When Winter answers the phone, he is on the road, somewhere between Barstow, Calif., and Las Vegas. He is on the road so often, it's almost like a natural habitat for him. His mission? Visit every Starbucks in the world.
This, as you might imagine, gets a little complicated. Take his journey from Bakersfield to Barstow, which would take most people about two hours.
"I went from Bakersfield east, because there's a Starbucks in Tehachapi, then I deviated off of Highway 58 to go down to Victorville, where I had two new Starbucks to visit - about a 40-mile detour down U.S. 395 - and then I got on I-15 and hopped on back up to Barstow," says Winter, which is his legal name (for a variety of reasons, he prefers not to disclose his birth name). "To this moment, there's only one store in all of California that I haven't visited. But that'll change tomorrow." Where's that store? In Ukiah, about 115 miles north of San Francisco.
You don't have to be a geography major or have a map in front of you to get the gist of this: When Starbucks is opening stores in places like Tehachapi, a town of about 12,000 at the edge of the Mojave Desert, it's hard for Winter to keep up. And yet Winter's mission, which is going on its 10th year and has taken him to more than 6,800 stores in the United States and abroad (and was conceived at a Starbucks in Plano, Texas), has earned him a lot of media attention. He's been on many national newscasts and newsmagazines. Now he's the subject of a documentary, "Starbucking," which debuted Tuesday on DVD. (Although it probably won't be available in stores, you can order it through Netflix and Amazon.com.)
"Starbucking" director Bill Tangeman found out about Winter through a "Washington Post Sunday Magazine" article in 2004 and decided to make a film. He didn't quite know what to expect, and he wasn't quite prepared for what he got.
"He takes what he's doing as seriously as most people take going to work in the morning," Tangeman says. "There's no relenting. He's just busting (his rear) to get to every Starbucks possible. That's the only thing he's thinking about, and he couldn't really care less about most other things."
Tangeman got an idea of just how focused Winter is when he rode along with him during the film. When Winter was westbound and passed into a new time zone, he celebrated the extra hour that he would have to visit Starbucks locations. During one grueling sequence in the Los Angeles area, Winter - who usually tries to set a pace of 10 stores a day during his trips - tries to break his record of 28 stores in one day.
"There was a day in the Las Vegas area," Tangeman says. "I wanted to hit the slots or whatever. But he's just obsessed with Starbucks. We went to 15 stores that day. I was just riding shotgun with him that entire day in Las Vegas. It's pretty much like that every day. Obviously, the stores are more spaced out, but it got tiring pretty quick for me."
"Starbucking" starts out as a look at an eccentric personality on a quixotic quest, although Winter doesn't consider it quixotic. It evolves into questions about whether Winter, 35, has an abnormal personality - a subject that's debated by students at Three Rivers Community College in Connecticut. But in the end, it's clear that Winter is doing this to be noticed, and that he believes not enough people do things to make themselves unique. Winter's quest started in the days before YouTube and MySpace, but in a time when everyone seems to be finding their little slice of fame, Winter's mission can still stir up a lot of water-cooler talk.
Not that Winter minds being considered abnormal.
"I do feel the need to stand out, to be unique," Winter says. "Because of that need, I may rush to say, `Hey, I do have an abnormal psychology.' I WANT to have an abnormal psychology. I think that there's something very wrong with the psychology of humans as they exist today, and that's part of the reason the world has so many problems."
Adds Tangeman, who was interviewed about a week after Winter: "He takes pride in his differences from most people. I think there's some kind of method to his madness."
Like everybody else - well, like a lot of people, it just seems like everybody else sometimes - Winter used to drop into a Starbucks on the way to work. That was in the mid-'90s, when he'd visit one in Plano on the way to his computer-programming job in Richardson, Texas. (Winter says he's not currently based anywhere other than his car.) Then another Starbucks opened, and he checked it out. Then another opened a few hundred feet from his apartment, and he started hanging out there, making friends, chatting with baristas, bringing his laptop.
