When I was in college, I worked part-time in a few tasting rooms in Walla Walla. One of the things that used to bother me was when customers would come in, taste the wines, and then, completely sh*t-talk the wines in front of me. Normally when that happened, I would stand behind the bar with an idiotic grin on my face, while inside I secretly fumed and judged the men on their fanny packs, bad loafers with white socks and comb-overs, and the women on their cheap dye jobs, bejeweled t-shirts with phrases like “How Merlot Can You Go,” and pleated-front, high-waisted mom jeans (which, I’ll admit, were totally immature and sh*tty things to think about).
I saw that attitude again when I became a supplier rep and participated in retail shop tastings. I’d pour a dry red wine for someone, and she’d scrunch up her face, stick her tongue out and emphatically say, “I don’t like that one at ALL. NO. This one is…I really don’t like that wine!” Eventually, I learned not to take it so personally, and also to explain to people that they should try to give the wine the benefit of the doubt—tasting it in a retail setting without any food or friends around to share it with probably made a huge difference in their perception; I encouraged them to acknowledge their own tastes, but be open-minded to the idea that it’s hard to taste in a “vaccum.” I always referenced the Pepsi Challenge, wherein most tasters preferred the taste of Pepsi because it tasted sweeter and the flavors were more “obvious” right away, but many people actually chose a less sweet beverage (Coke) over the course of an entire glass or can.
While I (mostly) got over my frustrations with consumers being rude about not liking wine during tastings, what I can’t get over is how rude some people INSIDE the industry are about their competitor’s wine. I hear people constantly bashing other people’s wines, quickly jumping on their perceived flaws. I think a lot of people on the sales side of the wine business treat selling their wine as a zero-sum game and refuse to recognize value in competitor’s products. I recently got invited to a private tasting and was unable to go, so I gave up my spots to a couple other industry people. I then saw on Facebook that the person who’d taken my spot had a status update that totally trashed the wines, AND tagged the location where the tasting had been held. WTF?
Trust me—there are wines I’ve tried where I felt personally violated (in fact, just a few months ago at a trade tasting I tried a cult wine that basically raped my tongue with sugar, alcohol and oak). But it did get me thinking about how I would sell the wines that my friend found so “awful” in the Facebook status update. After all, I have had a few occasions where, because of the vintage, the style or whatever reason, a particular wine in my portfolio was not my favorite. Yet I still had to sell them anyway.
So what I want to talk about today is how to talk about and sell wines you don’t like. And a little etiquette…
1. One of the first things I try to remember is that, particularly if the winery is independent, a whole lot of work went into making that wine. At my last job, I became good friends with the cellar and vineyard crews, and I learned that each bottle of wine I opened meant countless hours of work and sweat and maybe some tears. To diminish that seems, to me, disrespectful and callous.
2. Just because YOU don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not any good. I went tasting with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago, and we visited a well-known winery. We began tasting through their lineup, and as we tasted their merlot, she quickly said, privately to me, of course, that she didn’t care for it. I pointed out that for the price, the wine was well balanced, had moderate tannins (that many consumers shopping in that price-point would look for), pretty fruit, the wine was clean and correct, and that the label was beautiful. She nodded in assent and said, “Yup. Hadn’t thought of it that way.” Here are some general things to consider when selling a wine you don’t like:
- Is it a good value for the price?
- Does it taste like it comes from somewhere? Bonus if it tastes like where it’s from.
- Is the wine correctly made, or does it have some flaws like EA/VA or Brettanomyces (which some people love)?
- What are the flavors like? Fruity? Tannic? Oaky? Think about what the account’s customers might like—will it fit in with their general taste profiles?
- Is the label nice? Because hey, it can’t hurt to have a pretty label on the back bar…
- Is the winery or the people who own it well known (which can help pull-through), or do they have any good stories relating to the wine?
3. Don’t talk sh*t about other people’s wines because you may one day be selling them. That kind of goes without saying—even if you are competing for a placement on a wine list or shelf, I find it’s often better to stress the positive attributes of your own wine (even if you don’t like it) than to stress the negatives of someone else’s. Plus, the winery personnel are probably really nice people–would you say those things to their face?4. We’re all in this together (mostly). What I love about living in Oregon is that, by and large, people in the wine business are extremely supportive of one another. However, there are a couple big wineries in the Pacific Northwest that some folks love to bag-on because they’re placed everywhere, they have a massive sales force, a fairly corporate structure and produce thousands (if not millions) of cases of wine a year. While personally they’re not always my first choice to drink (even though I can appreciate that they are generally well made), I can see that those big wineries have made inroads for the little guys—training winemakers and sales people, buying fruit from many vineyards, nationally campaigning for the region—and for those things, I am thankful.
And just a quick shout-out to my favorite wine writer, Jon Bonne of the SF Chronicle—I think he’s a great example of someone who can taste wines from a huge range of regions and styles and come up with positive, interesting and extremely well-written things to say about wines of all stripes. Check out his writing if you need some inspiration!