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Kudos to Whole Foods for being serious about wine

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I was glad to see that a Whole Foods buyer has earner the Master Sommelier rank, and that’s despite my blog rant yesterday against the “letters after the last name” thing. Part of me thinks it’s just ambitious hunger that makes people want wine honorariums, but I have to admit another part of me is impressed when someone actually gets one. I couldn’t get an M.S. or M.W. even if I wanted one. Heck, I probably couldn’t fill out the M.W. applicattion form properly. Still, the fact that Devon Broglie, Whole Food’s southwest region coordinator, is now an M.S. (congrats, Devon) confirms Whole Foods’ commitment to the sale and service of fine wine, something I’ve been impressed with for years.

In fact, a couple years ago, Wine Enthusiast named Whole Foods our Wine Star Retailer of the Year, a very honorific position that is not easily attained. I’ve always liked everything Whole Paycheck, err, Foods does, and that includes how they sell wine. There’s a store around the corner from where I live (I’m afraid I spend too much time and money there), and they have quite a nice wine department with some friendly, helpful people working there. Granted, it’s not like your fine neighborhood wine merchant, but it’s a real step above a big supermarket, like Vons or Albertson’s, where the customer is on her own, with no one to turn to for help.

I remember when I started out buying wine. It was confusing as s**t to browse the infamous Wall of Wine and not know squat. I used to pick the brains of floor staff and soon realized some were great and others were completely useless. Wilfred Wong was great when he worked at Ashbury Market. On the other hand, the snobby staff at the old Draper & Esquin, in downtown San Francisco, was abysmal. They’d size you up the second you walked in the door. “This guy looks like he has money, so we’ll lick his boots. This other guy looks like a hobo, so we’ll watch him suspiciously to make sure he doesn’t steal anything.” Guess which guy I was. Yes, and that’s part of the reason why, to this day, snobbism in wine repels me (and why working for Wine Enthusiast is gratifying as we are not the snob’s wine magazine!).

Fortunately, when I was a novice shopper,  I would arm myself with pocket guides (Bob Thompson’s and the one by Charlie Olken and his buddies were particularly helpful), and I never felt at all embarrassed consulting them right there in the store before making a commitment. I’m surprised that I hardly ever see buyers consult written materials in the wine aisles where I frequently lurk like some kind of urban anthropologist, studying Humanus Winusbuyus in its natural habitat. I don’t see them on their personal digital devices either. I do see a lot of people with glazed eyes reading bottle labels they probably don’t understand (what’s the difference between “Vinted and bottled by” and “Produced and bottled by”?). I suppose they could be checking out alcohol levels, but really, buying by ABV alone is a pretty tragic way to make a decision.

Which is where an employee who can help the poor shopper is a tremendous plus. In my Whole Foods I’ve found that the employees are pretty knowledgeable, although some are better than others and it all depends if a good one is working when you’re shopping. But there’s room for Whole Foods to improve their wine service, which is why I’m glad they seem to be encouraging their regional coordinators to pursue more wine knowledge to educate floor staff (and I hope Whole Foods paid for Devon’s expenses in pursuing the M.W.!).

Americas now drink more wine, in terms of sheer quantity, than any other nation on Earth, which makes us a pretty important wine market despite our economic woes. It’s going to be more and more important for stores that sell wine to cater to all buyers. I don’t care if it’s 7-Eleven, Wal-Mart, Costo, BevMo, Whole Foods or  the fanciest wine shop in Manhattan or Beverly Hills, floor staff are going to have to up their game and treat walk-ins with more respect. Smart companies realize that. Dumb ones don’t, and if they’re dumb about wine service, they’re probably dumb about everything.

  1. Whole Foods wine selection is impressive and I have found it to be priced competitively. As a person now wine savvy I hadn’t considered how the massive selection might seem daunting to less informed folks. I always thought such people generally stuck to the recognizable names for security. (They shouldn’t have to). I wonder if a program is in the works to improve access to wine knowledge in store.

