10.17.2006

Wine for smarties

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.

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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.

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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.

10 comments:

Stephanie Weaver said...

Sara,
I remember shopping at Sam's once or twice when I still lived in Chicago. You are so right.

I saw an article that said that Americans are more likely to choose wine if it has an animal on the label.

Holly said...

I would like to see a touch-screen computer at the entrance. Enter your taste preferences, your color, your price, and it would print a list of recommendations and locations within the store.
BTW as a tech writer and customer/user evangelist, I really enjoy your site. Thanks!

Rachel said...

I live in the Niagara wine region and there are so many different types of grapes grown and wines that are produced just in this part of Ontario and the weather and specific soil composition in the Niagara region is what makes Niagara wines probably taste different than a wine in Europe, even though the same grapes are grown.

I'm also no expert on wine, and I found these cool websites that would help any beginner in understanding the importance of region to the taste of this Riesling vs. That. Here are the links I found:

http://home.howstuffworks.com/wine-basics-ga.htm
http://www.waitrose.com/food_drink/wfi/drinks/wine/0007106.asp
http://www.answerbag.com/q_view.php/2424

I really enjoy your site; I work at Best Buy Canada, and have worked in retail for over 16 years. Your insights on your blog are invaluable to me in my career : )

Thank you!

-Rachel

Anonymous said...

Sara,
Thanks, I always enjoy reading your varied postings.
I would want to go into a wine shop and know what wine goes with what food. In very few situations, do I serve wine as a stand alone product.
Fortunately I have developed a good working knowledge of wine pairings, but I too judge based on the label. I almost never buy mass produced wines. I want smaller vineyards and base my selections from the ground (geographical areas) it was grown in.

One thing I do not trust are the wine tasters "scores. a whole other area for discussions.

isos said...

Sara,

I live in Houston and we have a similar store called Spec's. I'm not sure how friendly the folks at Sam's are, but Spec's (which is organized the same way) is VERY good at making you feel not-so-stupid if you know nothing about wine. They encourage you to ask as many questions as possible and staff the store with employees who are knowledgeable about wine.

It seems that a lot of your problem at Sam's was caused by your fear of looking stupid and cheap. However, the employees are well aware that most of their shoppers know little about wine and aren't prepared to spend a lot on something that they know little about. You were afraid to admit your lack of knowledge. Next time, simply say to the employee, who is paid to help you, something like, "Hi, I'm looking for a riesling. I don't know much about wine, but I've tried riesling and I liked it. Since I don't know much about wine, I'm not trying to spend too much, but I'd like to try something unique and different." The salesperson will ask your price range and will promptly help you find several rieslings in your price range, educate you about rieslings, answere all of your other questions, AND introducedyou to another varietal similar to riesling that you might want to try.

The employees don't usually work on commission, so they don't care how much you spend on a wine. And they know that if you're happy with the service and the wine, you'll be back again and again.

Just a tip for next time,

Craig said...

Sara,
Just discovered your site a few weeks ago. Have devoured all of the archives. Please write faster!

I live in Chicago and am a somewhat frequent shopper at Sam's. While I understand your issues with the store's organization, I still think there is something very wise going on there. The organization by region mirrors the organization of the staff. Alot of the people on the floor are also visiting those regions and making buying decisions. Several years ago I was in a situation of picking out a bottle of champagne as a present for a man who owned a 4-star restaurant. As I stumbled around the champagne aisle clutching my Wine Spectator list of Rose' Champagnes, I was rescused by a man named Charles who was the "Champagne guy." He didn't just help me make a selection, he gave me lots of "insider" info. He talked about the lands and the families involved. About his last visit to this maker. About the unfortunate weather 2 years ago at that vinyard. While I couldn't validate his knowledge it was complete and specific. I later learned that he is very well regarded both here and in Champagne. The important thing was he made me feel confident about my purchase. This is powerful.

