A hotshot importer comes to town to drum up interest

Sep 8, 1999 at 4:00 am
Right off the bat, it's clear that Eric Solomon is something of a showman. "The bowling pin! Where's my bowling pin?" he barks, in search of an oddly shaped bottle, one of about 18 that he's setting up for tasting by the staff of the Wine Merchant's Creve Coeur location, as well as by those random customers who happen to walk in at this end of the sales day.

The natural performing instinct, as well as the remarkable energy level, can be explained somewhat by the fact that the 43-year-old Solomon is a former percussionist for the London Symphony Orchestra. For almost two decades, however, he has indulged his primary passion as a wine impresario, starting off in the corporate world of Heublein but ultimately founding the importing firm European Cellars about a decade ago with the goal of wandering the backroads of the continent in search of undiscovered wine treasures.

"The main goal is to find wines that are compelling," says Solomon, a perpetual-motion machine in constant travel among his business headquarters in Manhattan, his relatively new home in North Carolina and the vineyards of Europe. "The dream, of course, is to find wines that are compelling and a great value at the same time."

Therefore some of the wines being tasted this evening are well under $10; others will probably top out at $40. A telling moment occurs when a customer saunters by the table and confesses her penchant for white zinfandel, the Big Mac of wines, as well as her distaste for "sweet" whites like the honey-soft Càtes de Bergerac — yes, it has a great "nose" — currently in the tasting glasses. Solomon deftly turns her on to Les Cabrians, a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier that's probably a bit more approachable for a new drinker than a pure Chardonnay. It's not on the store shelves yet, but the customer makes a note of the name and promises to pick some up if it's in the next time she visits.

Judging from the reactions of the store staff, Solomon is likely to find a St. Louis retail home for most if not all of the day's samplings, and he seems to have a local soulmate in the Wine Merchant's John Nash, who also does a great job of balancing casual appearance and approachability with a serious business and wine sense. The best possible outcome, after all, is for more and more people like this evening's customer to augment their entry-level white-zin affinities with growing appreciation for the incredible variety and artistry now easily accessible from vintners all over the world.