Monday, January 9, 2012

My mini-retail experience

Though I'm a Certified Wine Professional, I've never worked in retail sales or as a sommelier. But recently I had a fun encounter at my local food shop that made me realize somms and retailers have many days where they love what they do.

I overheard a woman ask the clerk, "Do you have any Tempranillos?" That piqued my interest. Who in California asks for Tempranillo -- not Rioja -- and why? The store staff pointed out a couple of Riojas, both Crianzas and affordable, and briefly described them. The woman put both in her basket, but looked vaguely unsatisfied.

I barged in. "Excuse me, I'm sorry to ask you this, but I write about wine for a living, and I want to ask you, why did you ask for Tempranillo?"

Turns out she had recently had a couple she liked in California tasting rooms, one from Lake Berryessa and the other from Clarksburg. She didn't remember the names. And she was going to meet her sister who she hadn't seen in 30 years, who lives in South Dakota now, and she wanted to show her some of the fine wines of California.

So Rioja -- though I love it -- wasn't the answer.

The store may not have had any California Tempranillos. To be honest, I'm not a fan; I'm not sure why the grape doesn't do better here, because logically it should, but I've been to some big California Tempranillo tastings and walked away unimpressed. Without discussing it, I could tell the store staff agreed, as they started talking to her about Barbera.

But Barbera and Tempranillo aren't similar. And the point here was not to buy a wine to go with any particular dish. Instead, it was for representin' the state, and if she wanted a Cab, Chard, Pinot or Zin, she would have said so. She wanted something to show both California's quality and range: exotic and delicious.

I asked how much she wanted to spend; her daughter said $20 while she discussed a couple of Barberas with the staff. My eye lit on Sean Thackrey's Pleiades ($26).

So I said, "I would go with this one." And I started telling the story of Thackrey, which I knew because I had once written a profile on him. I'm not going to run a review of this wine here because she bought it and I didn't; I don't know what this latest batch tastes like. But Thackrey and his medieval methods and open-top fermenters that capture the Bolinas terroir are a good story to tell, and she needed a story as much as a bottle. I even called Pleiades the "butt ends of his other wines," which Thackrey might not like, but which is pretty accurate. She laughed.

She bought the Pleiades (I even upsold her) and thanked me more than once. I hope it was good. My local store is an artisan-focused place that has a lot of "natural" wines that are not fruit-driven, and the buyer herself would probably have been appreciative. Thackrey's wines, while balanced, tend to be plenty ripe, and for an older woman living in South Dakota who I know nothing else about, I'll pick a riper wine over a leaner one every time.

I know I have a lot of readers who are sommeliers and wine shop owners or staffers, and this interaction is commonplace for you. But for me, it was really fun and special. This must be the fun part of your job. I wish I had been there to see her open the bottle and taste it, but sending her out smiling into the night with a story to tell ... it made both of us happy.

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Jay S. Miller said...

Hello Blake
Having had considerable retail experience, some of it as a wine shop owner, I've discovered that the guiding principal of selling is to give the customer precisely what they want (even though they might not be able to verbalize it immediately). This involves listening, a skill I fine-tuned in the shrink business, combined with asking a question or two to zero in on what the customer is seeking. Sounds like you did a pretty good job with your customer.
BTW, the best complment you can receive as a shop owner/wine buyer is "I've never bought a bad bottle of wine from you".
Regards, MrBigJ

Kent Benson said...

You’re right, Blake. Selling wine on a retail floor can be fun and rewarding. As one who has done it for about six years, I’ve learned a lot about people. Most floor sales people don’t ask nearly enough questions to provide the service the customer deserves.

I’ve learned that almost no one freely gives you enough information to truly help them. It must be dragged out of them. I use a pretty standard set of questions for various situations.

If the wine is a gift – What’s the occasion? Do you know what they like? What have you seen them enjoy? Are they casual wine drinkers or connoisseurs? Will the wine be drunk with food or by itself? Do you know what the food will be? Do you want to impress with a prestigious name, or do you want to introduce them to something new and different? Do they like to explore, or do they seem to drink a lot of the same thing?

If they are looking for something similar to a wine they had and liked – Tell me what you liked about it. Of the wines that you haven’t liked, what was it that you didn’t like?

Of course, the process can be frustrating too. I’ve spent an hour with a customer before, showing him suggestions for various styles of wine he says he likes, only for him to leave without purchasing anything.

The difficult part is, unlike a sommelier in a restaurant, you don’t get any immediate feedback. I agree with Jay, though. The best reward is when a customer tells you, “I trust you. You’ve never steered me wrong before.”

W. Blake Gray said...

Big J: Thanks for visiting! I'm from Maryland (go Orioles, corner that Taiwanese pitching market) and will one day visit your store, and expect to get solid advice.

Kent: I guess I should have expected the retail world would be like that because I notice that people often don't give sommeliers enough information. But the questions are so much easier for sommeliers: What are you eating?

I used to buy wine at a certain store from a certain buyer who never steered me wrong, and moreover steered me in many unexpected directions. Then she quit and I haven't had that kind of retail experience since. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Dapz said...

Great story,
Im a certified somm and work as a server. Since my passion is wine, the biggest pleasure I get on my job is when I am able to veer my guests on the right direction and get them to order the style of wine they wanted or to try something new that I felt it was going to match their palate. It is often hard to ask deeper questions to the guests in the middle of the dinner rush and that is unfortunate, but is the nature of the business if you work in a casual and fast paced restaurant.

Paul said...

I'm sure the clerk would've appreciated if you'd hung around for a while facing off and bringing out stock from the back as well ;)

Chuck Hayward said...

Regarding the following comment: "BTW, the best complment you can receive as a shop owner/wine buyer is "I've never bought a bad bottle of wine from you"

I agree. Had a woman say that to me, then asked me to recommend a wine to which she said "Is it good?"

Gotta love retail.....