While I continue work on my e-commerce/blog site, twoquarts.com, I also work part-time at a little wine shop that’s adjacent to a very expensive grocery store in Portland (Oregon), a.k.a. The Wine Room.
It’s a small room. The selection leans heavily toward imported wines, mostly from Italy, Spain, and France. So, when someone comes in asking for an oaky California chardonnay I stare at them with my classic, forlorn, deer-in-the-headlights look. No, just kidding. I explain that nobody drinks buttery chardonnay anymore but that the New Seasons down the street probably still has some. Just kidding again. The boss would hate that.
This is my first retail wine position. Purposefully selected, I wanted to learn more about Italian wine and find out how the public relates to wine. Plus, I needed the cash since start-up legal fees and web programming don’t come cheap. I calculated that one lengthy conversation with my attorney is the equivalent to one-and-a-half day’s wages in The Wine Room, or one half-case of single vineyard Produttori del Barbaresco. Upon discovering this inequality, I drank a whole bottle of Crémant de Loire because even if it’s not champagne, at least it’s twice fermented in bottle.
What do shoppers really want? They want someone sincere to help them pair a bottle with their dinner. And they usually want it in the $15-20 range, which is fine. Not all wine purchases have to hit the $50 mark and wine stewards know that. You’re drinking wine, that’s what counts.
I’ve found that shoppers fall into two larger camps, and one smaller one. Of the largers: those who know what they like and are searching for some variation on their tastes, and those who “know nothing about wine” and want to get in and out as quickly as possible. The third, my favorite, “knows nothing about wine” but wants to learn.
Let’s break this down.
SHOPPER #1 — Knowledgeable But Searching For Something Different A guy came in yesterday. “Hi, I don’t like fruity wines. I don’t like sweet, and I don’t like herbal.” That sort of process of elimination is helpful to a wine steward. “Usually we drink austere, chalky whites.” Challenge accepted, I suggested Chablis, the austere chalky white wine if there ever was one. But this Sunday he didn’t want Chablis. Challenge relinquishing. He wanted different, but the same. How about an Etna Bianco? We had a carricante, catarratto blend (common for Etna) that was a deep straw color with savory elements like roasted tomato, oregano, and traces of minerality. He was intrigued. Sale made, mission accomplished and we steered clear of chardonnay.
SHOPPER #2 — Knows Little To Nothing About Wine (And Wants to Get In and Out ASAP) I don’t say they know nothing. They say they know nothing and they often convey this in a quiet, apologetic voice. People know more than they think about wine. Yet because mysticism still surrounds wine and this mysticism is often perpetuated by smartly dressed “experts” in suits, a large portion of the wine-purchasing public has convinced themselves that they should defer to said “expert”. In this case that expert is me, and I’m not so smartly dressed (I do sometimes rock black-glittered TOMS with my jeans though). I’m happy to grab a $12 old-vine Spanish verdejo from one of the bins because 99% of wine neophytes seem to enjoy stone fruit aromas and acidity on a hot summer day (boom!). Their eyes dart around as they grasp for the bottle, scuttling away to a more self-assured zone like the poultry counter.
SHOPPER #3 — Over the Moon About Wine. They are just so excited to be surrounded by wine in the Wine Room that sometimes I think they are going to lose their shit because working with wine all day, as a career, must just be, like, THE BEST. They come in asking a thousand questions about the difference between barbera and chianti or how many blackberries were added to some wine to get the blackberry aroma (not possible). These customers are my jam (!), my future brunello buyers. I especially like to engage with these customers because they are genuinely excited to talk to someone about wine. Since we’ve been in rosé season lately, talk turns to the various shades of pink. These shoppers are usually dumbfounded to know that all grape juice runs clear (save for teinturiers) and that the depth of color has to do with the time spent on skins. That was one of the first wine facts I learned and thought was really interesting.
What did I say to the oaky California chard-seeking shopper? I pointed them to a rich, complex New Pope’s House white a.k.a. Châteauneuf-du-Pape that was aged sur lie. Sur lie means the wine spent time conviving with its dead and dying yeast cells. These lies, or protein-laden yeast cells, provide a creamy, biscuity richness that softens acid and gives the finished product its awesome mouth-coating deliciousness.
If you are a shopper, into which camp do you fall? Or, if you work in retail, what’s your experience?