I’ve been working at a wine shop in Palm Desert for about three months now—and I love it! It’s a tiny little space, with a limited number of wines—and because the store is so small, each of the wines is thoughtfully curated. They each serve a purpose and are designed to be the best representation of the region, the price and the varietal.
For years, I was a wholesaler of wine. My job was to bring the samples of wines to the buyers of these little independent retail shops and peddle my goods. I was selling wine to other wine professionals, and there was no such thing as getting “too geeky” when it came to describing the wine or telling the story about how the wine came to be. Now I have the honor of being the buyer sitting on the other side of the proverbial table, listening to the stories and determining which wines make the cut for the store shelves. I’m not gonna lie: It’s an insanely fun job for someone as passionate about wine as me.
That said, there has been a definite learning curve working with wine civilians (aka the public); I am constantly working on not intimidating, scaring or confusing the pants off the average customer. Just the other day, a lovely lady came in looking for a chardonnay. I began to ask her what she normally drinks and what she likes her chardonnay to taste like. About two minutes later, I was using words like “malolactic fermentation” and “diacetyl.”
She blankly turned to my co-worker and asked: “Is that lady speaking English?” Oops.
I feel an innate responsibility to help people when they come in. I want to give guidance and suggestions if needed, and not let anyone drown in a sea of unknown labels.
Shopping for wine is unlike shopping for anything else. Nowhere else is a consumer faced with so many choices, spanning so many price points, with so many variables. Imagine if you walked into a grocery store and had an entire aisle of eggs in front of you—and each of those eggs was a different color, came from a different place, fed a different diet (which, of course, affects the taste) and came from different months of the year, with some months producing better eggs, natch. Some of these eggs are $5, and some are $100, with some at every price point in between. The words “fear,” “panic” and “confusion” come to mind (as does perhaps a fleeting thought of becoming a vegan). This is how a lot of consumers feel about walking into a wine store.
So in my brief yet educational time as a retail clerk, I’ve discovered there a few kinds of shoppers: Those who know what they want; those who ask questions to discover what they want; and—the majority of folks—those who have no idea where to begin.
There are a few foolproof ways to navigate through a wine selection. The first is to start taking photos of wines you enjoy. It seems stupidly simple, but I guarantee that you will not remember the name of that one wine you loved two weeks ago at Susan’s house while you played Bunco. Case in point: the customer who came in asking if we carried a certain bottle. He couldn’t remember the name, or where it was from, but he was certain it was a white wine of some sort, and maybe it had a black label. “Do you have that wine?” Umm …
There are a few apps like Delectable and Vivino that are also great for tracking the wines you like, and there’s a community of people reviewing and rating those wines along with you. If you’re not app-savvy, photos on your phone work just fine.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again: One of the best ways to find the wine you want is to shop at a store where people can actually help you. No one, and I mean no one, has innate carnal knowledge of every wine out there. And no matter the size of the store, or how many wines the store carries, the shop is only as good as its employees. Find the store that has passionate people working there, and you’ll be in good hands.
The best experiences I’ve had with customers have occurred when there is a dialogue about wine—when someone is curious about what’s new and wants to learn about it. As a sommelier, I will always have wines that are intriguing me right now, or a new region that is hot, or a style that is making waves. I want to talk about them with you! If you’ve had a wine that you love, I want you to tell me all about it! Next thing you know, we’ll be behind the tasting bar sipping a vibrant white from the Canary Islands, and we’ll laugh and laugh and become best friends. Or at the very least, I’ll get to know you and what you like.
One final suggestion: Don’t be afraid to be specific. As one customer said to me today, “I really want to splurge on a great chardonnay!” To which I replied: “Super! We have a few bottles of Edge Hill chardonnay available; it’s $159 a bottle.” After he regained consciousness, he told me he was thinking more along the lines of a $40 price range. The terms “splurge,” “mid-priced” and “a great value” all mean very different things to different people. A millionaire might think a great value is a $70 bottle of Double Diamond from Oakville, while I, myself, would consider that a splurge. And if the idea of coming up with descriptions for wine (like juicy, jammy, oaky, buttery, dusty, or earthy) give you a panic attack, just tell the sales clerk what you normally drink. Anyone worth their salt will be able to properly guide you to a wonderful alternative bottle.
Remember: Most wine professionals, and I stress the word professionals, are not wine snobs. Spirited, intense and fanatical? Maybe. But not one wine industry person I know would ever embarrass or shame someone who wanted to learn more about wine. And don’t tolerate anyone who does. Ever.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.