Every time a new one opened, he decided to visit it. Then, while he was sitting in one of three Starbucks at Preston Road and Park Boulevard in Plano (only two now exist there), he began to wonder what it would be like to visit every Starbucks in the world. He decided to try. He didn't quite know what he was getting into.
"I can't even quantify how difficult it is," Winter says. "I genuinely did not anticipate 10 years ago, when I thought of this idea, that Starbucks would build stores at such a rate. It didn't even occur to me that there would be new stores in Phoenix after I'd cleared them out. That's silly, of course, but what can I say? I'm no genius. It took a year or two for that to dawn on me. Even back in `99, it was nothing like it is now."
At the rate Starbucks opens new stores, Winter may have set himself up for a never-ending quest.
"There's two ways to look at that," he says. "One way is, it really wouldn't be so bad to travel around the country a couple of times a year and visit all the new stores. If that were all that my project required, that wouldn't be so bad. It'd be kind of fun. I like driving around the country. What makes it really difficult is the sheer number of stores and the sheer number of miles that I have to drive, so that it starts to push it away from the level of hobby and recreation and it starts to feel like serious work."
Making things a little tougher is Winter's rule that he has to at least have a 4-ounce sample size of coffee for a visit to count (for the record, he usually just drinks straight drip, although every now and then he has an espresso). Toward the end of the L.A. sequence, Winter starts to look like Morgan Spurlock did after eating a huge fast-food meal in "Super Size Me." He seems to be in pain.
"I wouldn't say pain, but serious discomfort, yes," Winter says. "It can really be uncomfortable to ingest that much caffeine if you're not used to it."
Not used to it? Starbucks guy isn't used to caffeine?
"In my regular life, I try to keep it to one short cup a day, 8 ounces," he says. "That's not a heavily addictive amount."
He reserves the big-intake days for road trips such as the one he's on now, and days like the L.A. record-breaking attempt are the exception, not the rule. The worst he usually feels is at the beginning of the trip, when the caffeine causes him to feel dehydrated. He does drink a lot of water during the trips - and makes a lot of restroom stops.
A possibly apocryphal anecdote about a modern-art show relates the tale of a weird, simple painting with a note attached to it: "Sure, you could do it. But WOULD you?" You could visit every Starbucks in the world. Winter WOULD do it. He even relates it to the modern-art reference.
"I aspire to something artistic now," Winter says. "But when I conceived of this idea years ago, I did not have in mind anything other than doing something unique. Being the one person on the planet to do "this thing." And it didn't have to be this thing. It's what happened to occur to me when I was sitting at a Starbucks."
It is also, he says, rooted in the collector part of his personality: Some people collect comic books, stamps, coins, CDs. Winter collects Starbucks visits. He takes photos of each store he visits and posts them on his Web site, Starbucks Everywhere (http://starbuckseverywhere.net). You could say that he's collecting something intangible, but he's not that much different from people who try to visit every state, every national park or every baseball stadium in the country. He's just set himself a much more difficult goal.
"Most people view (Starbucks) as all the same," Tangeman says. "He would comment to me when I was riding around with him about how (a store) would have an interesting color of green he'd never seen on a Starbucks store.
"There was one that was kind of pastel that he really liked. It was different than what most people would notice. Whereas if you were a fan of ... comic books, if you were a fan of `The Hulk,' say, you might notice that this issue the green was a little off, where most people wouldn't notice."
So what does Starbucks think about all of this? A Starbucks spokeswoman says that the company is flattered to learn about Winter's passion for Starbucks coffee.
For Winter, though, it's all about being unique.
"Towards the end (of the film), I start talking about how people's lives should be more than just working for survival," Winter says. "I do think that there are too many people who are not doing anything of consequence. But that is such as subjective statement that I would not go too far with that. I would definitely say that based on my own evidence, the number of people who actually have the motivation to do something individualistic and stand out, I guess is relatively small."