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How to choose a good wine merchant ?

Several weeks ago the New York Times writer Asimov wrote an expansive piece about How to Pick a wine store. It was some good writing, but with an eye towards, I believe, Millennial shoppers, rather than the general population. Indeed the people shown in the article were casually dress, sneakered, thirty something shoppers.

Asimov went through the usual stuff…are the wines exposed to sunlight, is the shop too warm, are the signs describing the wines hand written by staff or pre-printed.(Hand written good) He was especially critical of “Bargain barrels” of cut rate products which appealed only to price and not quality. Avoid close out sections and deep discount wine shops. (Makes some sense)

So far..pretty much on the money.

However, his final assessment is that the atmosphere and perspective of the wine merchant was the most important factor in the creation of a good wine store. To achieve that goal he suggests you follow the advice of one of his wine shops owners:” I want my stores to be like I’m entertaining in my own home” she said. “I want to anticipate what everybody needs to be really happy.”

The photos accompanying the two page piece are rather insightful. Most of the stores are rather eclectic with limited inventory but a prominent bar filled will 30 somethings eating tapas and sipping white wine at lunch. There is the lady filling a growler with the brew of the week…there is the manager fondling Mencia, Garnacha and other obscure Spanish reds. One of the more intriguing shots was a long shot of the makeshift bar filled with people, served by 4 or 5 young people, and in the background , a turntable and vinyl records playing retro music for the groups. Very in and hip.

Asimov’s parting summary follows. Look for a wine store that features out of the way wines that nobody has heard of… have all comments describing the wines hand written, and service provided by flexible attentive, salespeople who are not overbearing…“or professional” !(his words)

Here is where I, as a wine merchant, for nearly 4 decades, with a company which was founded in the 1930’s, disagree.

For a business to succeed it has to look and feel professional, not like your mother’s basement where you and your friends hang out. Sure you can have funky signs and a shrunken head or two adorning the place, but in the main, it should look organized and inviting.

As far as inventory, it has to be well stocked AND have a wider appeal than to those occasional shoppers who want Mencia from Spain. (both of them) It is not a cop out to have wines which originate from large wineries. These are good wines at a fair price as well.

Take champagne for instance. There are champagnes, Veuve Cliquot, Mumms, Moet, Taittinger, which will comprise 99% of your champagne sales. Then there are the “growers champagnes,” from small producers who make 2000 cases a year. They are priced about 25% higher than the main brands….and you can’t give them away. Somehow they are supposed to be better because they are smaller. That marketing might appeal of a Millennial demographic, but it bears to resemblance to reality. Yet the few distributors who carry these (and can’t sell the major brands) decry the main brands as mass production…and their “les petites couchons sur lie “champagne, at $99.00 as subtle, nuanced, boisterous…and unsalable.

You are in business to make a profit and you cannot do so by selling obscure brands which come and go from the marketplace because no one is buying them. It is a fool’s errand for a merchant to get involved with such stuff. The crowd clamoring for single vineyard organic virginal petite syrah in unoaked organic barrels are here today, and quite forgetful tomorrow.

Finally, and my biggest complaint, is that today, in Cleveland ,we have ceased having wine merchants. Instead we have mini restaurants, jazz clubs, entertainment centers which happen to carry wine.

It’s a place to get 5 tastes of wine for $10.00 and hopefully sell you a cheese platter…or a hamburger.

You want a ½ gallon of beer, great…pound of coffee, coming right up. Oh yeh the white chilled wine is over there. All the while Amy Winehouse is gurgling in the background. (I’m not a big fan)

I’m not saying go back to the days of suit and tie salesmen, fondling a $50.00 bottle of French petite chateau, who condescendingly sells nothing below that quality and price.

But to put on a wine circus to please everyone with everything somehow misses the mark of professionalism.

Perhaps the wine circus is the wave of the future….maybe not. But millenials will ultimately grow up..and their tastes will change. Ten people sharing an apartment will morph into two people and a baby in a house. Try dealing with the local taco palace cum wine store with that grouping.

What I would advise is simply shop at a store which meets your needs, where you and they have built up a relationship based on experience and trust. A relationship where you can freely ask your questions and hopefully get several options to take care of the request.

And where they don’t try and sell you a fresh hamburger meat with your old vine zinfandel.

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