At one point, it was one of only seven private wine retailers in a province of mainly government liquor stores. When the government announced, in 1993, that it would privatize all its 208 liquor stores, it changed the whole playing field. Today, Alberta has over 1,400 retail liquor stores, all competing for a dwindling dollar.

It’s not just the number of competitors that makes things challenging, it’s also how big they are. At 3,500 sq ft, Baseline is not tiny, according to Che, but it’s pint-sized compared to the massive, 20,000 sq ft liquor stores that have moved into the market. He’s already felt the effects. “In 2011, we were forced to move. Another retailer moved into our area, my lease ended up expiring, and we got muscled out,” he explains. “I considered doing something else, but my customers loved the store, and I do too.”

Four years ago, he re-opened Baseline in a new location in Sherwood Park. It’s bright, spacious and airy, easy to navigate, and comfortable to spend time in.

Where the old store had a mezzanine for wine tastings and special events, the new one has a stylish glassed-in tasting room with clear acrylic “ghost chairs” clustered around a long table made from a tree harvested on Vancouver Island. It’s not just a popular spot for wine tastings; it’s also become a popular source of inspiration for decorating ideas. “Once a month, we have someone coming in just to look at the table,” Che boasts.

The tasting room is put to good use. Every second or third Friday, Baseline offers ticketed tastings that sell out within hours of being posted. Baseline also hosts a twice-yearly fundraiser for prostate cancer as well as numerous informal in-store tastings. As Che says, “With more than 1,400 liquor stores in Alberta, you have to do something to differentiate yourself.”

He also points out that although they are known for their wine, they also offer a range of interesting spirits, notably fine rums and whiskies. “The amount of rum that is available to us is just staggering,” Che describes.

However, wine is still his biggest passion. Baseline’s selection emphasizes wines from Canada, Argentina, California and Australia as well as France and Portugal, but there’s one region that really stands out. “Our bread and butter here is Napa Valley,” Che says. “We go to Napa two or three times a year, so we’ve met a lot of winery owners and winemakers, and get a lot of products that are exclusive to us.”

In other words, if you’re looking for something rich and delicious from Screaming Eagle, Lail Vineyards or Kamen, this is the place to find it. Indeed, Baseline’s staff know exactly which of their customers will want the special wines they bring in.

That said, the current economic downturn has had an impact. “The last 15 to 18 months have been a bit more challenging,” he says. “The customers that used to spend $125 a bottle are now drinking down their cellar or buying wine in that $50 to $75 range.”

No matter whether a customer is looking for a $125 wine, a $50 one, or even a $17 bottle, the most important thing Baseline has to offer is quality service. That’s why Che takes care to hire staff with wine training. “Service is absolutely our number one priority,” he notes. After all, it’s not just about selling wine, but sharing wine culture with customers who are increasingly well-informed. “The consumers are becoming savvier,” Che observes. “The wine culture is growing in Alberta.”