I was reading an article on Snooth.com by Gregory Dal Piaz entitled “6 Current Issues in the Wine Industry.” It is one person’s commentary on an industry that I have spent 20+ years trying to figure out, being an industry insider myself. The article attempts to paint each level in the three tier system as being perhaps one big piece in an otherwise larger problematic puzzle. Earlier this week, Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast fame rebutted Gregory’s portion of the article pertaining to the 100-point scale, which I thought, okay, no surprise there, but the article from Mr. Dal Piaz had me thinking about a different aspect of his argument – lazy retailers.
Of course this is going to resonate with me – I am in wine retail for crying out loud, but I wasn’t offended by the argument. No, no, no. You see, I am proud of the fact that at our stores, we aren’t lazy; we LOVE talking to our customers, asking them questions, showing them wines that they wouldn’t otherwise know about – you know the ones, the wines that almos never get reviewed by Spectator, Parker, Enthusiast, and the like. It’s not their fault – there is a shitload of wine out there on the market at any given time, something like 250,000 different SKUs (products). That is a lot of wine, and I don’t think anyone person, or institution for that matter, could taste all those wines in the course of a year. (The math factors out to be about 685 wines per day every day for one year. I taste 30 wines and I am blotto! Even with excessive expectorating!)
Sure we post all the reviews we can find for the wines we carry – including reviews from Spectator, Parker, Tanzer, Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Connoisseur’s Guide, Beverage Dynamics, BTI, and anything else out there – and we could just call it a day at that point. But we are all super geeks about wine around here. And I don’t care how shitty a day I am having, nothing makes me forget about all the bullshit I am dealing with over the course of my day than stopping to talk to a customer about wine. It’s like sunshine on a rainy day.
It’s all about relationships and trust. That is the way it is for any business, but I think it’s crucial to success in the wine business because wine is personable, it’s intimate, it’s in and of itself a relationship. To sell someone a wine solely because of a bigger profit margin, or because it scored 99+ in whatever wine magazine leaves you open to the possibility that this may be the one and only opportunity you have to establish trust with this customer. If they don’t like that wine, they more than likely won’t be back. Sure your suggestions are never going to be perfect, but wine is not for the “hard sell.” Ask questions, find out what the customers’ likes and dislikes are, what is the occasion for the purpose – party? Dinner? Gift? Cellar? I have a guy on our staff that people come
from all over the place and ask for him by name, because this guy remembers what you bought last, your likes and dislikes, hell, he even remembers YOUR NAME.
There are a lot of big spirits warehouses that resemble a Wal-Mart and there isn’t help in the wine department for miles – you are essentially on your own. You might be able to find some great deals, but you are really missing out on a whole other world of wine.
And as a wine buyer for the store, I could just as easily build our selection solely on big scores, but if every wine was reviewed 90 or above, what would be so special about the score? I don’t stock shitty wine, but there is so much out there that isn’t reviewed at all, and is truly exceptional for whatever reason – be it price, uniqueness, typicity – I think of it as stocking a candy store with more than just chocolate. There’s caramel, marzipan, mint, toffee, candied fruit, etc., etc. Same with wine, there is more than just big scores, which are merely simplified quantifications of noteworthy wine writers’ opinions, nothing more. Each reviewer has his or her own subtext of biases, partially because they cover only a small portion of the world of wine. Steve Heimoff, for example, takes the California beat for Wine Enthusiast. I am sure he has great reviews of wines from Italy or France, but he’s Enthusiast’s California guy. Likewise, my mentor David Schildknect from Robert Parker is renowed for German and Austrian reviews. He knows a lot of about wine in general, but he is most known for being a reviewer of Germany and Austria. They have spent a lifetime covering their respective beats and it only stands to reason that they have an inherent bias toward that particular part of the wine world. No big deal. As a consumer, you hopefully identify with the reviewer closest to your palate, but you should always make the final judgment – after all, you are the one buying these wines, you are the one that has to live with your choices, as with anything else.
I think that Gregory Dal Piaz makes some valid arguments, but I think that in the end, the wine business is like anything else in life, inherently flawed, deeply complicated, yet nevertheless extraordinary and inspiring.