While working in a wine store, one thing has become clear to me-- a lot of people don't trust retail wine store workers. I think there's a fear that somoene's lack of knowledge will be dangled in front of them, or that they'll be forced to spend more on a bottle than they want to. Worst of all the retailer might actually make you taste some wine! Gasp! You might think I'm being funny, but there are a lot of times when I have a bottle open, and I'm greeted with looks of shock and fear when I offer someone a taste from it.
What I'd like to get across in this post is that you really shouldn't be one of these people. While there may be stores that intimidate you, and that try to push bottles of wine on you that don't want, you'll never know if you're in one of those stores until you open your mouth and talk to them. I can tell you that the people who do open themselves up to us end up with better wine. And that's not some secretive backroom elitist transaction, it's just that we start to know their palates really well, and every time they walk in the store we can give them a new wine that they'll like, and maybe even expand their tastes little by little as they explore the world of wine with us as their guide.
This is the kind of relationship a retailer can provide for you. And I really believe that the retailer is unique in the world of wine for what we offer to the consumer. Now I may have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this, but I often feel that the retailer is the least respected wine professional out there. In comparison the sommelier is lauded above all as the gatekeeper of all things fancy and tasty, even though there is absolutely no standardized international certification to qualify one for the job. My point here is not the sommeliers don't know what they're doing. It's just that there is just as much chance of a sommelier being snotty,intimidating or uneducated, as there is of finding the same qualities in a retailer.
The retail perspective is unique because we have to be laser-focused on price and value, and we have to know all palates, disregarding our own personal tastes. The prices on our shelves have to provide quality and value, because there's very little barrier to a customer walking out the door and going to the store down the street that has better wine at the same or lower price. When you're in a restaurant, you're pretty much stuck with what they have on their list, and price distinctions become much less obvious. Sommeliers do a fantastic job of pairing the specific food in their restaurant with the specific wines on their list. But that's a very deliniated decision. They spend a lot of time (hopefully) tasting each dish and each wine in their cellar, to come up with the best matches. When they've found a pairing that works, they can go back to it again and again, because food and wine pairings will taste good to somoene, even if they wouldn't normally like that wine on its own. But as a retailer, we have to match wines with any cuisine in the world, and a lot of times we have to be able to pick wines to go without food, while knowing very little about the buyer's tastes. That's a lot harder and more nebulous. The only way for us to do it well is to get some help from you! If you're worried you don't know how to talk about what you like, that's OK. Just trust us and see how we do. If you don't like what we gave you, come back and tell us and we'll try something different.
Retailers also have a leg up over wine critics. It's not a new idea to say that each critic, be it Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer, or Eric Asimov, have preferences for certain styles of wine. In the Oxford companion to wine, Jancis Robinson says over and over again that a certain grape finds it's best expression in this particular plot of land in France, or somewhere else in the world. And I might even by inclined to agree with her, as far as my personal tastes are concerned. But as a retailer, I have to disregard my tastes. Just because I think Loire valley cab franc is the most expressive funky wine on the planet, doesn't mean a thing to someone who loves an oaky buttery chardonnay from California. So I have to be able to evaluate that chardonnay against all the other chardonnays on the market. All we do as retailers all day long is taste and spit and talk to each other about, is this particular chardonnay a better example of the grape from California than this other one? Is this one priced at $15.99 really that much better than the other one priced at $12.99? Once in a while we come across the $12.99 wine that really is better than the $15.99 one, and that's why we push you to buy it, because we know you'll like it, and the low price will keep you coming back for more.
But if you don't open your mouth and talk to us, we can't even start to tell you about these special wines, and you'll miss out on getting something you really like.
So my message today is to open yourselves up a little bit, and start talking to us! Granted, you are taking a risk here. What if you do this in one of those intimidating snotty wine stores and they encourage you to buy a wine that costs more than you wanted to spend? Here's what you do: Don't buy it! And if it bothers you, don't go back to that store! They're probably not spending nearly enough time focusing on bringing a wide array of wines tailored to diverse palates if they're that snotty, so it's probably not the store for you. Now you've learned something about the store, and you're that much closer to finding a retailer you can trust.
The perect retailer to me is one who can remember what they sold you, and why the next time you come in. Ask them if they have a way to track your purchases though, just in case. Or keep your receipts and remember what you bought so you can tell them if you liked it or not. You might even want to keep a log of what tasted and whether you liked it or not. But the most important thing is you have to be willing to open your mouth and speak your mind to get any of this done. And once in a while, you might want to try the wine we're pouring. It's ok if you have to go the gym afterwords, it's only a little taste! And even if you don't like it, that's a great place for us to start to figure what you will like that's different in some way from what you just tried.
Good luck and happy wine buying!