Wine Shops: Why do some wineries get it so wrong?

Wine shops are weird places. There aren’t a lot of other businesses where you can go, consume some of the product for free (or nearly free), and buy (or not buy) some of said product. Test driving cars or trying on clothes are both perhaps the closest, except that in both cases the pr20140214-125934.jpgoduct doesn’t get consumed by the consumer in the process. Nobody gets offended if they aren’t allowed to eat the car.

But selling cars is similar to selling wine in that the knowledge needed on the part of the sales person to sell the car needs to be reasonably good. If you don’t know very much about cars, you probably won’t be able to sell them very effectively. So why are wine shops still staffing their front-end tasting bar with people who have little knowledge about the wines they are selling or even wine in general?

I once asked a person behind the bar if they knew how many vintages the winery had ever done of a particular sparkling wine.

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything about that on the back label.”

Fail.

The correct answer could have been;

“This is the xth vintage of this wine.”

or;

“I’m not sure, let me find out for you.”

or simply;

“I don’t know.”

Any of those answers above are perfectly acceptable. I didn’t think that it was a particularly difficult question to ask. I knew there hadn’t been that many vintages of it made previously. I had started a vertical of this wine at home and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t already purchased it before. I knew I had 3 bottles from three previous vintages already at home but wanted a confirmation that this was or was not a newly released vintage.

Speaking of the back label on a bottle of wine. The back label can have as little or as much information on it as the wine maker or owner deems appropriate for their house style and branding. It does not contain all of the information that there is to know about a wine, nor does it replace the training needed to pour the wine at the tasting bar.

“This is our Chardonnay. You will taste peaches, melons, vanilla, baking spices, and a hint of mango.”

Will I?? I’m going to taste all of that? Wow, I didn’t know that. Thank you so much for tasting the wine for me. Why should I even bother now?

Here’s the problem with telling customers what they are going to taste before they even taste it. They will either:

A) … not taste any of those aromas and feel stupid about it, thinking that they don’t have a good palate. They will effectively give up on trying to focus their sense of taste because they can’t yet perceive the aromas that you said that they would. This is the equivalent of telling a child in the school choir to just mouth the words because they are singing out of tune. That kid will grow up believing that they can’t sing or are tone-deaf and will never try again for the rest of their lives. This is not an exaggeration, this is proven fact from the realm of musical education.

B) … taste everything that you mention, love it, and then go home with a bottle where they will quickly notice that it “doesn’t really taste like it did at the winery.” Due to travel shock, stemware differences, or environmental differences (odours, etc), the sterility of the wine shop can’t easily be duplicated in a home setting. Where you drink your wine will affect how you perceive it.

Either situation (where the person’s self-image or the winery’s image is adversely affected) is completely avoidable. The solution is to simply STOP READING THE TASTING NOTES. Talk about the vineyards, the region where it was grown, the person who made it, or what food you ate when you tried it for the first time. Stop reading the tasting notes and use your experiences instead. This is where creativity can really raise the bar. “This Chardonnay pairs perfectly with buttered popcorn and a Tina Fey movie.”

You mean you’ve never had a glass of the wine that you’re selling? Perhaps you should choose another kind of job.

Stories of your own experiences with a particular wine are the real gold in the wine shop. Stories are interesting and they are unique to each person behind the bar. They do not lead the customer on with “aromas” and “flavors”. They can be funny or informative. Wine shop customers LOOOVE hearing about wine shop staff parties. They think we live THE LIFE here in wine country (we do, right?), drinking wine all the time (well…), and looking at the beautiful views of the valley from our decks all year in the unbroken sunshine. That’s why people have driven out of their way to buy a bottle of wine that they could actually have purchased at a liquor store or VQA shop instead. But no, they drove all that way to visit you and it is your job to give them a good experience that goes beyond the back label.

It comes down to staff training. Most of the training that I’ve seen wineries do is just sad. Wine knowledge is not an easy thing to convey to people who are insecure with their own understanding of wine. The best thing to do is to simply not hire those kind of people. If you were hiring a car salesman, don’t hire someone that doesn’t know anything about cars. Unfortunately the reality of the labor situation in the Okanagan is that this is not always possible. A lot of wineries that I’ve seen so far this summer are cripplingly understaffed. When you need hands on deck, sometimes wineries have to make do with what they have been offered. Even with a staff that is short on wine knowledge, there are ways to make the most of your team’s skill set.

