SEATTLE – It’s been nearly 40 years since Michael Teer first walked into Pike & Western Wine Shop, and his enthusiasm for Washington wine has not waned.
If anything, he’s more excited than ever about what is happening.
“It was always a focus,” Teer told Great Northwest Wine. “When it comes to American wine, we are 98 percent Washington and Oregon. That’s tied with French wines as our biggest categories.”
This is the 40th anniversary of Pike & Western opening its doors in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and through the years, it has become an iconic wine shop for Seattle residents and visitors.
We recently sat down with Teer to talk about Pike & Western. Here’s the interview:
Early days of Pike & Western Wine Shop
The first thing one might wonder about Pike & Western is its name. It’s on the northern edge of the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, at the corner of Pike Place and Virginia Street.
Teer is quick to recount its history and an explanation for the name.
“I walked into Pike & Western when it was still in the lower level of the market (where Pike Street and Western Avenue would have intersected),” he said. “I’m going to guess that was ’76 or ’77 because they didn’t stay down there that long.”
Pike & Western opened in 1975, not long after the citizens of Seattle voted to save the Pike Place Market from being turned over to developers. Two of the key individuals behind saving the market were Ron Irvine and Jack Bagdade, two wine lovers who then decided opening a wine shop was next on their life journey.
At the time, there were few wine shops in Seattle, with two of the oldest being Champion Wine Cellars on Denny Way near the Space Needle and Esquin Wine Merchants south of downtown, both of which opened in 1969.
When Teer wandered into Pike & Western the first time, he was working at a state liquor store and was just getting interested in wine. Ultimately, he began taking wine appreciation classes at the shop. By 1980, Teer was working for a distributor.
“I was selling wine to Pike & Western, and Ron Irvine offered me a job,” he fondly recalled. “I’d always wanted to work in the shop. I’m a Seattle native, and I’d always come to the Pike Place Market, so working at Pike & Western and the Pike Place Market were two important things for me.”
By this time, Pike & Western had moved to its current location – next to Turkish Delight and a few steps from the original Starbucks.
(By the way, if one looks at the original Starbucks logo and the original Pike & Western logo, one might see resemblances. It turns out both were designed – about the same time – by artist Terry Heckler, who also designed logos for Rainier Beer, K2 skis, Redhook Brewery and New Balance shoes.)
Michael Teer takes over Pike & Western
After being hired in 1980, Teer spent the next 11 years helping to run the shop. By 1991, he decided it was time to move on, but Irvine had other plans.
“Ron decided he would move on and sold me the store,” he said. “So it was a stroke of luck for me.”
Around 1989, Irvine began working on The Wine Project, his book chronicling the history of the Washington wine industry. He went on to publish it in 1997, and today it remains one of the most important books ever written about Washington wine. Irvine also was interested in moving into the winemaking side and purchased Vashon Winery on Vashon Island. Bagdade, too, also moved into the winery side, launching Domaine Meriwether, a sparkling wine house in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
In those early days, Teer took his position as a Washington wine ambassador seriously, just as he does today.
“Seattle had a strong import market, so we sold European wines as well, but we always supported the Northwest, just as we do today,” he said.
He has fond memories of the state’s early wine days, when everyone knew each other.
“I realize what a cool time that was at the beginning,” Teer said. “I can say I was there for the first vintage of Quilceda Creek. I remember the time David Lake brought a group of us in to help convince his bosses (Associated Vintners) to do the first single-vineyard bottlings with Red Willow and Sagemoor. It was a really exciting time because it was a little club. It was a small community. Today, it’s a giant community and, unfortunately, it’s impossible to know everybody in the business.”
What hasn’t changed is the size of Pike & Western. Since moving to its current location in 1979, the shop has been 1,100 square feet – including Teer’s cramped office, which is stuffed with wine books and periodicals. But he’s able to find space for about 800 different wines. And every bottle is selected based on his and his staff’s palate.
“We taste everything we buy,” he said. “We’re still very old-fashioned that way. We don’t use other people’s reviews. We read them, but we view ourselves as the experts. We’ve done that since day one, and there’s nothing like time to build a tasting library in your mind. We’ve always tried to taste with the consumer in mind, but especially these days with all the competition, we try to have a specific voice, a unique voice for the consumer.”
Neighborhood wine shops in modern age
When citizens voted to get the state out of the business of selling liquor in 2011, it changed just about everything for those in the alcohol business. Suddenly, grocery stores and Costco could sell spirits, and hundreds of private liquor stores opened across the state. It also brought in new competitors such as BevMo and Total Wine & More.
For small wine shops such as Pike & Western, the new environment has not negatively affected them.
“The grocery stores, when they added spirits, de-emphasized the selection of wine they used to carry,” Teer said. “And the big guys have their own brands they want to sell. So it’s allowed us to really become even more niche because people looking for something unique or small producers don’t have that many options to find them here in town anymore. It’s all about bigger brands.”
That gives Teer the advantage of finding the next Leonetti, Quilceda Creek or Woodward Canyon, wineries that often fly under the radar of the big box wine stores.
“We’re always on the lookout for who’s going to be the next one,” he said, spotlighting such producers as Syncline Wine Cellars in the Columbia Gorge and Savage Grace in Woodinville.
He also believes that neighborhood wine shops still matter, just as locally owned bakeries, bookstores and bike shops should.
“Our situation is a little bit unique amongst wine shops in town,” he said. “We like to think of ourselves as a neighborhood (in the Pike Place Market), but we’re also in a huge tourist area. And that’s been a big change in my many years here. There are more tourists now than ever before, so we deal with a wide swath of the American population.”
That gives him the opportunity to talk about the home team.
“We turn them on to a lot of Washington wines that they can go back and either buy locally wherever they live or buy from the wineries that can ship to them,” Teer said. “That’s our biggest way of promoting Washington wines. But our core business is still our locals. Without that, we couldn’t be here. We do not rely on tourist business. I view that as the gravy. There’s a lot of young people moving into the downtown area, so we want to serve those people.”
What’s next for Pike & Western
Teer is approaching his mid-60s, and he knows he can’t run Pike & Western forever. He hopes to do what Irvine did back in 1991 and perhaps sell the shop at some point to a longtime employee.
“I want to retire someday,” he said. “I would like to have its legacy continue as it did with me. I’d like to see the next generation take it over and continue it with their own vision. Pike & Western isn’t so much the people who are here. It’s its own unique energy, and I’d like to continue that.”
One change that’s taken place at Pike & Western is Washington’s original winery. Until about five years ago, Teer still carried Chateau Ste. Michelle wines.
“I think it’s my job to give that space to up-and comers,” he said. “(Ste. Michelle is) doing just fine without us. One of the first dry white wines I ever drank was a ’72 (Ste. Michelle) Sèmillon that my father brought home, so it’s always part of my history. But with our limited space, we try to give the little guys a shot.”
Teer’s excitement for wine still shines brightly in his eyes and in his words, and that shows in what is available on the shelves of Pike & Western.
“Nobody in this store has to sell something they don’t want to sell,” he said. “We’re passionate about it. We got into the wine business because it was a hobby that got out of control. It’s either go find a job that could pay enough to support my wine habit or work in the business. I chose working in the business.”
That kind of focus will keep Pike & Western going for another 40 years.