CSN Wine & Spirits: Exceeding Every Expectation

CSN Wine & Spirits (CSN) is anything but an average liquor store, which suits the company just fine since Alberta is something of an outlier amongst the Canadian provinces. CSN was born out of Alberta’s decision to privatize retail alcohol sales, and the Sandhu family invested everything it could to make its mark on the industry. From the very first day, the Sandhus aimed to do whatever possible to satisfy a client and this mentality has propelled the company’s growth and increasing specialization over the course of two decades.

CSN operates from a 13,000-square foot retail location with 45 parking stalls located just a quick five-minute drive from downtown Calgary. CSN’s prime location is the product of the Sandhu family’s intuition, as the acquisition of the store included the property it sat on. Today, CSN’s location offers customers an extensive selection of vintage, rare and exclusive products from oenology legends like Châteaux Petrus Bordeaux and the ultra-exclusive family casks of Glenfarclas whisky, which includes one cask each of every whisky produced by the Glenfarclas distillery from 1952 to 1994.

Of course, CSN also offers a selection of fine wines suitable for everyday drinking in a variety of price points to satisfy every pallet and budget. In the wake of increasing market competition, though, it has been CSN’s ability to put the customer first and foremost that has solidified its place as a landmark Calgary business. “When we first bought the business we basically were handed the keys in December 1993, the busiest time of the year, and it was a real whirlwind,” recalls J.P. Sandhu, owner and managing director of CSN.

Concierge-level Customer Service

During CSN’s first holiday season, Darcy Sandhu, founder and president of CSN and J.P.’s father, couldn’t find enough suppliers to keep up with the long lines of customers forming every day before the store opened. Ultimately, Darcy leveraged all of his remaining credit to buy product directly from the other retailers in the area to sell at cost to the consumers, which kept the business afloat and set the precedent of service that defines CSN even today. “I came in around 2009, and even though we decided to go in a slightly different direction, we still wanted to keep that high level of service,” admits J.P.

J.P. wound up hiring three sommeliers to staff the store at all times, ensuring an expert was always on hand to make a thoughtful recommendation based on the client’s palette, budget and meal pairing, if necessary. Together, the staff of 22 helps customers navigate a showroom of more than 800 whiskeys, an onslaught of craft beers, and a whopping 2,500 different wines.

“We brought in a wine director, Francois Gaulin, about a year ago, and more important then his 15 years of industry experience is the fact that he just has this unparalleled sense of customer service that’s totally infectious,” admits J.P. “I can’t say enough about how great of a team we have and Francois just has this ability to get the staff and the customers engaged and interested in the products, which really makes me feel like I’m never working.”

An Array of Exclusives

The extra oenology expertise helps CSN stay ahead of the competition by finding the best products in a given price range and arranging for an exclusive supply. At times it means CSN will have an exclusive supply of a real standout varietal in the $15 range, while other customers can look to CSN for investing in certain wine futures.

CSN has also launched a series of tastings designed to engage customers at all levels. In-store weekend tastings are held every Friday and Saturday to alert customers to particular standouts amongst the company’s portfolio and its new additions. Other tastings showcase the most drinkable wines for patio entertaining in the summer months, while others are geared for beginner oenophiles looking to learn more about the role of terroir in any given varietal or vintage. Still other tastings are arranged for the true oenophile with cellars numbering in the thousands of bottles, but even in these cases CSN aims to stand out from the crowd.

CSN recently hosted a tasting with Jayson Woodbridge, producer of such Napa Valley cult labels as Hundred Acre, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie. “The thing is we knew from the get-go that he wasn’t the kind of guy who wants to always pair a $400 bottle of wine with a $1,000 dinner,” expands J.P. “So instead we went with a picnic theme and hired a food truck to craft different sandwiches to pair with each wine and the guests just loved it.” Not only that, but Woodbridge himself delighted in CSN’s ability to truly commit to the theme down to the gingham table cloths and no-frills ketchup and mustard bottles at every table.

CSN also leverages today’s technology to go above and beyond for the client. Clients can text J.P. a picture of a fantastic bottle of something that blew them away on a vacation, and if the product is available in Alberta, CSN will have a case of it ready and waiting by the time the client’s plane lands. The company has expanded its web presence across all social media platforms as well, with special offers and coupon codes distributed only through Twitter followers and through the company’s Facebook page.

Something for Everyone

CSN has also launched a cellar management service for clients with cellars of all sizes. The team at CSN will deliver orders and organize the client’s cellar for easy browsing by region, by varietal or by year. The extra organization helps clients make the most informed pairing choices since CSN will attach a label to every bottle added displaying the price paid, the wine’s drinkability dates and its rating.

“At the end of the day, we’re still running the business the way my father did,” adds J.P. CSN’s return policy is hard to beat, especially in today’s market, but if a client finds a wine or spirit to be sub-par, CSN will exchange or refund the product in full, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Similarly, CSN shifted its focus away from buying Bordeaux futures, given the recent explosion of demand in Asian markets and the accompanying volatility. Instead, CSN will focus on helping customers navigate the futures market for other exclusive, standout wines.

“We’re also considering expanding our current location with a second floor devoted only to our tasting events,” states J.P. In any case, the CSN team’s efforts appear to be paying off as the average customer spends between 20 and 30 minutes in the store, which J.P. considers a testament of the team’s ability to thoughtfully engage the customer. So long as the company upholds its exceedingly high standards of customer service, CSN Wine & Spirits will be well positioned as an anchor of the Calgary community.