They also lit an entrepreneurial spark. So de Condé took an unusual initiative and launched an Internet wine club called WhisperWine.com that gives Pennsylvanians the chance to order those and other French bottles that would otherwise be unavailable.
These are very small producers who generally wouldn't bother exporting to the rest of Europe, let alone the United States, said de Condé, a 47-year-old Parisian now living in Bryn Mawr. "These are the wines I used to find for myself."
What's unusual is that WhisperWine is one of just a handful of companies using the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's existing system to direct-ship hard-to-find wines into the state through Internet sales. As a rule, direct shippers can bring only wines that are not already available in the state's inventory. The Fleur de Savagnin and that Givry from Burgundy's Côte Chalonnaise are two of the highlights from WhisperWine.com's current 12-bottle mixed case that went on sale in June for $285 - nearly 30 percent of which is state taxes and handling fees.
All it takes, after ordering and paying online, is a trip to the State Store of your choice, where the wines are delivered - just as the LCB designed it.
It isn't exactly the "straight-to-the-consumer's-doorstep" shipping model that so many out-of-state wineries and retailers covet. And while an untold number of illegal wine shipments do sneak into the state (skirting those onerous taxes), most of the online wine world still avoids Pennsylvania like the phylloxera plague - at least until state lawmakers officially deal with a U.S Supreme Court order to legalize direct shipments to consumers from out-of-state wineries. It's an order that has remained in bureaucratic limbo since the landmark decision in 2005.
Meanwhile, de Condé, a market researcher who began the company in late 2006 with his wife, Valérie, and friends Peter Cosenza and Marie-Odile Savarit, saw the current state of wine-buying in Pennsylvania as a business opportunity. It wasn't simply about selling a few unusual bottles; he wanted to offer consumers a taste of his passion and the kind of reliable advice that essentially does not exist in the dreary aisles of most State Stores, where motivated customer service remains a rarity.
De Condé has conducted wine dinners at local venues like Restaurant Alba and the Acorn Club to help establish that personal connection to WhisperWine with a growing and dedicated local client base.
"The people who came [to the wine dinner] here were really excited," said Alba owner Sean Weinberg. "They were excited to learn about these wines, but also to be able to buy them through him like a one-stop shop."
About 70 percent of WhisperWine's current registered client list are repeat customers, said de Condé.
It helps, of course, to have wines with great stories to sell. And the current taster case, the fourth offering since WhisperWine was launched, is no exception. At just under $24 a bottle (previous offerings hovered closer to $20) these aren't bargain bottles. But I found two of the three in this mixed case to be exceptional finds worth the price.
The Côtes du Jura from Domaine Labet was one of the most exciting and lively whites I've drunk this year. It makes unconventional use of the Savagnin grape, which is typically oxidized like sherry for a regional favorite called "vin jaune." Labet's Savagnin is made more like chardonnay into a racy brew of lemony acidity, the perfume of beeswax, wild mushrooms and walnuts.
Givry has long been one of my favorite Burgundies, but is lesser known and rarely spotlighted outside of France. This premier cru, called Les Bois Chevaux from the 2006 vintage of rising star Domaine Didier Erker, represents Givry in its purest form - a beam of strawberry brightness wrapped in Chalonnaise earth.
Only the rustic 2004 Côtes de Provence from Domaine Sorin, which rounds out the case, was disappointing for the price.
Still, there was a personality and handcrafted vibrance to each of these wines that I rarely taste in more commercial bottles. And that elusive quality is a constant in the wines that de Condé has been seeking out on his frequent reconnaissance visits to France.
Next up and scheduled to arrive this fall is de Condé's ode to the under-explored Loire. It's a little less expensive, at $249, and includes a Bourgeuil from a well-regarded producer, a coveted Anjou red, and a relatively new white appellation called Cour-Cheverny made from the minerally Romorantin grape.
Never heard of Romorantin? As WhisperWine helps broaden Pennsylvnania's wine borders just a little bit more, you'll be able to taste one soon enough.
For more information on ordering, go to www.whisperwine.com.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.