Tell me, friends, do you enjoy a good glass of wine?
Surely you must. Who doesn't these days? Because wine is hot. Wine is the new champagne, the new beer, the new dinner table conversation. Wine is the latest product category to become massclusive - elite yet widely available. First there was Two-Buck Chuck, then the movie Sideways, then we all had wine tasting parties and before you knew it, Business Week had hired a freaking wine columnist. All bets are off; wine is here to stay.
But as vino finagles its way into everyday culture, I'm bothered by a vastly overlooked truth: interest has far outpaced understanding. I'm talking about a specific conversation. It's an exchange I've heard so many times, I'm willing to bet you've heard it too. This is how it goes:
"Hey, this wine you brought is great."
"Thanks. Yeah, I like merlot."
"Me too. Merlot is good. (pause, switch to whisper) You know what's funny? I don't know anything about wine. So you know what I do - (glance around the room) - I choose based on the label!"
"Me too! I go by the label! I just pick one I like! Oh my gosh, I hope nobody hears us. We are such losers!"
Am I right? You have heard it, haven't you? This conversation is so commonplace, it's driving me crazy. For a couple of reasons.
Number one, it's perfectly normal to choose a product by its packaging. How do you think we choose almost every other product? Surely, we don't refine our taste for macaroni and cheese. We don't subscribe to Mac 'n Cheese Monthly or take summer tours of mac 'n cheeseries. We simply look at the box, like what we see, and buy it. No big deal. Folks, the packaging industry is not going anywhere, because for all the websites, advertising and product education in the world, something like 85% of purchase decisions are still made in the store.
Yet wine is held to such high standards, and expectations are so elevated, that to choose wine by the label seems somehow pedestrian. It's as if by liking a nice font or colorful graphic, we are just not "getting it." I am here to say that it's okay to choose by label. For most people, label is as good an indicator as any.
But that leads me to my other gripe. For all the fuss over wine, we are not given a whole lot of help when it comes to choosing "intelligently" in the store. Now surely, one can subscribe to Wine Spectator. One can buy any of the 206,083 wine-related books on Amazon. But honestly, how much work does it take? Someone should be making it easier for us to shop this increasingly complex product.
So here's my situation. I attend a fair amount of dinner parties. I'm tired of grabbing the same old Yellowtail from the corner liquor store. I'd like to stock up on wine that is unique, tasty and will impress my friends. Where do I go?
My fellow Chicagoans all point me to the same place: Sam's Wine and Spirits. Sam's is supposed to be the store that brings a wide variety of good wine to the masses. People say the store is huge, the variety is outstanding, and the staff are knowledgeable. So I make the trip.
And my friends are correct - Sam's is huge. It's an absolutely enormous warehouse. My immediate reaction is to feel very small, and very overwhelmed. But the concrete floors, wooden pallets and utility ladders remove any air of exclusivity, which is good. Okay, where to begin? I grab a small cart and start wandering.
It takes me about ten seconds to realize that the products are not organized the way I'd expect. Now I may or may not be a typical wine consumer, but here's my decision tree: color (red or white), then style (riesling or chardonnay or pinot grigio), then label (is it unique? does it have a fun name?), then price (preferably under $10). That's how I understand wine, so that's how I'd like to shop it. But 30 seconds in, I'm utterly confused. I pass a white, then a red, then another white. Color is obviously no help. I start looking for styles, but here's one pinot grigio, with no others in sight. How about price? The bottles in front of me are $9, then $90, then $19. Finally, I look up and notice the signs. Guess how the aisles are organized?
They are organized by region. Region of the world, and sometimes region of the country within the world. Now I hate to sound like a shlemiel, but this is a framework that demands some prior knowledge. A first-timer simply cannot shop by region. I tried! I like France, as far as countries go, so I start to look in the France section. Not so fast - that section is further divided into Alsace, Bordeaux, Provence, etc. Great.
I try to use my existing framework. I ask a salesperson if they have any riesling, already feeling a little silly. The guy says, "Sure. Are you looking for French, German or Italian riesling?" The answer, of course, is I don't know.
So I arbitrarily choose German. What the hey, my car is German, might as well give German a try. Once I enter the impossibly tall aisle, an employee asks if I need any help. "Sure," I say, "I'm looking for riesling." But there is no riesling section, and so he starts walking up and down the aisle, bringing me bottles to inspect. At this point, all I care about is price and label. But since the price tags are on the shelves, not the bottles, I take each bottle and walk back to wherever he found it, in an attempt to check its price. This is both inefficient and embarassing, as I don't have the heart to tell him I'm only buying $10-or-less bottles. So I indulge him for a few minutes, chasing him around and checking price tags behind his back. It was, in short, a mess.
In the end, I found 5 bottles of wine that fit my specifications. All were white. Two rieslings, two pinot grigios and a gewurztraminer (all types I know I like). All had unique labels, and one had a funny name. All were under $10. I was pleased with my choices, but it took me half an hour to find them. What regions were they from? I still don't know.
Some people might shop wine by color-style-price; others might go price-style-label or just label-price. Surely some people shop by region, and appreciate that Sam's gives their framework top priority. But I just don't think that region, for most people, is the first decision they want to make.
Now region can become primary, and after shopping at Sam's long enough, it probably will. Region is interesting because it's an educating framework. You try a wine from Greece, you like it, you go back to the Greece section, and one day you realize that you are partial to Greek wines. Region helps you form a "wine identity," if you will. But region should not be the first decision point in this enormous store's navigational hierarchy. It is far too complex for most people. Not that I don't enjoy learning about regions - I just think it needs to come farther down the chain of choices.
So here's my ideal wine warehouse shopping trip. First choice: color. I head to the whites section. Second choice: style. I head for the rieslings. Third choice: price. I browse the $10-and-under section. Last choice: all my subjective final decision-makers, such as label, flavors, region, age and vintage. That's when I'm open to suggestions; that's where I want to be educated. Not beforehand.
I'm aware that a lot of Sam's shoppers would be upset. Having become acclimated to shopping by region, they would surely throw their arms up in frustration. "This was the only place where I could always find my Chilean wines!"
But they could still find their Chilean wines. They'd just be called out at the product level. And more people might discover them this way, because if they knew they liked red wine, and enjoyed cabernet sauvignon, and wanted to spend $10-20, and thought the "duo" label looked cool, and thought a dark, meaty, juicy wine sounded up their alley, they could pick this one, and discover it was from Chile. If they liked it, they could look for more wines from Chile. Or more dark reds. Or more from the brand, Alto de Casablanca.
Sam's is doing a lot of difficult things well. It's advancing the industry by democratically sharing great information through its website, blog, educational seminars and tastings. People enjoy getting lost in its aisles as they scan labels, explore regions and learn about flavors. Shoppers at Sam's taste, try and return. But I believe even more people would feel confident about their purchases, rather than ashamed at their lack of knowledge, if the store's basic organizing framework were as inclusive as its warehouse-style vibe.