In the back left corner of Art Mart, I sat down with Todd Fusco, Art Mart’s wine buyer. We sat on the barstools around the live edge wooden bar. With a glass of Saumur Chateau Fouquet in hand, I asked him about Art Mart’s wine availability, what’s trending in C-U, and what he likes best in wine.
Smile Politely: Hi Todd, thanks for having me. I know you’re the Wine Buyer for Art Mart now, but how did you get started in wine?
Todd Fusco: I have a background in restaurants. The joke I like to tell is that I didn’t know how to play guitar to get girls, so I knew food and wine.
SP: Nice. What were you doing before you were working at Art Mart?
Fusco: I was working at Corkscrew, running Corkscrew in Urbana, and it was closing. I had a charity tasting scheduled for Crisis Nursery, and I asked Brian and Courtney of Art Mart if I could host it there. They were like, “Hey, why don’t you come work for us?” and here we are, seven years later.
SP: How did the space change for wine when Art Mart moved from Urbana to this Champaign location on Prospect?
Fusco: This location, for whatever reason, has really blossomed. Lots of foot traffic, people coming and going. Better storage – we could always use more. Whatever space we have, we tend to fill it.
SP: Do you have a backroom or is this all the wine in stock?
Fusco: It’s like an iceberg, so what you see out here is just the tip. It’s bigger in the back, underwater so to speak. Roughly, we have about 450 different wines.
SP: How do you keep all the wines straight?
Fusco: A lot of it has to do with your wine appellation: it already narrows down what it is. So Barbaresco, I know that’s from Piedmont northern Italy, and it’s made a certain way. Bordeaux – if it’s red – it can only be five grapes. Inside of that, there’s geographic subdivisions that give you clues of what things are. Some of it is just that I have an odd talent for remembering what I drink.
I’ve had people come in and ask, “Hey, I had this wine here two years ago, and the label was red. Can you help me?” I’m like, “Okay,” and then I get to figuring it out. I’ve got a battery of questions that I can ask to try to find something specific that can give me enough clues to narrow the scope. We try to represent the U.S., France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
SP: What do you do as wine buyer for Art Mart?
Fusco: I buy it, write about it, sell it, stock it, plan out what we’ll do. I’m lucky that I have a jobbie; this is what I like to do. The funnest part is that I get to do a little bit of everything: mental, physical. As long as wine sells, everything is great.
SP: What is a day like in the Wine Section of Art Mart?
Fusco: We’re open as long as the store is open. I get here between 9 and 10 in the morning, and I try to write in the morning or take care of the ordering. In the afternoon, people come in. Saturday is kind of an all day thing. We do tastings three days a week which are usually pretty busy.
SP: What is your favorite aspect of your job?
Fusco: Just handing someone something they’ll like. It sounds like a Hallmark card, but it actually it is true. The satisfaction of making someone happy or showing somebody something new. The awesome thing about this community — I will have people come in and ask for esoteric things like, “Hey, we just got back from a vacation in Italy, do you have any Lugana?” Things like that. It’s very interesting how choosing wines for the store happens. Some of it is that I’m trying wine, seeing if the price is right for the quality of wine. It’s really interesting when you have a customer base that comes in and pushes me in different directions. I don’t always see it coming.
SP: What are some challenges you face?
Fusco: Well, I’m not getting any younger and the boxes aren’t getting any lighter. But really, it’s always figuring out what people want. It’s not a bad challenge. It’s a good challenge. It keeps me on my toes. Someone will come in and say, “I’d like a red wine.” I’ll say, “Okay, what kind do you like?” They’ll say, “I like dry wine.” Well, okay, that’s 98% of the red wine on the shelf. So I’m just trying to read the person, you know.
That’s where I try to ask them what they like. It’s not about what I like. I have strong opinions, and I’m happy to give that, but I’m really just here to help you find the right wine for you. Whether it’s low cost, medium cost, high cost, sweet, dry, whatever. What is going to make you happy? Sure, I can give my opinion if they want to hear it.
SP: Right, and your opinion might be fancier than the regular customer, so –
Fusco: Oh, I don’t know. It depends. If you’re having a hamburger, and you’re looking for a wine for your hamburger, you don’t need to spend a ton of money. There’s lots of great wines that go with hamburgers.
SP: I never thought about pairing a wine with a burger. I always think a beer would be best.
Fusco: Sure, but that doesn’t work for me. I like wine with my burgers.
SP: Wine and burgers: that could be a new trend.
Fusco: Yeah, it’s been going on in my house for quite some years.
SP: Can you talk a bit about what is popular among wine customers of Art Mart?
Fusco: We sell a fair amount of French and Italian wine across all price points, but also a good amount of American wine. The interesting thing for me is the growth of people willing to buy things they don’t quite know what it is.
SP: Oh, so Art Mart buyers are pretty adventurous?
Fusco: Well, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty that come in asking for Cabernet or Chardonnay. One of our best selling whites is a screw cap from Piedmont: the grape is Cortese, but it’s delicious and mineral-driven. It surprises me because the label just says Gavi.
