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.

The Terroir of Tasting

I believe that where and when we taste a wine will have an effect on how we perceive the wine. The physical conditions and environment of the person along with those of the wine will influence perception. I call it the “Terroir of Tasting”. How can wineries better prepare their own wine shops to have better tasting terroir for their customers? The same is true for music – listening to a song at a loud concert with all of the sensory stimulation that comes with it (light show, smells, other people, etc) is very different from listening on an iPod in the dark – so why not for other experiences like wine?

Don’t agree? Try pouring a glass of your favourite wine into the most suitable stemware that you own. Turn on some appropriate music, light some candles, maybe prepare a little food to compliment the wine, and then… take that wine and drink it while sitting on a bucket in a broom closet with the door closed.

Not the same experience, is it?

“The wine tasted different at home than it did when I tasted it at the winery,” said more than a few customers to me over the years while working at a wine store. There must be reasons for that and it may help understand the terroir of tasting a little bit more. It’s not a scientific study or anything (this is a wine blog after all, not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but are a collection of observations based on my own experiences. Just like in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, science generally proves what art has already figured out first. A great article recently in The Guardian also touches on this subject as well.

So, why do the wines sometimes taste different when you get them home? Let’s explore…

1. Travel Shock

Wine bottles get shaken up a lot while they are travelling. While there’s nothing scientific to prove that the wine is somehow different after arriving home, I think it’s always a good idea to let the wine rest for a while (maybe a couple of weeks) before opening it after coming home from your wine country excursion. Just like wine, we can be travel shocked in a way as well. Having a glass of water is a little boring during a meal but I’m pretty sure most people think it tastes pretty amazing after a vigorous run or a workout.

2. Decanting or Ageing

Sometimes wines poured in a tasting room have been open for a little while. They may have been exposed to oxygen for an unknown amount of time and anyone who has worked in a wine shop pouring the same wines each day for years knows that the same wine will change as it is being pour throughout the day. (I always used to feel bad for whoever had to taste the top 2 inches of wine from a freshly opened premium bottle of Cab Franc at winery where I used to work.) It may be that you, as the wine customer, tasted the wine at a point that you really enjoyed.

While I’m on the subject, glassware is also hugely influential on how a wine will be perceived. Notice I didn’t say how a wine will taste. Some styles of wines just show better in some types of glasses. I did a podcast about this early on using a Pinot Noir and the results were astounding even though we were all a little sceptical that it would make a difference at all. I’ve visited a couple of very promising new wineries and been very disappointed because, for whatever reason, they skimped on the glassware or were using glasses that were entirely inappropriate – wrong size or shape for the portfolio, or just plain cheap. I’m not saying that every winery has to have Riedel Vinum XL’s or anything but if the winery plans to sell a $45 meritage as the top end of their portfolio, it won’t show very well in a $3/stem thick-walled wine glass they bought in bulk at Canadian Tire.

3. Palate Fatigue

20141108-213136.jpgEven professional tasters admit to palate fatigue. Everything starts to taste the same and none of it is good. Or at least the distinguishing flavours are a little more blurred than they would have been. Tasting the wines at the 7th winery of the day is going to be different than if it had been the 1st winery that day. It’s not rocket science to figure that out. Wine makes us hungry and after we’ve had food, our tastes seem to settle down a little.

4. Bombardment of the senses

Wine tasting is really a multi-sensory experience. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was intently interested in creating works of music that encompassed more than just listening to sound. Schafer (in the late ’70’s) listed the traditional Catholic Mass as a true multi-sensory experience because it involved all of the senses (sight – the beautiful church, smell – incense, taste – communion, sound – music, touch – kneeling) and this was a huge influence on all of his works. His best music had to be experienced in person and some of them sound utterly ludicrous without the proper context. Hearing 12 trombones perform around the edge of a lake in the wilderness is vastly different than listening to the same music on an iPod while waiting for the bus in the rain in Vancouver. (A completely random example that I may or may not have experienced myself…)

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

I’m amazed at how little thought goes into the acoustic environment in a wine shop. Live music can make it feel more like a special event and some wineries have really built a tradition with having regular live entertainment. I created a whole project designed for performance in wine shops and have personally seen what adding music to the mix can do to lighten the mood. Thornhaven, Dirty Laundry, and Sonoran in Summerland and Hester Creek in Oliver all have regular music performed throughout the summer months. There are probably others who have live music but these wineries have been doing it for a long time. Does that effect the tasting terroir? You bet it does.

Colours help as well. Is the environment bright or subdued? I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ think that dark brown or black is an appropriate colour for a wine bar. Thankfully we’re seeing this change with the newer, more thoughtfully designed spaces like the bright white spaces of Painted Rock in Penticton and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. Other wine shops have more earth-toned ambiance that also work well. I love the differences between each wine shop because it really expresses the different personalities of each location. Rustico‘s shop is an old-time saloon, cluttered with wine, signs, and products everywhere and it’s great. Meyer Family Vineyards is surrounded with windows that show the vineyards rising up all around them and it’s spectacular when tasting around that focused tasting bar. Ancient Hill‘s wine shop is a classically grand and has unique views without loosing its cosiness that really contributes an elegance to the wines.

