Michael MacDougall

Rocky Mountain Wine, Spirits & Beer

Wine is a serious business. Just tasting is a challenge; it involves the proper environment, concentration, a good memory, and a colourful imagination. Rocky Mountain Wine, Spirits & Beer has made it its mission to make wine and other liquor products more accessible through learning and fun, and it’s succeeding.
Like any good origin story, Rocky Mountain’s began years ago; 20, to be precise. After attending trade shows in eastern Canada, three beer brand reps from Ontario came up with the idea that they could stage similar events in Calgary. The Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival proved to be a hit straight off the bat, and the first event drew more than 1,000 guests and 30 booths. It grew from strength to strength, doubling the number of booths in the second year, and hitting 120 by its fourth.
According to Michael MacDougall, owner of Rocky Mountain, the store is a direct result of the festival, and the ideal way to realize his dream of making a closer connection between the customer and the product. It wasn’t an overnight decision, as Michael recounts. “It was on the back-burner and there were a couple of hurdles we had to overcome. For instance, on the festival side, we were burned by a show supplier and realized that there was only one way to control our costs going forward, which was to buy the show supplies ourselves. That is quite a cost, including tables and carpets and drapes for a venue that’s 100,000 sq. ft. Another show came up along the way in 2007 and we now do a show in Calgary called Winefest. We were able to purchase the Calgary show and launch the Edmonton show at the same time. So that had to be paid for.”

There was also the issue of finding a suitable location for the Rocky Mountain store. In Alberta, there are municipal bylaws that prevent retailers having a store within 300m of another. This difficulty is compounded by landlords who naturally know the value of their properties, and this added up to a lot of lost bids over the years. As Michael points out, “If you have a chance to have a chain store instead of an independent, that’s what the landlord would select.”

In time, he found a store that wanted to get out of its lease and a landlord who wanted to get more out of the existing space. In the summer of last year, Rocky Mountain Wines, Spirits and Beer opened its doors for business.

“The Most Beautiful Store I’ve Ever Been In”
One thing that Rocky Mountain is noted for is just how pretty it is. Form and function have been brought together to create a welcoming, stylish retail space, but Michael and his team can’t take all of the credit. He explains, “We were able to secure a really up-and-coming architectural firm here called FRANK Architecture & Interiors. They’ve done a lot of restaurants and we liked their style. They had never designed a liquor store, but we had a pretty strong concept, and they were able to guide us through the process.”
So, what features were a requirement of the store? Michael elaborates, “We met a lot of people in retail and they were really gracious in spending their time with us, answering questions. We went to a lot of liquor stores to measure shelving and build up an image of our space. We had a clear idea of a Bordeaux-style store where you could stack 14 bottles, so you end up managing your whole inventory on the floor. When you get down to two bottles, you know that you have to order a case to fill that space.
“We double-stacked our shelves and even dropped the kick-plates underneath to try and make sure the shelving units weren’t too high. One tip we got from a retailer was to get wire shelves, not wood shelves. The reason is that they don’t get dusty, meaning that there’s a lot less cleaning to do.

Form and function have been brought together to create a welcoming, stylish retail space.

“We had a wine maker out of California that came to our store and she said, ‘I’m not sure what this counts for, but it’s the most beautiful store I’ve ever been in.’ It counts because it supports the idea we had.”

Does Humour Belong in Liquor Stores?
Having a store that looks great is only part of the total package. Your staff’s knowledge about products and the level of service they provide is the core of the customer experience, and this is where Michael thinks that Rocky Mountain Wine, Spirits & Beer excels, especially if that customer is a newcomer to wine. He is keen to make it accessible, and understands that although some customers don’t know much about wine, they know what they like, and that’s a gateway to expanding their knowledge. Michael breaks it down, explaining, “When we know what they like then we can direct them from there and recommend different wines to them. We try and bring that level of comfort to the consumer. If they’re comfortable, they’re more interested in spending time in your store and learning, and are open to trying different things. We make sure that we provide a fun, no-pressure way to gain knowledge about the product. If they’re relaxed, they’ll learn a ton of stuff.”
This educational element is underscored by an obvious sense of humour. Wine notes tend to be quite serious, but the Rocky Mountain team knows that their customers like to be entertained. Their descriptions and tasting notes are legitimate, but as Michael puts it, very often there’s something “cheeky” in there that customers really pick up on.

A Holistic View of Business
One of the overarching aims of the festivals, the store, and Michael’s new online venture, Virtual Vino, is to form some real connective tissue between his customers and his suppliers. He states that a lot of his agents are small mom-and-pop operations that have a real love of the industry, and it’s Rocky Mountain’s duty to make his customers a part of this, and in turn, help wine businesses in the province to grow.
For now, Michael’s energy is focused on consolidating the store’s success so far, and growing Virtual Vino. The website has been operational for barely six months, but the responses have been positive. Michael admits that they’ve been “very, very lucky” that people who have made purchases have rated their wine choices highly, and have enjoyed what Rocky Mountain has offered them.
It’s still the early days for the store, but even so, it’s proven to be a big hit with consumers. Are there any plans for more locations? Michael laughs it off, saying, “The store opened in June 2017. It only took me 16 years. No-one can accuse me of being a fast mover!”