Monday, November 22, 2010

Rant: Wine Store Owners, Mercenary or Troubador?

Are you motivated by money or passion, or in other words, are you a mercenary or a troubador?

At a new wine store, I was recently told that they would only carry certain niche wines if their customers requested them. This is a very reactionary, rather than a proactive, attitude, and seems motivated more by financial considerations than passion.  You are selling only what is popular, what sells the easiest.  It can also be a lazier, and less challenging, form of retail.

Contrast that type of merchant with a more passionate one, an advocate for wine who is more proactive in their efforts. A Troubador. They carry plenty of niche wines, even if none of their customers requested them.  Rather, they try to expose their customers to these wines, to broaden their palates. They hold tastings which showcase the more unique wines, letting consumers learn and love them. This takes more effort, and can be very challenging, but it can also be more satisfying.  And if you possess a true passion for wine, the effort is worthwhile.

Consumers don't always know which wines they will enjoy. Sometimes they possess mistaken preconceptions about certain wine types, thinking that they won't like those wines.  For example, many people think all sherry is sweet, not realizing the myriad joys and diversity of dry sherry. Other people think all sake is served hot, not understanding the deliciousness of chilled sake.  So, those people won't ever ask a wine store to carry those items. Yet if those same people were exposed to the truth, if they tasted dry sherry or chilled sake, then they might find they actually enjoy them.

Thus, by relying only on what your customers request, you do a disservice to them.  You cater to their misconceptions, preventing them from encountering other wines they would savor. Troubadors though share their passion and knowlege with their customers, exposing them to new wines, to new tastes.  And customers become very grateful for that, pleasantly surprised when they find something new to treasure.  They are also more likely to return, to see what new treasures you have to offer.

Even when a Mercenary carries some niche wines, how they handle them reveals their true nature.  Such a wine store owner will simply place the niche wines on a shelf, often without even a shelf talker, and hope they sell themselves. They exert little, if any, effort to promote those wines, just expecting customers to buy them. Plus, the niche wines these owners stock are usually not the best examples of such wines.  They are often the cheapest examples, and the quality is consequently low. Certainly not the type of wine that would appeal to someone new to such wines. 

These niche wines require more hand selling, more promotion, more tastings.  Consumers must be educated about those wines, shown the errors of their preconceptions. Plus, it is much more persuasive to consumers if the wines they taste are actually quality wines, and not just some average, at best, sample. Give them a niche wine which will impress, not one that is instantly forgettable.

One of the problems may be that the Mercenary owners are not educated about niche wines and they don't have sufficient motivation to learn about them.  So, there is less incentive for them to carry such wines, and there would be difficulty anyways promoting the wines because of their ignorance. The Troubadors take the time to learn about new wines, to expand their own knowledge base.  They themselves enjoy the thrill of discovering new and compelling wines.

I praise the Troubadors out there, those who spread a passion for wine. They are the ones who receive most of my praise and support.


Rob Bralow said...

As a recently hired wine buyer for a wine shop in New York, I find this post a little demeaning. This feels like saying if you do not carry the hottest wine fad in your store, you aren't worth your salt as a person.

I am forced to admit, there are plenty of stores in the world where all they carry are name brands that have been around for decades because that is what people buy. Yellow Tail, Mondavi, Louis Jadot... we all know the names and they sell because the average wine drinker barely knows the difference between a Cabernet and a Merlot (and I think there was this movie about Pinot something, but I can't remember).

But just because the store carries these items does not make them unworthy. Just because a store does not carry wines from the Jura, or the newest vintage from Nicolas Joly, or a Zweigelt does not mean they do not know what these wines are and their value. But there are harsh realities. The rent bill comes every month, and if you have not sold enough wine, then you can close up shop and all your stock of grower-producer Champagne and Margaret River Chardonnay is not worth a rusty penny.

The reality is that the number of people that really know wine and are interested in those niche products equal a tiny portion of the number of people buying wine. They are great if they can be relied on to come in once a month (that's right, once a MONTH would make it worthwhile), but if they can't then the wine sits there.