SP: I’m always nervous when I can’t read any of the words on the label, so I stick to familiar varietals usually.
Fusco: No, but that’s what I’m here for. Once you know some of the language parts of it, you can figure it out. You don’t have to remember the 13 grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
SP: Wow. 13 grapes?
Fusco: Yeah, there are eight red and five white. You can make a red wine using all 13.
SP: Your wine bar is part of a cafe, toy store, homestore, and more. How does that influence you and your wine bar?
Fusco: It’s amazing. My customers can grab a toy, a scarf, a pot, a croissant, some cheese, a bottle of wine, and something to cook in their new pot all in one go. The goods here are all hand-selected, too.
SP: What price points are hot for your customers?
Fusco: Most people’s budgets are $15-30 for a bottle. I have something for every price range. My bottles range from less than $10 to more than $100.
SP: That’s a great range. To what degree does price reflect quality?
Fusco: Generally, more expensive wines are site-specific. They come from pedigreed areas that have a long track record of making wine in a certain way and a certain taste. Also, too, you’re getting more vigorous vineyard practices. Also, French oak is expensive.
Some of the more expensive wines tend to make less of it. They tend to only use a certain amount of the harvest: in an acre, they may use two tons. But if it’s sparkling wine, and it’s a high acidity, and they’re not concerned with ripeness because there will be something done on the back end of it, they might be able to get five tons. That’s a big difference in cost.
SP: How should a customer let you know their budget? Do you care? Are you less happy to help someone who is looking for a $15 bottle versus some higher spenders?
Fusco: If someone comes in asking for a $15 bottle of wine, that’s great. They’ve already answered a lot of my questions that I usually ask, just by offering up how much they want to spend. A lot of times, someone comes in looking for a gift. Instead of asking their budget, I’ll ask how much do you like this person? Generally, I ask that question early on because it saves a lot of time for both of us.
If you’re not interested in buying a $100 bottle of wine, I don’t need to sell you that. I’m here to sell you what you’re looking for, and how can I quickly help you find the bottle you want. When people are giving wine as a gift, I encourage them to buy something that they like. If you like it, it’s better to give it as a gift because it’s a part of you. You’ve tried it, you liked it, and now you’re sharing it with a friend.
SP: Do you have any suggestions to make wine buying at Art Mart less intimidating?
Fusco: Have a little more confidence in yourself, people. We are here to sell things that you want, and be nice about it. It’s something people say to me a lot, “I don’t know much about wine.” That’s fine. I probably don’t know how to do your job, but ask me. I know my job. I hope — and I pray — that no one comes in here and thinks we’re snooty. Sure, we have opinions, but I’m here to help.
SP: Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Fusco: My house is filled with nothing but French and Italian wines, and wines from Oregon.
SP: Red or whites?
Fusco: All different colors. I’m not stuck on one thing. An evening involves a little white and a little red. In the summer, a little rosé here and there.
SP: Screwtop or cork?
Fusco: Oh, I appreciate the convenience and reliability of the screw cap. It can fail you, but for the most part, most wines should be screw cap. Wines that should be under cork, they help oxidize and age it, giving it a barrier. I’d hate for the cork industry to go away because the cork is renewable. They harvest it from the tree, and the tree doesn’t die. I don’t want the Porteguese mad at me.
SP: What’s your favorite wine?
Fusco: White burgundy, hands down.
SP: I don’t think I’m that familiar with white burgundy.
Fusco: 99.9% of the time, it’s Chardonnay.
SP: What trend do you see in wine buying in Champaign-Urbana?
Fusco: I’m impressed with the amount of white burgundy sold. Pinot Noir has been a long time thing. We’re trying to bring back Merlot. At one point, it was very popular, but then it was overproduced. People were cashing in and making bad Merlot. Things that tasted like milk chocolate bars covered in sawdust with copper pennies on it. It was awful. There’s also a lot of great Merlot. Typically, it’s made in the right bank of Bourdeaux.
SP: I’ve had bad Merlot, but I could get into some that doesn’t taste like sawdust and pennies.
Fusco: Right. So, you just have to know. There’s good and bad wines in every category.
SP: What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a customer at Art Mart?
Fusco: Oh man. I’ve had so many. Um, it’s amazing to me how many people will bring me back something from their trips. Like a bottle of wine or steaks, all kinds of stuff. I’ve always been touched by that. It means a lot to me.
SP: What’s your favorite thing about being Todd at Art Mart?
Fusco: Everyday, I get to come and do what I like. I sell rainbows and smiles, you know?
SP: Thanks for sharing all about wine with me, Todd.
If anyone wants to sign up for Todd’s Wines, you can join his wine email list by emailing him at [email protected]. You can call 217-344-7979 to make your wine order as well. Art Mart is offering in store (with social distancing) and curbside service for wine, beer, and spirits.
Make sure to follow Art Mart on Facebook for updates.
1705 S Prospect Ave
8 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily