Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The wine knowledge chasm that no one sees

Wine education. I constantly harp on our inability, as a business, and as a niche, to bring people into our fold. We continue the path of exclusivity rather than inclusiveness, yet, despite our snobbery, our sales and growth continues.
The big gap seems to be from novice, to a general comfort level in a wine environment. Part of the problem is human nature. We are biologically programmed to analyze the problem (no wine knowledge) assign a few key terms and rules, and be on our way. Wine just doesn't work that way, and is therefore uncooperative. As a result, we find a wine we (think we) like, and cling to it like gollum. Then, we think we've beaten the system, and try to find validation for our beliefs. This is when wine merchants get frustrated, but it's difficult to remember a time when we were in the exact same situation. We aren't born with wine knowledge. Why do we vilify those that haven't "seen the light". It is within the wine novice on up that opportunity lies. We'd all love to have collectors lined up out our doors, but those were the 70's and 80's, time to adapt.
Here are some guidelines when dealing with the novice crowd:
  • Don't show off and get geeky. You're the one servicing them, it's implied you know your stuff. Make them comfortable!
  • Explain that their tastes are always developing and changing. Hold their hand and don't let them be surprised. Don't sell them Whole-cluster Grenache if they like a soft fruity red. They don't need to validate your tastes either.
  • Encourage in store tastings, designate these as the place for them to learn and expand their palate. This will save them money and frustrating purchases. It also helps the dialogue.
  • Encourage discovery and broadening their comfort zone, sometimes just inches at a time.
  • Don't want people buying on points? Stop relying on them. Let them know the only thing that matters is what they like. You've spent countless hours selecting your set, that's the endorsement.
  • Shelftalkers are salespeople's way of marginalizing you. If there aren't any of those, you will stand a fighting chance.
  • You know how doctors have something called "bedside manner"? Well, you ain't House, work on yours.
The world would be a better place if everyone was a wine geek, I know. But let's face reality, your job is to sell wine. Buying and tasting is secondary, even if it's the best part of your job. Be kind and gracious, it's takes courage for someone to say they don't know and need help. Understand that they probably won't, so you need to be there to offer it sincerely anyways.


  1. Well said. So many people are intimidated by wine. They are afraid to choose the "wrong" wine. And so often if they don't like a wine that has been highly rated, they assume it's their fault for not appreciating "fine" wine.

    It is hard to break through that. One person asked if a wine was good. I offered her a taste of it. She said she liked it, but still didn't know if it was good.

    Also a wine can be enjoyed one day and the same wine not liked at all the next. Mood, weather, food, expectations, all play a part.

    I always tell people to trust their palate and try something ne

  2. So many people don't know what they like, just what they are supposed to like. That's why the small, personal wine store is one of my favorite places to buy wine...even the wine geek can learn something from someone else's passion!

  3. This is a terrific post! During my seven years as a sales associate in a very large wine & spirits store, I spent a lot of time "developing" novice wine drinkers. I saw the "wine knowledge chasm" as well, and it inspired me to develop the To Your Taste! Wine Party Kit. The TYT Kit is a wine education product in the form of instructions on how to host a wine-tasting party, and three games to help the guests learn how to taste, evaluate, and review wine. All the games are geared towards helping consumers gain confidence about buying, drinking or just talking about wine.

  4. Great post and couldn't agree more.

    So many wine 'educators' focus on the technical rather than the emotional attachment consumers have towards a particular wine. The key being to help them understand what they like and why. Keep it bloody simple!

    As long as people drink wine, that's a good thing. Palates will evolve with time and only through positive encouragement rather than dictacting what they should like.

    Great post.

  5. Sensory research supports your open-minded approach. The fact is that there isn't a linear scale of quality that applies to every palate, and people shouldn't feel intimidated if what they like isn't what the wine geeks or pointy reviewers like.