Waterford founder expands but keeps intensity

Estimated read time 8 min read

Ben Christiansen and Becca Zwiefelhoffer attend the soft opening of Birch on May 27, 2021. Christiansen was originally a partner in the restaurant, but he left to guide his expanding Waterford Wine & Spirits.

Ben Christiansen started his first Waterford Wine & Spirits location on the east side of Milwaukee in 2005. His curated collection offers something for every budget, and his classes have become an extension of his own love of learning.

As the shop’s founder and owner, over the years he’s expanded his knowledge and his business, adding shops in Green Bay and Delafield, where he also opened his first wine bar.

As of Feb. 1, he’ll officially add his fourth location near Madison, transitioning Steve’s & More, 6227 McKee Road in Fitchburg, into Waterford Wine & Spirits.

Christiansen, who helped launch Birch and its wine program, currently consults at Lupi and Iris. His next goal would be having his own restaurant. He’s exploring the idea while putting out feelers to find a chef.

Ask his favorite wine, and he doesn’t name names. He doesn’t always go for the most expensive, either. While French burgundies are always at the top of his list, he’s unequivocal about finding good wines from around the world to fit every budget.

After nearly two decades in retail, it is the people and places behind each bottle who keep him interested. Look for tasting schedule updates at waterfordwine.com/

His background

I’ve been doing Waterford and wine for almost 18 years now. Immediately before Waterford I was a stay at home father. Before my kids, I worked in cooking for a brief period. I also have a master’s degree in education.

When I moved into cooking I just thoroughly loved it. I thought it was going to be the thing. … Then I was staying at home with the kids. I needed something else. I wrote a business plan, and to everyone’s surprise I managed to get the trifecta: a business loan, a commercial lease and a liquor license.

Liquor, laws, limitations

One of the fascinating things is the industry has changed in the 18 years, but the liquor laws have not. That leads to some very strange things, some of them are very anti-business. As a retailer, there is no possible way for me to ship wine in Wisconsin. There just isn’t. It affects me as a retailer. … Another example, if you go buy a product at the Green Bay store, because they have it but another location does not, we can’t transfer it for you.

Pride in place

Milwaukee is an amazing place. It is an amazing land of opportunity. Without Milwaukee’s culture and Wisconsin’s culture as a whole, I wouldn’t exist. I’m a crazy wine store, frankly. If I had tried to do this in Chicago, it wouldn’t have worked. … Milwaukee gave me a chance to learn and explore, and that extends to Wisconsin.

Ben Christiansen looks out the window of the Waterford Wine Company, 1327 E. Brady St., when it opened in 2006. Waterford has since expanded to four locations.

Ben Christiansen looks out the window of the Waterford Wine Company, 1327 E. Brady St., when it opened in 2006. Waterford has since expanded to four locations.

Building his brand

The tastings are all the same across each location. Each store maintains its own collection, but I try to keep my brand the same. What we are doing and why we are doing it, we do it in all markets.

We think French burgundy is important. It is the home place, not the only place, but the place where most wine producers compare themselves in pinot noir and chardonnay.

Creating his classes

Our seminars remain strong. They are done in a particular style, probably because of my master’s degree in education. We do our classes as if they are a graduate school seminar class.

A lot of classes are “here is a flight of wine, try them.” When we do a tasting it is three flights of three wines each. We lectured about them for an hour and a half. To some people that may sound totally boring. … I think it’s really fun, and you are drinking nine different wines while you learn. It allows us to explore different issues with wine, why are they different and priced differently. I’ve met a ton of winemakers and everyone has a reason they made the wine.

Known for his newsletter

I actually get up in the morning and usually start writing at 5:30 or 6 am For the newsletters, my initial motivation was to try to say something significant about the wine regardless of its price. … It is making sure people understand the wine and why they should drink it.

It’s funny, because web designers want me to shorten the text. I keep having to explain to them, it’s the ones that are the longest on the least expensive bottles that I get the most compliments. I get emails that say thank you for the recommendation for this $6.99 wine, it is wonderful that you think of our budget. That is a joy for me.

Special occasion sip

I don’t think I have one. I kind of just drink what I want to drink when I want to drink it. … I do have expensive things in my cellar. Things like a Vega Sicilia Unico, it is a good Spanish wine, it is really good, and even better if someone else is paying for it. Yet when I think about it, I could drink something just as good at a half or a quarter of the price. It doesn’t mean I am not drinking expensive things daily, but I don’t tend to splurge that much.

Climate and your cup

One big change, and I used to not mention it, the wine industry particularly in Europe has flat out acknowledged climate change is a thing, a factor they are actively preparing for now. It is changing how they make wine and handle their environment, almost 100% across the board with every vintner I have talked to. I can remember doing seminar tastings here, and having to hedge around that.

Get a good glass

Glassware can kill the wine or kill the moment. A long time ago I wed myself to Riedel. I’d attended some seminars. I am less married to it now, but they are making 50 to 60 different glasses in different ranges. …

It can be fun making all kinds of glassware and decanters, and it’s a way to look extravagant. But the (Riedel) Sangiovese Chianti glass is my standard. It works great. If I was only going to use one glass, that’s what I’d use. …Then honestly, the only other one is one I use professionally in the Delafield wine bar, the Riedel Burgundy glass. It is a bowl, and the Burgundy glass is just friendly to everything. It draws out fruit and aromas. If you were my client and you wanted to buy glassware, those were your first two and you can stop there.

In Delafield we sell a lot of high-end Napa cabs. Riedel has a cab (Cabernet Sauvignon) glass, but it is meant for Bordeaux. The glass that works well for domestic cabernet with a lot of oak is the Riedel XL cabernet glass. It is a ginormous honor of a thing that looks totally ostentatious. …

I do get a little more ostentatious than that, and at home I use Zalto. They are ferociously expensive.

Taste trend for 2023

We’ve seen an increase in purchasing and an increase in talking about natural wines. That will keep coming, and certainly on the coast that is a real thing happening. I can remember when I started buying orange wines. That was with the ’99 vintage and no one knew what they were.

Fascinating finds

I was introduced to Georgian wine last year, through a Zoom call with nine different bottles. I got it done, and it was the first time in a long time where I was introduced to a country and came away thinking there is something special going on here. The wines are of high quality and really great interest. …

I also traveled to Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia this year. Particularly with Slovenia, there are lots of producers doing fascinating wines, super interesting.

His style in a sip

I wrote an article for the Journal of Wine Economics about studying my store. One of the things about my corporation that is noticeable is that we are more heavily weighted to foreign wines than domestic. We are 60% foreign. Most wine stores are 80% domestic. Certainly I tend to drink more foreign than domestic wine.

It is a recurring cycle, as with the Brady Street store it was my clients who guided me. I came in not having any certification in wine. I used what my clients were telling me they were interested in, and that was the way I developed the stores.

Ben Christiansen, right, shows guests a wine selection at Birch on May 27, 2021, at the restaurant's soft opening.  Christiansen originally was a partner in the restaurant.

Ben Christiansen, right, shows guests a wine selection at Birch on May 27, 2021, at the restaurant’s soft opening. Christiansen originally was a partner in the restaurant.

more:The chef at Milwaukee’s Birch is now the restaurant’s owner

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forks. Spoons. Life. explore the everyday relationships that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waterford Wine & Spirits expands near Madison, but keeps its focus

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