  2. Bob Thompson is such a nice man. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Steve,

    I think leaving your brands message in the hands of wine stewards, wine shop owners, wine shop staff, or worse your distributor is a short sighted view. It has also failed most brands, especially the small-to-medium sized brands. You’re right the game of ‘education’ needs to be stepped up, but it needs to happen at the winery level first. Why put all that time and energy into your product to then expect a distributor sales rep, wine steward, or wine shop owner to continue your passionate message? So, what do must people look to for assistance? They label shop (fancy, cool, or at least recognizable) sometimes they look for a score, a medal, or a shelf talker for help. Remember, these wine ‘experts’ are not always there to ‘help’. For most consumers that wall of wine is daunting. So, the key would be to connect to your potential customer yourself, this way, YOUR message is getting through to them w/o you being there and with or without a sales persons ‘help’.

  4. Steve,

    MS, or MW, you used these interchangably, which one is it?

    The Whole Foods around the corner from my San Francisco apartment has a wine department started by Steve Sherman in 1997,when the store opened and he had amazing stuff. He is long gone having opened his own place on Polk about 10 years ago. Over the last few years I have noticed a lot of ‘dumbing down’ of the selection at “the food museum'; the premium wines are gone, the racks have been replaced with shelves and the selections are seemingly more weighted to imports (obviously it is what is selling). I too notice the glazed looks and furrowed brows when I walk through on my way to cheese or milk land. Sometimes they are still there when I come back and obviously have not been helped, I feel especially bad for the ones that have a $300 basket filled to the brim for a big dinner they are making and the last thing they need to do is find a suitable wine – notice I didn’t say perfect. For me, starting a conversation in a wine shop is second nature. I find out what they are eating and how much they want to spend and it takes about 30 seconds to give them a couple choices. They always seem to appreciate it.

    Hopefully this newly branded pro can bring some overall focus back to the chain. It would be nice to see again.

  5. I think this is where so many wineries miss the ball with social media. They should be using it to teach people about their wines. Why they don’t have their own version of Gary Vaynerchuk showcasing wine, paring it with food — teaching the public about their wine — it beyond my understanding.

    Tell them where to buy it and why — ask the public to comment what shelf it is on at Whole Foods. Make it easy for the public to buy and understand their wine.

    I know a winery owner who has wines at some of the top restaurants in the US. He doesn’t list those wines on his site. Wouldn’t it be great if he not only listed the restaurants but told people what to order on the menu to compliment the wine.

    Why not teach people to start with the wine … then build the meal around that?

    Catherine

    PS. Love the new tiger.

  6. Catherine: Thanks for liking my tiger! There are plenty of wineries that do as you suggest. The problem is that Gary V. is like the old broadcast channels NBC or CBS. He has a temporary hold on attention because he was first. But he won’t last for long because the competition is fierce and Gary really has no edge on them.

  7. Thanks for your article Steve! While pursuing and attaining the title of MS has been a personal goal of mine for quite some time, at Whole Foods we’ve always striven to provide learning opportunities for our Team Members and Customers and to provide a selection that balances comfortable choices with cool and groovy offerings our more savvy guests can geek out on. All at competitive prices. I absolutely appreciate the recognition for both my personal achievement and Whole Foods’ incredible support of the journey. Cheers!

  8. John Roberts says:

    Kudos indeed! This kind of accolade in professional-wino development is to celebrated across the board in my view. I do hope the Whole Foods brand as a whole takes wine seriously. My own personal experience with WF has been less than stellar. When living in Sonoma Co. and now, while living in LA Co., I’m continually disappointed by WF. Why? The selection isn’t the greatest, there’s always a good sampling of imported offerings, but the domestic stuff is either cheap and mediocre, or unjustifyingly expensive and seemingly routine – just my view. For me, the implicit focus behind all their selections particularly hurts their wine selection. Speaking of snobbery, I feel it more present at Whole Foods versus Bristol Farms, which I believe has the best wine selection of any chain “grocery” store. I got to the latter for the greats. I go to Whole Foods for an experiment or a wildcard.

  9. My experience was fine was limited only to those wines with a bar code. No bar code, no interest in tasting the wine.

  10. Scott Mahon says:

    Steve,
    In the age of digital devices, I too am surprised that few people are using them for wine education at the point of sale. I was just in Tahoe at a restaurant where the wine list indicated some real highs and lows, and massive markups. Thanks to my wife’s iphone, we ordered a great wine at a “great” restaurant value that was totally unknown to us previously. So two questions emerge: why do you think people are reluctant to do this? and what handheld digital source would you recommend for use?

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