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An appreciation of wine store floor staff

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Went down to the ___ Wine Shop the other day to hang out with R.___, my young friend who’s worked there for quite some time. As I’ve written here before, I like to go there every once in a while to find out what his customers are up to. (Forgive me for not identifying him or the store’s name. I don’t want to make any waves.)

A young woman came in, said she was looking for a wine to give a friend for a gift, and wanted R.’s advice. I stood at a discrete distance to watch, look, listen and learn. This interaction between customer needing help and wine shop staffer is one of the great theatrical moments in all of winedom. As fraught with psychological drama and humor as an Albee play, it is the stuff of great human drama, and central to the mysteries of why people buy what they do.

R. began by asking the woman what kind of wine she wanted and what her price range was. Before long, they were standing in the Burgundy aisle. The woman evidently was willing to shell out some bucks. As he gently elicited information from her that would help him make a recommendation, it was clear to me (and I think to R. also) that the woman knew less about wine than she thought, or wanted him to believe. So he had to be careful. You want to be properly respectful of such a person; the slightest misstep can cause unwitting offense. But R. is nothing if not charming, and knows how to play the game with consummate skill.

So Burgundy it would be! R. asked if her friend wanted a wine to drink right away or to cellar. The woman didn’t know; she asked if there were one that could satisfy on both ends. Ah, I thought, let us watch R. rise to the occasion and be brilliant. He steered her to a 2004 Gevrey-Chambertin. The woman asked him many questions, and there ensued a conversation about vintages and styles. At that moment I realized this was the stuff of blogs. I went to the register, grabbed a pad of paper and a pen, and started writing what you’re reading now.

While R. and the woman continued their banter, I thought about it. R. could tell her anything he wanted, and the woman would have believed it, because (a) he works in a fine wine shop and thus has credibility, (b) R. is an exceptionally pleasant, likeable character and (c) he seems to know what he’s talking about.

It always amazes me how much trust people place in wine shop staff. This power can be misused, and I suspect — no, make that know that it sometimes is. But R. would never abuse power, nor would the store’s other staff, because they’re honorable people. As I listened to R. talk about Burgundy, I thought, He could be totally wrong in what he’s saying, and the poor woman wouldn’t know. But then I immediately thought, But it’s R.’s job to be right. So I was sure that everything he told her was correct. Is it good that people place an inordinate amount of confidence in wine floor staff? Yes and no. If someone is going to spend money on a bottle of wine, they should at least do a little research beforehand. On the other hand, lots of people don’t have the time or inclination for that, so they have to depend on the staff’s integrity. That certainly argues for shopping in a reputable wine store.

As I was scribbling these notes, the woman made her purchase at the register. They laughed about something (which told me the woman was happy with her purchase, which meant R. was, too), and then she left.

R. ambled back over to me.

“So, did she buy the Burgundy?” I asked.

“No,” R. said. “A Barbaresco.”

“Barbaresco!” I exclaimed, surprised. She’d seemed so close to buying the Gevrey. “What caused the switch?”

“Well,” R. explained, “her friend had recently gone on vacation to Italy.” It seems that the woman figured an Italian wine would be more charming and appropriate.

“Did the friend go to Piedmont?” I asked. Ryan gave me a wry smile and shook his head no. He seemed about to say something, but at that moment a young couple came in needing his help. They were making lemon chicken for dinner and wanted his recommendation.

R., as it turned out, had spent a great deal of time with a woman over a single bottle of wine. But it was an expensive wine, no other customers had been kept waiting, the woman left the store smarter about Burgundy (and Barbaresco) than she’d been when she came in, and everybody was happy.

So here’s to the wine floor staff of the world. They have to deal with everything. Not only do they have to know about wine, they need to be psychiatrists, life coaches and food pairing experts. Salud!

wineshop

  1. “they should at least do a little research beforehand. On the other hand, lots of people don’t have the time or inclination for that, so they have to depend on the staff’s integrity”

    - and in that way, buying wine for most people is similar to shopping for, well, *anything*. :-)

  2. Steve, if you’re going to mask Ryan’s identity, proofread!

    “Ryan gave me a wry smile and shook his head no.”

    woops!

    I second the appreciation though. I’m certainly guilty of leaning too hard on staff when I can’t make a decision.

  3. Ron: Oops indeed! It is Ryan.

  4. Thank you. Seriously thank you. Working the floor at a wine store can be trying at times, hell I bitch about it all the time, but in the end it is a very gratifying job. When done right both parties feel great and the store is one step closer to gaining a customer for life. Nice to see someone else get it.

  5. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for turning the spotlight on wine store floor staff. I have been a member of this group for many years and have had countless interactions like the one you described in your post. I love my job. The personal interaction; the figuring out which wine fits the customer best is what makes it fun. My advice to others? Frequent a local wine store where you feel comfortable and are treated well, get to know the people who work there, let them help you. A good wine shop employee is a great (and, I think, overlooked) resource. Thos who are good at what they do (and there are a lot out there) will get to know your taste over time, introduce you to new things you may not have chosen on your own, and can really help you learn a lot about wine if that’s your goal.

  6. Another example of why PR people and brand managers should get out and CONSISTENTLY work the marketplace with sales people. Whether it is a distributor sales rep or salesperson working the floor of a wine shop, this channel is one the most important and often the one that is most overlooked.

  7. Bill: Uh oh. Next thing we’ll be hearing about floor staff being taken out to expensive dinners by distributors!

  8. Great catch, Ron. It seems it’s impossible to hold back the identity of such a talented floor staff member. I agree, it’s almost harder than a doctor’s job. At least most times a patient can point where it hurts or describe symptoms. With some wine shop clientele, you may be lucky to be afforded a hint to help you do your job.

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am a wine steward on the floor of a store and I can completely relate to the experience you wrote about. It’s what I encounter every day I work. Although I am a trained wine professional and Certified Sommelier, I make it a priority to guide customers based on their needs, budget, occasion and food not my own needs or tastes. The customers leave happier and are very appreciative of the time spent helping them. That’s what customer service is all about. Again, as you said, here’s to all the wine floor staff of the world.

  10. I stay away from reds for the most part. The tannins give me terrible migraines. Although, I LOVE a good port. I really like to buy wine; they are very refreshing.

  11. Chantili, I love a good port too. Also a good sherry. Too bad these wines are not more popular.

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