Shop's Customers Now Prefer Wine Over 'Hard Stuff'

December 10, 1990|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

Hillard Donner sold his first bottle of wine almost four decades ago, and it wasn't easy.

How things have changed.

Today, in Donner's Annapolis wine shop, more than a thousand wines from every wine-producing nation in the world are stacked in bins and crates that fill two rooms.

Customers come to Mills Wine & Spirit Mart on Main Street seeking advice on which Bordeaux to serve their dinner guests.

They come in search of elegant but affordable champagne. Some carry out caseloads of wine to keep their basement cellars stocked.

Forty years ago, Donner began importing wine from France to the shop he ran with his father and uncle.

But no one was buying.

"It was tough to sell a bottle of wine," says Donner, 67. "People were drinking the hard stuff."

Until the early 1950s, the store sold only liquor.

Donner's father, Joseph Donner, had bought the business in 1946 from a friend named Billy Mills, who'd opened the store at the end of Prohibition.

The Donner family bought the building that currently houses the store -- two doors down from its original site -- in 1952 and later added the wine room. For the past 25 years, Mills has served as base for the local chapter of Les Amis Du Vin, an international wine-tasting club.

These days, people still drink the "hard stuff," and Donner reserves several shelves in his shop for it.

But, since the end of World War II when people began traveling more freely and adopting the European custom of drinking wine with meals, more customers have developed a taste for wine.

Now, French wines at Mills share space with wines from Italy, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and United States -- California, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland.

Wine sales account for 70 percent of Donner's business, much of which comes from regulars like Donald Hunter.

"I can get virtually any wine I want through this store. If they don't have it, they can get it for me," said Hunter, an Annapolis real estate economist who discovered Mills 10 years ago. Eventually, Hunter took up wine-collecting as a hobby.

For more than any other reason, Hunter said, he shops at Mills because Donner and wine consultant Patrick F. Bouculat know their wines.

During twice-yearly visits to European wineries, Donner tastes wines and chooses barrels from which wine is bottled and shipped to his store.

Bouculat, who graduated from the Academie Du Vin in Paris, worked in the wine industry for a distributor and an import-export firm before joining Mills' staff three years ago.

"Wine was my hobby," said Bouculat, 35, who grew up in Clermont-Ferrand, a town near Lyon, France. "I went and picked grapes as a little kid."

"The reason I know what to buy is because they go over there and taste it," Hunter said. Bouculat "will say these are particularly good. He's an expert. And this expertise gets passed on to customers."

Even in a time of economic uncertainty, Donner believes his wine business will continue to thrive.

"People want their enjoyment, and this is part of it," he said. "We all have to eat every day. Wine is a natural accompaniment to food."

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