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape '12

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape ’12

The only sense that needs to be restricted is the sense of smell. A stinky wine shop will not sell much of anything although neither the customer nor winery owner will be able to put a finger on why. Possibly the only thing aromatic that I can think of that will enhance the experience is a yeasty, cellar aroma which is part of the wine’s own natural habitat anyway. Terravista in Naramata has their tasting platform (it’s a piece of glass across some barrels) in their tank room and it’s a cool experience tasting the wine steps away from where it was made surrounded by all of the sights, aromas, and ambiance of the cellar. I remember tasting the first vintage of Painted Rock‘s Syrah outside of their old, tiny tasting room after it had just rained – the smell of wet earth lifted the syrah right out of the glass. It was an unbelievable experience.

Scented products like soaps or incense have no place in the wine shop to be sold as gifts. Those scents are distracting and can interact quite badly with the wines. I did a test at a wine shop where I worked some years ago: An otherwise beautifully scented soap turned an otherwise beautifully scented Pinot Gris into the pleasant smell of rotting flowers instantly. We opted not to carry that product.

Unless all of those winery smells are exactly the same at home, it’s likely that these differences will influence how you perceive the wine once you are home from your trip to wine country.

5. Context

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Church and State’s comfy tasting bar

Then there is the context of the wine drinker and the wine itself – where are they in their day? Is there an optimal point for both to get the most out of wine? This is a big part of what intrigues me about what I do in wine sales. Wineries sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account the ‘terroir’ of their tasting rooms. They can’t control the timing (when a customer will actually taste a wine or how many wineries they’ve already been to) but they can be aware of their tasting room environment. There is one other thing that can be either beneficial or detrimental to a customer’s wine shop experience and it’s something that I’ve found that I am tolerating less and less the more wineries I visit.

The tasting bar. There’s just something about it that has always bothered me. In terms of efficiency (getting the most customers through the bar quickly) it’s hard to beat. But I don’t have a bar of my own at home and if I did, I’m not sure that I would drink my wine standing up at it. When I go to bars, I usually get to sit down rather than stand. After visiting a half-dozen wineries, I find standing at them to be kind of tiring. None of this occurred to me until I stopped working at a winery with a tasting bar and started at another winery without one (FYI – Black Hills). It was a truly enlightening experience because I realized that the customers were getting an entirely different experience without having to stand uncomfortably at a tasting bar. They could relax, listen, have a proper conversation, and actually take the time to enjoy the wine rather than “splash and dash” through a portfolio of 8 wines in 5 minutes before hitting the road. Black Hills isn’t the only one doing this. Culmina has sit-down guided tastings and you can also sit down at both Church and State‘s and Painted Rock‘s tasting bars. Mission Hill and Hester Creek both have tours or experiences that feature guided tastings in different locations away from the typical tasting bar. Did all of these wineries really put a lot of thought into their customer’s tasting terroir when they deigned their building or set up their wine shop? You bet they did and it shows.

Conclusions

It’s time that wineries in BC start to thinking about how they present themselves a little more. Some wineries have not really given the ‘tasting terroir’ of their wine shops much thought and it shows. I’m sure that most of the successful wineries have already done this and realize how important it can be to presenting their wines as best as possible. It can also be taken a little too far where the experience overshadows the wine by a long shot (where most people remember the experience but can’t recall anything about the wines).

If you are a winery, please take the time to consider how your guests are experiencing your wines. Little changes can make a big difference in sales.

If you are a tourist in wine country, take the time to appreciate the effort that a winery has put into their ‘tasting terroir’. Some of those special touches can be used at home to make your own wine experiences more enjoyable.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

The Oral Traditions of Wine

Orality – That which characterizes speech; a culture characterized by the primacy of speech over other forms of signification. Usually opposed to literacy, orality refers to those aspects of a culture’s way of life that are attributable to its investment in the resources of spoken language. These may include formal ways of organizing thought (myth) or knowledge (magic); or they may be associated with rhetorical and other systems for fixing and transmitting sense.”

– from Key Concepts in Communications and Culture Studies by Tim O’Sullivan et al, 1994.

DSC_3047

Rhys Pender, MW, at Clos du Soleil’s first vertical tasting.

Working in wine sales, I have noticed that much of what I do revolves around talking. Lots of talking. When I leave work after going “Blah blah blah blah” all day, I relish the time on the motorcycle heading home, where talking out loud is utterly useless and I can take pleasure from just shutting up. All the wineries and stores where I’ve worked have lots of things to read (back labels, magazines, books, rack cards) but I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to pay attention to those as much. Even those eager customers who carry notebooks around for their tasting notes are few and far between. People seem to make purchasing decisions based on the experience of tasting the wines and on the stories and descriptions told to them by their friends or wine shop person behind the bar.

