Where customers can seize the glass

Owner's tastes shape Ellicott City wine shop


Most people may not know John Bassett by name, but when you mention the white-bearded proprietor of the wine shop in historic Ellicott City, a light bulb goes off.

"A lot of people that know him by his appearance would be shocked to learn that he's the owner of a fine wine shop and that he's as eloquent and loquacious as he is," said Jim Bolton, the owner of The Bean Hollow, located across the street from the shop.

Passers-by, tourists and a card file of regulars frequent the little shop that opened less than two years ago.

Bassett's early exposure to wine began as a teenager. He attended inexpensive wine tastings which he said made him appear sophisticated to his dates. Also, his grandmother had a wine cellar, from which he realized that not all wines are good wines. He aspired to learn more.

Bassett, who was born in Bristol, England, met his wife, Lynette, while traveling in Greece. They married 34 years ago.

He began working in the wine industry in 1982, although he seemed destined to enter the wine business from a much earlier age. "I lived at 12 Denmark St., which was the same address that used to be on the bottom of a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream," said Bassett.

Bassett noticed the shop was empty during an early-morning stroll through the district with his wife. Eventually, he moved into his historic Ellicott City address on Main Street in April 2002 and opened a glass and china store.

Originally he intended to open an English tea shop in Nova Scotia, Canada, and started collecting glass and china products to display and sell there. He didn't make enough in that venue and decided to go into the wine business.

He contemplated several names for the shop including Carpe Vinum, which means "seize the wine" in Latin. As he continued to debate the name, he took a trip to England and, at a flea market, came across a ceramic hand seizing a bottle of wine. He decided it was an omen. He opened his shop in August 2004, and named it Carpe Vinum.

"Some people think the name is a little too specialized," said Bassett. "But I think it fits."

Over the years, Bassett has worked in virtually every aspect of the wine business, including resale, wholesale and imports. The one part of the business he resisted was laborious vineyard work.

He worked in some large stores that he thought had too much of a selection. So when he stocked his store, he chose only products that he knew.

"When people come to me and ask me if I like a wine that I stock, I can answer honestly, because I've tried all these wines," said Bassett. "I've eliminated the wines I don't like, and I've tried almost everything in here to establish my style and cater to the people who like my taste. And I try not to compromise."

Bassett said he carries what he believes is the best reward for the money spent. He carries South African, Italian, Californian, Canadian, South American and Australian wines. Most of his wines range in price from $10 to $30, and the remainder are in the $40 to $70 range.

The rarest of his wares includes a $60 bottle of Klein Constantia Vin de Constance South African wine that's made from Muscat grapes.

Additionally, he carries a $250 bottle of malt whiskey.

"The Vin de Constance was the wine that Napoleon asked for when he was exiled," said Bassett. "It was one of the original great dessert wines."

More than 70 percent of his business is repeat customers, though many tourists stop in the shop on the weekends.

On Saturdays, Bassett pulls three or four wines for a tasting. "I try to pick wines that are quite different," said Bassett. "I don't taste two cabernets at the same time. And I make sure that I have plenty to sell when I pull them."

Bassett said he feeds off the responses he gets from his customers. Sometimes, to break the ice, he gets a little prickly.

"I'm like Winston Churchill," said Bassett. "While driving along in my car I think of short retorts, and I wait for the opportunity to use them."

He uses cross-examination to determine what wine best suits his patrons' tastes.

"I talk a lot to people," said Bassett, and his mind "wanders from subject to subject. I imagine if I were in school now, I'd be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder."

But, he's learned to use this to his advantage.

"I get people to talk to me and tell me what they like," said Bassett. "I have the ability to get out of them what they want to say."

The first thing he does is help his customers build their wine vocabulary.

Bassett said a lot of people come to him and say they don't like dry wine. "I ask people if they drink water," said Bassett. "And, they say yes and I tell them that water is the driest of all drinks."

Using that information, he determines that it isn't the dryness people don't like, but rather the excessive acidities in wine. "I'm the expert on the store, but my customers are the experts on their palettes," said Bassett.

"There's no point in sending someone to Shakespeare if they want to see something that's easy to understand." And, Bolton said, Bassett takes it a step further.

"John is very different in the way that he sells wine," said Bolton, the owner of the shop across the street. "If he recommends a wine, then he's tasted it. And when he knows what you like, he thinks about this when he selects wines to stock in his shop."

People even count on him for weather predictions, said Bolton.

"You can always tell if it's hot or cold just by what John wears," said Bolton. "He wears shorts about 350 days a year. So when he wears pants, you know it's cold."

This is his 19th month in business, halfway to when he believes he will have a profitable business. But this isn't slowing him down.

"This town is a bit of an eccentricity to me," said Bassett. "I haven't adapted my character to the town. I've just found that my character fits in."

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