Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Wine Gatekeeping and Empowerment

Last week I worked a distributor event, standing behind a table pouring my company’s wines to retail and restaurant wine buyers, waitstaff, sales reps, and other trade/industry people. This is always a pleasure for me, as I thoroughly enjoy interacting with people who get a kick out of wine and looking to explore and educate themselves. It’s also a fantastic way for me to get a feel for what distributor sales managers and reps are experiencing, as well as getting an understanding of the needs, knowledge, and challenges facing retailers and restaurateurs. Anyone at the “supplier level” — a.k.a., the top tier of the three-tier system — should work events such as this a few times a year (as well as spend time “on the ground”) to better understand their customers.

This particular tasting was in New Jersey — my home state — and though I’ve been doing NJ shows for over 15 years, I’m always stunned that no one spits. Ever. There are spit buckets at every table, but they’re used only for pouring out the contents of a glass. For whatever reason, NJ people believe spitting at a wine tasting is rude; I’ve not experienced this, at the trade level, in any other market in the United States. How people can taste dozens of wine, not spit, and still remain standing — much less, drive home — boggles my mind.

But I digress …

Every time I work one of these shows, I learn a few things, meet new people, and usually, have at least one experience or interaction that makes me shake my head. At this show, the head-shaking moment came unexpectedly, while speaking with an otherwise very smart, personable retailer.

At my table were an assortment of wines from Chile, starting at $11 retail and going up to $34. They didn’t receive nearly as much interest and attention as many other wines at the show, perhaps because Chile isn’t a “hot” region for NJ, or perhaps because none of the wines I poured were rated 98 points by Wine Spectator. It’s difficult to stand out at a show when there are dozens of other tables offering hundreds of wines and spirits. But when someone ventured to my table and expressed interest in my wines, I did my best to educate and provide unique selling propositions for their customers.

One kind soul was already a fan — and a buyer — of the wines at my table. This is always especially helpful to me, as I can pick the brain of the person to find out how the wines are doing with consumers, and why they’re selling — or not selling. Information like this is invaluable toward marketing and messaging. This particular retailer carried, and did well selling, the Cabernet Sauvignon at my table, and was a genuine fan of Chilean wine, so we chatted for a few minutes about the country’s regions, some of the great values it offers, and the response by her customers to Chilean wine, which was good — many of her customers loved the price:quality ratio offered by Chilean wine, and were exploring several Chilean brands as well Argentinean ones. “Would you like to try the Carmenere?” I asked. A shake of the head. “OK. Are you already familiar with it?” Another shake of the head, and then this explanation:

“I love Carmenere, and I’m sure I’ll love this one. But there’s no point in trying it, because it won’t sell. My customers don’t know what it is.”

Um …

I let her walk away, invoking the old edict “the customer is always right.” After all, she knows her customers better than I do — who am I to argue.

But her response bugged me the rest of the evening, and I remain miffed. This didn’t seem to be one of those retailers in the business simply for the purpose of making money — she seemed to be genuinely interested in wine, quite knowledgeable, and the type of person who could help others expand their comfort zone. Yet, for whatever reason, she wasn’t willing to use those aspects toward teaching others, and, ultimately, increasing profits.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the “gateway” wine for Chile, because so many people are already familiar with the varietal thanks to its ubiquity. Cabernet is the base of many Bordeaux, is famous from Napa, and grown just about everywhere on the planet. As such, it comes in many different styles in flavors, though somehow it manages to retain a few characteristics: earthiness, black fruit, pepper. Its kin is Merlot, which is similarly peppery and earthy, but often tends toward more red fruit than black. Very generally speaking, if one enjoys Cabernet, he/she likely will also be fond of Merlot.

Meanwhile, Carmenere is somewhere in between Merlot and Cabernet. In fact, it is so similar in structure and flavor profile to Merlot that for decades, Chileans believed it to be Merlot — it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that outsiders came in and told the Chilean growers, “hey, what you have here in the vineyard is not Merlot, it’s Carmenere.” That said, if a person enjoys Cabernet or Merlot from Chile, there’s a really, really good chance that he/she will also like Carmenere.

I suppose it’s easy to let customers continue to buy Cabernet Sauvignon — why fix something that ain’t broke? But that’s old-school wine industry thinking, when wine quality was less reliable, Americans were less wine-knowledgeable, and more focused on finding and sticking with the tried-and-true. Today, however — thanks mainly to the information superhighway — wine information is easily available for free, and people educate themselves. As a result, wine consumers today — and especially those under age 35 — are not only willing to explore, but feel they MUST explore. They want to try wines from places they’ve never been to, made from grapes they’ve never heard of, with names they can’t pronounce.

And that’s where the profit potential comes for the retailer — both monetary and spiritual. If you can be the person who turns on someone else to a new wine, you can become their trusted source, their “go-to,” their expert. Introducing and empowering another individual is fulfilling to your soul and can help pay the bills.

Many people find it too much work. They’ve tried to convince people in the past, and it didn’t work. It was frustrating, and may have caused loss in revenue. But times have changed, and while 9 out of 10 customers just want to pick up the wine they know they like, it’s that tenth customer who makes working in the wine business worthwhile. If someone has already dipped their toe in the water and moved from their old reliable California Cab to one from Chile, is it really that difficult to prod him/her just a little more, suggesting, “hey, if you like Chilean Cab, you may want to try Carmenere.” Tell them how the Chileans thought it was Merlot, tell them that it’s a minor grape in Bordeaux, but flourishes in Chile. Tell them how the leaves turn red — or “carmine” — when the grapes are ripe. With those few points, they don’t even have to taste the wine to buy it — they now have a bottle that is a conversation starter at their next meal or party. Buying and selling wine is often about commodity and price points, but it doesn’t have to be, all the time. It can be so much more, if only we put in a little effort.

Retailers have a choice: they can be a gatekeeper, or an empowerer. Those that choose the latter will achieve self-satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and increased profits.

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