I’ve known Ed Bosse for so long I used to have a crush on his sister in high school. Seriously; I was at an all-boys Catholic school and I used to sit in the rear row of Brother Garcia’s Spanish class and catch an occasional glimpse of her outside the all-girls school next door.
As a good little altar boy I’ll say that she put the ‘holy’ in ‘shit’ and then say no more.
So, I’ve run into Ed a number of times in the intervening growing-up years; he was a top notch wine guy at a muster of Detroit-area restaurants and has always understood and promoted the graceful accessibility of wine and never cozied up to that faction of wine geek who learns more from books than from stemware.
But Ed is a wine geek, make no mistake about it: He’s been a wine steward and a wine rep (as well as an advertising exec and an elementary school teacher) and has owned a series of local wine stores for decades, from the pop-up style Winezilla in Ferndale to his current venture, Birmingham Wine, which is exactly where you’d think it is so long as you are thinking Michigan and not Alabama.
These days, Ed despises anything that smacks of wine label-bullying, and he admits that the exterior of his store may be more austere than he’d like it to be, but he’s bound by certain code restrictions.
“I see people walking by Birmingham Wine on a daily basis with an expression that says, ‘Wine stores intimidate me’. If I can get them across my threshold, they discover a whole different vibe, one where wine is an adventure and never represented by some salesman interested in showing off wine knowledge rather than learning exactly what a customer is looking for.”
In fact, in the hour or so I hung around the place, a woman came in looking for a ‘sweet girly wine’ and walked out with a smile and a bottle of Chambre d’Amour from Lionel Osmin et Cie, which Ed described to her as tasting like ‘grapefruit sprinkled with sugar’.
Speaking of analogies, on my best day ever I couldn’t have come up with a better one than Ed quotes one of his now-loyal customer as having said: “Hell, these days I’m intimidated to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Imagine the shakes I get when I walk into a wine shop.”
Not only is Ed’s store and staff designed and trained to phase out the intimidation factor, the layout of the place is simple, logical, and (to use a phrase Ed probably over-employed in his advertising career) ‘user-friendly’. To the right is a wall with a sign that reads, ‘Everyday Wine; $15 or Less’ and to the left is a sign that reads, ‘Cellar Wine; $30 and Over’ In the middle is everything else, along with a table set up for impromptu tastings. In the rear is a couch that reminds me of one of those comfy coffee klatches from the Seventies where you could sit and shoot the breeze.
Which is exactly where Ed and me rapped our way through this interview.
“The new wave of restaurants, locally and nationally, are changing the way wine is understood, appreciated and consumed,” he says.
I ask him to name names and Ed immediately comes up with Selden Standard, among the vanguard of reasonably priced yet upscale restaurants that offer innovative dishes that are as far from Detroit’s plethora of steak houses as I was from taking his sister to the senior prom.
Ed says, “The hardest truth for a lot of stock brokers, lawyers and other well-heeled professionals to learn is that the wines they’ve been told by the Spectator and the Advocate are ‘great’—the Cakebreads and the Caymuses—really don’t taste right with the experimental style of small plate offerings that represent both the trend and the creativity among contemporary chefs.”
And what does Cakebread and Caymus go well with? You got it: That big, bloody, thick, prime-cut slab of American Wagyu that, when you tally it up at the end, you realize you just spent $90 for the steak, $14 for the Caesar salad, $8 for the baked potato and probably a few more for the ice in your glass of water. Oh, and $150 for the Caymus.
“The type of pioneer restaurant that encourages culinary gymnastics is our ally,” Ed maintains. “In other words, restaurants that serve real food: Selden Standard, Wright & Company, Toast here in Birmingham. When you have a meal with multiple courses composed of subtle ingredients, nothing comes across more awkward than a heavy, oak-filled Cabernet. Countless small producers from wonderful regions—wines not subject to the bullying tactics of the big Napa houses—are far more appropriate and delicious with this style of dining—let alone being more reasonably priced.”
And he’s absolutely right. Most of the wines at Birmingham Wine are from limited-production wineries and priced within the sweet spot for consumer pricing, around $20. For the sheer popular demand of such labels in tony Birmingham, Michigan—one of the most affluent cities in the United States—he offers a handful of wines with tags running northward of $200—Opus and Dominus, et al. But I can assure you, in the time I spent just nosing around and observing, I never saw a single patron steered toward them. Customers were more likely to walk in eager for recommendations and walk out with multiple bottles of stuff like Nicola Biscardo Corvina Rosso, priced at $18. These were people that, almost invariably, Ed referred to by their first name.
“We’re sort of the Drucker’s of Birmingham,” he says, referring to Sam’s Hooterville general store. “We have a corner shop mentality. People come here to chat with us as much as to buy wine, and some of the folks who have discovered fun and spectacular wines below $20—customers that could afford to buy whatever they wanted—have assured me that they were relieved to finally have the handcuffs off. A lot of people in this area have been hypnotized by producers, by magazines, by tasting clubs, into the thinking that the more they spend, the better the wine.”
Again, we need more people like Ed in the wine world. When I was a kid, I didn’t much care for bossy people. Then I caught a glimpse of his sister and started listening to Springsteen, and things changed.
Changing attitudes is the core of Birmingham Wine’s philosophy, and although I never thought of Sam Drucker as the dominatrix type, as far as I’m concerned, Ed can be the Bosse of me.