Getting Your Goat At Traverse City’s Baddest Bodega

Long ago and far away, no circumambulation of Northern Michigan wine country was complete without a didactic pit-stop at the odd blue shop wedged between Peninsula Drive and E. Front Street.

BobPaulinskiThere, surrounded by a cornucopia of bottles from distant galaxies like Priorat and Rheinpfalz (as well as the best collection of Michigan wine then available), sat a bespectacled young man whose nose was always stuck in some bizarrely huge wine book; he was a wine nerd extraordinaire, and back then it was sort of fun to pester him with extremely off-the-wall questions, like, “What’s the difference between degrees Brix and degrees Plato?” to which he’d always reply, “That’s easy,” and give you a response so technically convoluted that you wound up being more confused than before.

The fellow’s name was Bob Paulinski, and he went on to achieve the nearly impossible feat of becoming a Master of Wine, then sold the shop and went on to do something even harder: He re-invented himself as Sam’s Club’s corporate wine director, where he grew the chain’s private label wines from zero to $82 million in less than five years.

I imagine that to Barefoot Cellars, his tenure at Wal-Mart was what Armageddon is to Christianity.

outsideThat was then and this is now, and my first inkling that the Blue Goat might be a new goat was the marquee out front advertising Barefoot Cellars, and a Googled interview with store manager Ryan White contained this quote: “Barefoot is a staple here.”

I guess that Barefoot would have been a staple for Paulinski, too:  A staple from a Makita pneumatic gun to the sulcus terminalis of his tongue.

The Smiths

The Smiths

But like first impressions, first inklings are often wrong, and I after spending half an hour with Ryan White and his dad (who owns the place), I am man enough to do a huge and genuine mea culpa.

Maybe nobody on the current Blue Goat staff is passing any Masters of Wine exams any time soon, but of course, less than three hundred über-geeks in the visible universe have proven themselves the equal of that task since 1953.  Today’s Blue Goat educational font is the Wine Spectator School, an online course that Ryan swears by. And the shelves are stocked with ten thousand excellent bottlings prove it; the small display of two Barefeet for $11 is easily overlooked.

“We strive to be what I think of as a ‘genuine’ wine shop, a place is prepared to hand-sell wine to exactly suit a customer’s needs.” Ryan says. “I’m willing to spend as much time with a customer as they have to spend.”

And it’s rare or never that Ryan can’t find something that works; The Blue Goat offers the widest selection of wine in Northern Michigan, both domestic and imported and a pretty heft beer list as well.

mich roomBut that brings us to local wine, the star that crowns the Goat.  When Paulinski ran the joint, Michigan wine was represented, but area wineries had not nearly reached the apex they have today.  Indeed, The Blue Goat has an entire room dedicated to them, and they make up a good 30% of stock keeping units.  Ryan points out that his price structure is sometimes better than what you’ll find in the various tasting rooms themselves, (although the tasting rooms hope you forget that I just said that).  In any case, The Blue Goat is a Michwishlist, with the best from the local best.  Back in the day, when Paulinski was noodling The Wine Economist behind the register, the state of the art was very much the state of the start-up.

My conclusion?

You don’t have to know the difference between Brix and Pluto if your brix and mortar remains true to purpose.  Blue Goat is now an blue icon that outstrips its blue iconhood; even better than before.

And not for nothing, Bob Paulinski is now a Senior Vice President at BevMo!, which sells more Barefoot Cellars in an hour than Ryan White does all year.

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5 Responses to Getting Your Goat At Traverse City’s Baddest Bodega

  1. Al Green says:

    I’m delighted with this BG update, Chris. Good story. I confess I have not ventured in, since Bob’s days, although mostly as a result of no longer sacrificing 1/2 my pay…. . I have missed Bob and his sweet wife Marianne. We always enjoyed each other’s company in shop or home…..when we could get them. Retail takes a helluva a commitment, which I am sure the Smith’s knew or now know. But Bob taught me and many others patiently and with enthusiasm going back to their days owning/operating Village Wine in the GT Resort tower. Before he left TC, his version (the 2nd) of the Goat rivaled Dick Scheer’s Village Corner. Quite a find in northern Michigan. I am not surprised that he has run the MoW gauntlet. He was passionate about wine and everything about it. He had little interest in anything else, just too mundane. I am happy to know that he remains successful and, I hope, he has earned some time off and has learned to enjoy it. If convenient, please pass on my regards and best wishes.

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