Tag Archive: Wine retail

This impromptu post for the industry marks something of a return to the blogosphere for me after a lengthy hiatus as I sorted out aspects of my personal and professional life. I’m on a bus from Baltimore to New York and just had some ideas running through my head. It may be wordy, but this is how my brain works.

Maybe this goes somewhere. Your feedback is appreciated.

Much of what wine “is” to all of us in tier three (in the prevailing US three tier alcohol distribution model)—beverage directors and wait staff, retailer buyers and associates—is built on thin ice, swamp land, and dreamy clouds. There—I said it!

We are all taught to buy into the “magic” of wine. Amorphous ideas such as terroir, sense of place, varietal typicity/correctness, images of simple farmers making the “right” decisions in process, and others serve to add definition to our understanding of what constitutes “wine” and how we relate what we taste/experience to others. (Craft beer has similars having taken on the illusion of scientific measurability of quality with the romanticizing of terms like IBUs, and original gravity.)

This is the language we use to market and sell to our customers—the end consumer. When selling and telling the story of a wine to our customers (what I call “story selling”), we tell our customers about the winemaker’s philosophy, the small patch of land with a south-west facing slope, and the calcareous soils and other such romantic things that if/when forced under close or scientific scrutiny, may fall apart underfoot as unassailably connoting quality or measurable value—it may just be malarkey.

This is a difficult conundrum to face as this realization may make it seem we are selling a lie. But this is not entirely or, even, remotely true. All that romance is real and does matter whether it actually shows in the bottle or not. Those are the things that push a wine that we really enjoy for the visceral pleasure the aromas and flavors bring to us into something we can believe in, philosophically align with, fall in love with, and want to sell. These connections we make with the amorphous concepts boost our pheromones and imperceptibly affect our enjoyment when tasting.

So, why does this discussion matter if the veracity of these “magic” concepts doesn’t really matter? Because, honestly, most customers want to be sold on the magic, whether it’s hooey or not. When have you ever sold a wine on the merits of its chemical composition, measurable phenolic compounds, and residual sugar or ABV? (Sure, some people want the highest-alcohol wine they can get their hands on, but at that stage you are no longer selling wine, you are selling alcohol as a commodity with grape juice as its means of conveyance.)

Years back, I visited a winery and fell in love with the place; the simple farmer lifestyle of the winemaking family; the quirks of their personalities; the sense of their “goodness” through their kindness to us and the animals they took in as rescues. I tasted the wines and they were fantastic! Were they objectively better than those in their category? Maybe perceptibly a bit more than some and a bit less than others. The romance of amorphous ideas created a subjective perception of qualitative superiority. Even understanding the measure of malarkey I was susceptible to, I would sell these wines as much on the merits of that magic as the quality and value in the bottle. I better understood the background of the wine and using that translated into saleability.

It is like suspension of disbelief when watching a movie. The plausibility of a situation or the scientific accuracy of a plot device should not matter so much if it is relevant and helps propel the story forward. You may recognize the incongruity, but if the story is strong, it won’t diminish the film as a whole.

So, accept the conundrum. If a customer calls, “malarkey!” it doesn’t diminish the magic to you or others, it only forces the measurables (perceptibly measurable, that is—fruitiness, earthiness, and other more universal descriptors) to the fore of your strategy with that customer.

Chained Down


Lots of wine, yes, but this is all organically-produced 2005 Bordeaux from Chateau Grand Francais.

Fine beverage retailers in Maryland are deeply concerned about what appear to be the early stages of their government preparing for legislative approval of grocery and chain wine and beer sales. This action would change the competitive balance of beverage retail in a manner akin to a WalMart or Home Depot popping up on Main Street. I feel that not only is all not lost but that it is a unique time for action and empowerment amongst independent wine retailers. Fighting a predestined victory for such legislation is a waste of energy. Recognizing the situation before it happens provides an opportunity to expend that energy improving your market presence now to establish your brand and the invaluableness of your service.

Here are my comments from a recent LinkedIn discussion about this topic:

The only course of action for independent stores in these situations is to consciously, overtly, and proudly provide products and service unlike what would be available in grocery/chain settings. Most chains operate off of lists of proven market performers and buy mass quantaties of pedestrian product (at steep quantity discounts) off the tops of those lists to provide consumers a perception of value.
The consumers that independent stores wish to attract need to be trained now–before chains enter their market–that the ubiquitous California red blend that can be found “on sale” for $10 at the big stores, more often than not, represents cheapness, not value. The wine does not have to be undistinguished 300K-case-production bulk juice to be affordable–similar prices can be found in every category in the world of wine without compromise of care from vineyard to bottle, production standards, or uniqueness of character.
I do worry that many consumers have come to accept the homogenization of quality and flavor-profile that pervades the bulk production market (which is, admittedly, better than it has ever been even if incredibly boring) as the standard by which value is determined. However, I do not think it is too late to pull back the curtain and educate otherwise. The end goal is creating consumers who don’t simply drink wine; rather, comsumers who “experience” wine.

Much more can—and should—be done to ensure preparedness for a healthy transition into this new market landscape, but this is the core idea. Wine consumption should be an experience, not a task. Now is the time to engender that philosophy in your store and in your customers.

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