In short Sam's is full of wine geeks. They're not always the best at customer service, but once engaged they do have deep knowledge and a real passion for their product. That's a unique customer experience worth the trouble.

sara said...

Thanks all for your comments! Stephanie, that is just embarassing. What graphics do non-Americans respond to?

Holly, I can tell you are a tech writer. The touchscreen sounds great. Could it also show labels?

Rachel, thanks for enlightening me a bit on this topic! I really enjoyed the answerbag article.

Isos, you hit the nail on the head - I didn't want to admit my ignorance. I WILL go back and try again.

Craig, your story is fantastic. I can actually feel the confidence that you gained with that information. I remember thinking that the Sam's employees I encountered didn't seem particularly, um, social? But I'd much prefer smart geeks to shallow smilers. Thanks for sharing your experience.

I'm writing as fast as I can... :)

hillary said...

sara,

first, to start: nothing is "the new beer." beer is forever.

that being said, i think you & isos really got at one of the issues of wine-selecting - in that we put this un-due stress on ourselves not to look stupid or pedestrian. i think that getting over how you appear, would make things much easier in selecting a wine.

i went into a TINY wine shop recently to pick up a bottle for a dinner party. i was really intimidated before going in, especially because i had no idea what we were eating. but i just went in and told that to the woman working and said i was looking to spend no more than $20. she brought me to two bottles of wine and let me pick (i actually don't respond to labels at all - which is WEIRD). it was easy and painless.

i disagree with your opinion on the organization of sam's entirely. i think organizing it by color and type would be no better or worse than the way it is organized now. it would just be re-organizing it for a different type of user. why should sam's NOT organize it by region - for their more educated consumers? you could go to the grocery store if you wanted and find and buy a cheap riesling pretty easily. at sam's, you'd have to ask someone, but then you could learn about the wine and where it's from. also, like rachel mentioned, wines are regarded and known by their region.

to me, organizing it by region makes it more of an adventure in shopping for the wine, not a hassle. plus, i've been in the situation before where i'd been looking for a specific bottle of wine that i knew was from argentina.

anyway, this isn't as thorough and well-thought-out as i wanted it to be (and i forgot to make my comparison to stores that organize clothes by color), but...yeah.

hill

George said...

Before it closed, there was a wonderful wine store in Chicago called Valhalla.

It took all the fuss and snobbery out of the process by equating all the wines on offer with a universally understood comparison system: they described everything in terms of celebrities.

"This white wine is bright, fruity and not too be taken too seriously, just like Ashton Kutcher."

"This red is bold and trashy, like Brittney Spears."

The store was also very innovative in the way they were co-owned by the Asian restaurant opposite that had no liquor license. They ran a symbiotic business relationship.

Very clever. Maybe too clever since one of the stores closed.

Roisin said...

Sam's sounds more like a warehouse than a shop! I must be so lucky that there are one or two great wine stores near me... You just go straight to the guy working there and tell him what you're looking for and your price range.
It doesn't matter how much you know or don't know about wine - you can tell him what kind of grapes or region or just that you're going to a dinner party and want something not too expensive. Then they zone in on one or two bottles and let you choose. I actually have no idea how the place near me organises them but I have a feeling it's to do with region - it turns out region is a huge factor because of the grapes, the soil, the weather and the people who grow them. See it's educating too!

It's amazing how much the employees can know at a wine store. The last time I went in they told us the story behind the wine we were buying. It was from France but because they had a different technique they weren't allowed to name the region or give the dates, so instead they marked each batch by year so that the label might say "batch 2005" or "batch 2006"

It's great to have the personalised touch without having to feel stupid - I like Holly's idea for the touch-screen computer but somehow i think an actual person would be more flexible. You can just tell them what mood you're in or who you're buying it for and they pick a great wine! As Craig said, "That's a unique customer experience worth the trouble."

Maybe you should try that at Sam's...
I don't know what the employment process is like but these aren't summer job kind of places, these are where sommeliers find their career.