Tales From The Dark Aisle

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?

“Where are the zinfandels?” I point to a row of wine cases all labeled zinfandel. “No, not those. Those are red. I want white zinfandels.” (Thanks Sutter Home for bringing that monster to life.)

“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.

15 thoughts on “Tales From The Dark Aisle

  1. BPR

    Unlikely that you could’ve conjured a deeper darker curveball of deja goof than Goofy Grape. How many gallons of that Welchapocrypha were invested and ingested at 774? Some things I’d forgotten.

    BTW, great blog, as usual. Two years to Jon Stewart. ; ^ )

    1. Tom Riley

      You are too kind. I’m a good enough reader to know where the faults lie. But this is not the sort of thing that can be tinkered with too much. These are modern version of those one-draft-wonders from college. Write it and move on. Finding the Goofy Grape label was just pure dumb luck. Like Noreen Hart said, had not thought of him (he’s a guy, right?) for years and years.

  2. BPR

    A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
    There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

    1. Tom Riley

      I was gonna use the whole quote but it clashed a bit with the idea of actually drinking. And I defend the omission of the punctuation and caps in your quote above on the grounds that I wrote it the way I wanted to. I am completely confident that Little Pope would permit me such latitude.

        1. BPR

          Really. Just wanted to add the “drink deep” part; easier than typing was copying from my word file. No agenda. zip. Zero. Zilch.

          1. Tom Riley

            I hit send too quickly. You’re little remark, “nobody in here but us copy & pasters,” made me laugh out loud. Like something from a funny movie or cartoon. Well done. No offense taken. I wish I had been ready for Pope in college. Waiting for him until grad school was such a waste. Loved that guy. Please excuse my prickleosity. Still adjusting to new jobs and such, and I tonight I realized I’m also adjusting to full-time work after being off for three months. Ugh. But, also, yeah!

  3. caryl

    i have been doing my own reading for several years so decided to start a group of ladies to share that info – and some wine- with! slowely it is all making sense for me and i find myself wanting to share that with others, even if only a fellow shopper at the wine store!

    1. Tom Riley

      The best part of my work is exactly that, sharing what I’ve learned. Most folks I run into have not done similar study and the sharing has to come in dribs and drabs so as not to overwhelm. As I move up the wine career ladder I’d like to do some formal education. Teaching is fun, and who doesn’t like to learn about wine!! Thanks for reading!

    1. Tom Riley

      With my two jobs I just don’t have the time I anticipated for the wine classes. Maybe when Meg goes to college and things slow down a bit. Not giving up on the idea; just might have to ‘back burner’ it for a while. Hope life is good and you and the family are starting to thaw out a bit.

  4. Tom Riley

    I really do enjoy those conversations too; it’s a lot like teaching, helping folks find their way. But there are folks who don’t want to learn, folks who want to argue, folks who want things that don’t exist because, as you rightly point out, they lack the vocab or experience to express whatever it is that they are thinking. We need education, but maybe that happens on the most local of levels, at the wine shop, and we do it one person at a time. I love working in the local shop and hope I have a gig like this for a very long time, there or someplace like it. Hope you are well. Thanks for reading and having something to say (come to think of it, you’ve always been pretty good at both! And that’s a good thing).

  5. neda baraghani

    i’m really lucky in that most of the people that come into my wine shop just want me to tell them what to drink and are open to whatever i recommend. SO LUCKY. i’ll get the occasion person who supposedly wants a fruity full bodied wine and then tells me that they normally drink a pinot. or that they don’t like don’t like chardonnay. what??? i usually disregard what people say when they come in because most people don’t have the vocab to describe what they like and i’ll ask them my own questions to determine what they like (i.e. fruity or earthy? full bodied or light? tannins or no tannins? rich or thin?). dry and sweet are what most people come in asking for. what does that even mean?? fruit sweet or sugar sweet? “dry red” really narrows it down, buddy. i’ll also try to give them as much info as i can so that they are better prepared next time, even if they don’t seem open to it at first. they are usually thankful at the end of it all because at least they won’t look like an ass in restaurants anymore.

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