Even a little team building will go a long way. Take a wine tour to visit other wineries. See what they do right or wrong. Talk about it. Did that wine shop seem welcoming? Was that woman behind the bar dressed professionally for their winery? Why or why not? What can our wine shop do different than what we saw on our wine tour together today?

Simple stuff really.

20111206-164434.jpgThe other obvious (and easy) thing to do with new staff is to taste the wines with the wine maker. Not the winery owner, not the marketing person, not the tasting room manger, the wine maker. Nobody knows the wines better than they do and this is a winery’s best resource for teaching “wine 101” to the people who the winery is trusting to be their face for the season.

Give wine to your staff. Some wineries I’ve worked for are downright parismonious with their own wines when it comes to providing them to staff. There has to be a few perks to working at a winery and this is one of them. But it’s important because it allows the staff member to have their own experiences with the wines at home so that they can use those experiences to sell it in the wine shop. “Oh, I had that Riesling with a pulled-pork sandwich last week. It was so good…” It is selling the experience and not a wine that simply tastes like peaches, melons, or vanilla.

In short, hiring staff and giving them very little training is an obvious quick and easy way out. You might think that you are saving money by not giving them wine, not hiring a consultant to train them, or not sending them out on a day-long wine tour. Ultimately however, you will lose more money in lost sales or opportunities than you will save and you will likely never even know it. Customers will be able to figure out pretty soon that if you’ve taken the quick and easy way out with your staff. Maybe you’ve also taken the quick and easy way with your wines as well?

Customers can will figure that out pretty quickly too.

2 thoughts on “Wine Shops: Why do some wineries get it so wrong?

  1. Great article Luke. I’d like to think that owners understand just how powerful their tastings can be. Great tasting room experiences can do a lot to build long term consumer brand loyalty, while negative experiences can erode it in a heartbeat. A really poor experience at one tasting room in the south OK turned me off one prominent winery entirely going back around five-years now. Nothing beats a tasting room experience where the person behind the bar demonstrates a true love of the product they represent, as well as a passion for both wine in general and the region.

    While I wholeheartedly agree with all of your comments, I would add that tasting room hosts that stick to the same rote spiel, regardless of the of the level of knowledge or experience of the guests, can be a bit grating. Just a couple days ago my wife and I felt like we were being treated to a scripted tasting, but we were pleasantly surprised when a few wines into the tasting the host went “off script” and just started having fun and seeing where the discussion went. Great hosts ask a few casual questions which usually starts a dialogue. What’s really impressed me has been on a couple of occasions when the person behind the bar was new or had limited knowledge, and they pulled over a colleague who had more experience, and used the interaction to learn more about the wines themselves.

    All that said, patience on the part of the guest shouldn’t be discounted either. While it’s probably not realistic to think that the en masse bachelor/bachelorette tours are going to approach tasting in an open and constructive manner, “enthusiasts” need to realize that building a rapport with the host (if (a) there’s time, and (b) they’re not swamped with a full tasting room or multiple concurrent guests all at different stages of their tasting) is a two-way street. Expecting a highly personalized experience in a full tasting room late in the day does everyone a disservice, and a little understanding can go a long way in those circumstances.

    • Thanks for commenting! Great points Neil, you really hit it for sure! The whole “rote spiel” thing is a pet peeve of mine as well. Although in defence of wine shop staff, I have found that for myself, as one of only two people behind a bar with 30 other people wanting samples on the other side, that sometimes the script is the most simple and concise way to go in a pinch when time is short. What irritates me is when staff stick to the script when there are only 3 people in the shop and an equal number of staff behind the bar. To me in means that there is no desire on the part of the staff to learn anything about the customer. And I agree, one bad experience can make for bad tasting wine for a long time. It’s taken me years to appreciate wineries where I’ve had bad experiences. It’s about expectations, which I’ve written about before.

      The time of year is also important because the summer months are just too busy sometimes. It depends on the winery of course which is why some of them have started to restrict their wine shops to appointments only. With this kind of experience, especially if it’s a paid tasting, simply getting “the script” is even more annoying.

      Yes, bachelorette parties might stereotypically not be as interested in the wines however that isn’t always the case. I’ve had some genuinely inquisitive bachelorettes that have been great fun and very knowledgeable about wine. Wine shop staff also need to be careful not to prejudge a group because you just never know what anyone’s story really is. The only way to find out is to actually spend time talking with them.

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