The English poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” If he was right, then most of the wine-buying world is safely out of harm’s way. In my first few months selling wine, I’ve learned that what the wine world desperately needs is more learning. People who like wine want to know more about their favorite drink, I think, but somehow the learning just isn’t happening. If the wine industry really wants to sell more wine, they need to put more time, money, and energy into educating potential and current customers about their products, and wine in general. The encouragement of customer curiosity and learning will do more for their ledgers, in the long run, than the constant superficial attempts to generate desire. Do wine companies really think that folks will buy their product because they have seen a commercial or advertisement with a bunch of dorky yuppies saying dorky yuppyish things about wine? I’m sure they do, but I think there are smarter and more productive ways to peel this grape.
My claim that education is sorely lacking is based on the things that people say to me or ask me when they are shopping for wine. Here are just a few nuggets from the last two weeks:
“Would I like this wine?”
“My wife likes riesling. Is this red wine heavier than a riesling?
“I don’t remember what it was, this wine that I liked, but I’m pretty sure it had an animal on the label.”
“What kind of wine do you like to drink?” I asked. “Red,” he replied.
“Prices and points don’t make a damn bit of difference,” one fellow offered, with which I agreed immediately, before he continued, “but I wouldn’t buy a wine for less than $10. They’re all crap.”
The same fellow, a few minutes later, “American wines are way better than European wines. European wines are all bitter. Especially the French ones.” Clearly, a man who knows the field and isn’t afraid to share what he knows.
Some wine shoppers are more precise with their opinions. Last week a woman walked by my display table and glanced at the various bottles. She stopped and pointed angrily at one of the wines. “I can’t stand this wine and I’ll tell you why,” she said, and then failed to finish her thought, and walked away after some chitchat. Fifteen minutes later, after more shopping, she returned to the table, and picked up the offending bottle. “You know, I haven’t had this in a while. Maybe I’ll buy a couple of bottles to try.” I attempted to dissuade her, saying that I wouldn’t want her to buy one of our wines if she didn’t like it. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, “what about this wine did you not like?” She couldn’t remember. And she bought the wine.
For all the jokes people try to make, in a friendly but ultimately lame way, about the need to offer samples, which is a popular gimmick at this particular big-box wholesaler, some folks get offended that I can’t give them an actual taste of the wine.
“Why would I buy this from you? I don’t want to just blindly buy any wine you say is good. You should take your wine and sell it someplace where people can actually taste it before buying.”
“Well, we do that. We have a tasting room at our winery in St. Helena and a brand new one in Oakland. Our wines are for sale in both locations.”
“Oakland? Hmmph.” End of conversation.
Okay, maybe people don’t want to learn. Maybe shallow advertising is the answer. Maybe I need to be even more of a yuppie dork than I already am.
What can wineries and their distributors do to encourage consumers to learn more about wine? Or, do you think that learning about wine, generally, is a waste of time? What steps do you take to grow your own wine knowledge? Inquiring minds want to know.