The answer of more tastings and more hand selling? There is already a huge amount of that going on with any number of wines that SHOULD be walking off the shelf without a hand sell. I'm talking about simple wines like Riesling and Vaqueyras. You start telling someone about the oxidative nature of a wine from the Jura and you've lost them long before you get to the brilliant flavor and balance.

If I had the budget to stock $2 million worth of product, hell I would have a little bit of everything! But economics are real and limiting, as is shelf space and the number of cases that I have to buy in order to keep the prices sane for customers (because distributors do not give you a good deal when you buy one case, it usually has to be 10 - 25 cases). Storage is a problem. Operating capital is a problem.

I am not saying there aren't mercenary wine stores in existence. I am just saying that just because a store does not carry a niche wine does not prevent them from being a troubadour for the wine industry at large.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Rob:
Thanks for your comments though I think you have partially misunderstood the intent of this post. I am not saying a store must carry every type of niche wine that exists. I am not saying that most of their stock must be niche wines. But I do think a portion of their stock should be niche wines.

I certainly understand the realities of business but such realities should also not be an excuse. I have different expectations for a store carrying 200 wines, than one carrying 1000, or even 7000. The more wines you carry, the more niche wines you likely can carry, and still make a sufficient profit.

For example, does a store really need to carry 100 Chardonnays? Or could they carry only 60 Chards, and forty other niches wines? I doubt all of the 100 Chards are selling well.

Though only a small portion of people may currently enjoy niche wines, there are plenty more who would enjoy them, if they were exposed to them. By not carrying niche wines, a store contributes to preventing those niche wines from getting more popular. People obviously won't drink what a store does not carry. And they won'y request it, if they know nothing about it.

If a store has few, if any, niche wines, I do question their passion for wine. But that also leads to more questions to understand the reasons behind it. The store that inspired this post has over 1000 wines, certainly large enough to carry a portion of niche wines. And they indicated little motivation to bringing them in unless enough people requested them. That certainly is a mercenary attitude to me.

There are successful wine stores out there with a decent selection of niche wines, so it can be done. There are stores that carry only niche wines, and some of them succeed too.

Rob, how many wines does your store carry? How many of those would you consider to be niche wines?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to weigh in, briefly, from an importer's POV.

The dichotomy that you express in terms of Mercenary vs Troubadour can be expressed in my "world" as cashflow vs investment wines. Many, too many, of the wines we've brought in have been investment wines that not only require a lot of samples and effort on our part, but a big hit on our capital without even a semi-quick return. The cashflow wines -- less profit per bottle but so MANY more bottles -- keep us afloat. They keep the retailer afloat. While a cashflow wine doesn't have to be on the quality level of Yellowtail or Charles Shaw, it DOES have to be within shouting distance of their shelf price to move in decent numbers.

I said I'd be brief, and I haven't been. Sorry. I tend to side more with Rob Bralow than you, Richard, at least on this question. I realize what your "ranting" intent was, but I feel that, too often, the enthusiast's POV can get a little rosy in the harsh light of paying those bills that Rob mentions.

Do we want to import lovely wines of character? Of course we do. Can we afford to take on all the wines that we'd love to import? No -- we'd lose our shirts on a lot of it (and sometimes have) if it was priced a bit too high or was too "different" from the expectations of professional buyers and/or consumers.

Respectfully, an adverb I seldom use,

Terence "Strappo" Hughes
Domenico Selections

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Strappo:
Thanks for your comments too. As I mentioned to Rob in my previous comment, I do understand the financial realities, but don't see any reason why most wine shops cannot carry at least some niche wines. And such niche wines don't need to be expensive either. For example, there are plenty of good, inexpensive Greek wines out there.

Obviously the smaller the wine shop, the more difficulty they would have in carrying niche wines. But there is little reason the large stores, those carrying 1000+ wines, cannot have some niche wines.

And my praise and support mostly goes to those wine stores who have accepted the challenge of carrying niche wines. As one local example, I love the Wine Bottega in the North End of Boston, which carries almost all niche wines. And they seem to be doing pretty well.

I certainly evaluate each wine store on its own, but whether a wine store carries some niche wines of not, does speak volumes.