Kudos to Whole Foods for being serious about wine
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.