I’ve included stories from friends as an influence here because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the influence of the wine shop person, who has a vested financial interest in making sure that the wine is appealing. That’s their (my) job. While it is unlikely that a person selling wine can ever make someone purchase a wine that has a taste that repulses them, it is possible that that person can enhance the tasting experience itself enough to make it more pleasurable than it might be otherwise. Ever get home from wine trip and and find that the wine doesn’t really taste like you remember in the wine shop? There could be a few factors at work there (bottle variance, travel shock, etc) but the presentation (the stories of the wines / sales pitch) are a part of that experience and therefore somewhat influential on the perception of the wine at that moment.

This has been my experience especially when asking people to try two wine styles about which they have huge preconceived notions and would otherwise refuse to taste – oaked chardonnays and rosés. These are two different styles of wine that have had huge backlash over the recent decades and there are still people who prejudge the modern examples based on past experiences. Oaked chards will always be “vanilla wine with some grapes added” and rosés will always be sweet “Mateus” or “White Zin” (depending on the person’s age). I’ve noticed that how I introduce these particular styles of wine has everything to with how they will be perceived. I happen to enjoy both of those types of wines and perhaps my enthusiasm for them is somehow infectious. Who knows how effective I would be at selling those wines were I not to be as fond of those styles?

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, and Andreawine.com

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010

Preferences and tastes are individual. Everyone behind the wine bar has had different experiences with wine and with the wines that they are talking about. Most of them at least like wine and a lot of them (in BC at least) are selling wine for a casual summer job because they are retired or are students. Others enjoy learning about everything that wine has to offer and are focused entirely on every aspect of it from start to finish. Regardless of where the person behind the bar is coming from, everyone has a unique perspective that they use to tell the “story” of the wine at the bar. Because these kinds of interactions are essentially verbal only, I believe that wine sales is an intensely oral tradition rather than a written tradition. I think a big part of wine culture itself is also oral in nature and that most people have experienced wine this way. How many books on wine do most people read? Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Wines has never made the Times best seller list at any point but I think every wine lover should read it. Most people will have more experience talking about wine than reading it. Just like the fish that was THAT BIG, the stories can get a little convoluted.

There’s a game that I used to play at summer camps called Telephone. We would all sit in a line or circle and the leader would whisper a phrase to the person at the head of the line, who would then turn around and whisper that to the next person. The message would get whispered from person to person all the way through the line until the last person who would say out loud what they heard. Without fail the original message of “Swimming in the lake is fun!” would mutate into “Weasels like to bake pies!” and everyone would laugh hysterically.

Just like that camp game, the message that people hear can sometimes get muddled. Oral communication is tricky that way, especially coming out of an age where oral communication has been relatively rare. Sure, we’ve all been talking the whole time but can we all listen with the attentiveness before technology (recordings) allowed us to hear things repeated back verbatim? But that’s an article for a whole other kind of blog…

Technology and social media is bringing back a kind of oral tradition (called Secondary orality by Walter Ong) which perhaps explains some of the appeal of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On these platforms, ‘facts’ are debatably not the same as ‘facts’ that we would read in a newspaper article or peer-reviewed published work. (Of course, what constitutes a ‘fact’ is another argument altogether.)

20111206-164514.jpg

Roie Manoff behind the bar at Silkscarf Winery in Summerland.

People remember stories that they hear (such as from wine shop sales people) and think that they are ‘facts’. I saw a tweet the other day from someone who had had the ‘facts’ somewhat turned-around from the ‘facts’ as I think I know it. It was a photo of a bottle of Merlot and the tweet mentioned something about the Merlot coming from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. As it happens, I used to work at the winery where that particular Merlot came from and that particular bottle was definitely not from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. That winery made two Merlots and the tweet featured the lesser priced version of the two (which was blended from across unknown number of vineyards of any possible age).

The problem isn’t with the customer getting their facts straight. Perhaps they heard them talking about the other, more expensive Merlot and got them confused. But the less than truthful information could have mutated well before that, confused in the mind of the person who happened to be telling them the story – i.e. the wine shop person who sold them the wine. Wine shop people are told to tell “the story” of the wine, which comes from the viticulturist / wine maker to the wine shop sales personnel (through any number of communications or marketing managers). Just like in that camp game of telephone, ‘the story’ can be easily and inadvertently altered at the beginning with more changes happening over the course of the summer as the same story gets told over and over again by the same person.

There is also the issue of where that ‘story’ comes from. Was it from the wine maker? Winery owner? The communications manager? PR person? Director of Sales? Wine shop manager? They all have a reason to include or exclude certain facts for various reasons. Some wine makers are secretive while others are openly candid. Who’s version of the story will be ‘the story’? Will it really impact how the customer appreciates the wine?

From my experience, it absolutely will. Anyone who has had a bad experience in a wine shop or with a particular wine will not only have trouble trying that winery’s wines again but will also have their own story to tell. I explored that recently in a post about expectations in the wine shop wherein that oral storytelling tradition has been integrated into the megaphone of social media platforms. In that case, do the ‘facts’ really even matter all that much?

Perhaps all sales, not just in the wine shop, are part of a tradition of orality. I find it fascinating how this aspect of our human nature (humans have been an oral species far longer than a literate one) is present in a culture based around an age-old beverage like wine.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke