Grand tastings and why they’re usually gross

1 Apr

If there’s one rule wine stores should live by (I could cite more than that, but will limit myself for purposes of this post) it would be “Always be tasting” (ABT)–that is, always have a bottle of something open so your customers have a perfect excuse to stop by on a whim or on an errand.

Most people are neurotic enough about “not knowing enough” about wine that they don’t want to risk spending their hard-earned money. I think people have a similar reluctance to buy a full-fledged album when they like just the lead-off single, but that’s for another blog, and why we have iTunes. That’s why store tastings are so important: they’re a chance not only to bring customers in and educate them, but to build up trust and a better relationship with customers that will lead to upselling and repeat visits.

The problem is when stores only open the cheap stuff. Now before I get a crapload of grief for being a wine snob, consider that you can go into any high-end department store and sample the $150 cologne, right? Not just sniff it, but spray $8 worth of it all over yourself if you want to smell like a Tijuana peel palace. Ok, yeah, a bottle of $150 Eau de Sniffy lasts longer on the counter than a $150 bottle of Chateau Night Train; I know THAT. But what does trying that $150 bottle (either the cologne or the wine) do for customers? It’s a fantasy they can live. It’s luxury within reach. It’s a great anecdote to tell their friends and coworkers–“hey, I tried a $150 bottle of…”– who might want to stop by the store sometime and try it too. I know a store that has Enomatic tasting machines. They offer wines from $13 and even upwards of $60 to sample every day. I’ve found two new faves ($42 and $58) that I got to try from those machines. Would I have bought them without trying them? Probably, because I am such a wine-ho and have a problem. But might someone else buy them because they got to try before they buy? Oh, probably yes as well.

And that brings me to one of the many reasons I was annoyed at the semi-annual grand tasting I went to a couple of nights ago. It was at a liquor store that’s got a reputation for a good overall selection of alcohol, and a solid stock of wine. I’d been to a couple of this store’s tastings in past years, but it had since fallen off my liquor calendar for a few reasons–it was just too crowded and too poorly laid out for me to navigate without me wanting to get stabby on someone. And it seemed badly managed: I had even once placed an order for a few premium wines which had never been processed. When I called to re-place the order and hopefully get the tasting-night special discount, I was informed they couldn’t do that. (oh, yes, you can. You just choose not to.)

I went to go meet a Tweep IRL, as the kiddos say, and hoped for the best. Eye-yi-yi.

As I expected, the crowds around the table were four to six deep (again, the store had a piss-poor layout), because the people who had made it to the front were bogarting the space. Seriously, does free booze make everyone forget what they learned in kindergarten about taking turns, keeping your hands to yourself, and sharing?

Customers were hovering around the snack table like sharks around a wounded dolphin, jabbing the shards of pretzels in their hands into the last scrapings of hummus, chevre and pub cheese dip. Seriously people, gorging on crackers and cheese and getting your drink on is not a good substitute for dinner. EAT FIRST. The wine will still be there. Distributor reps had little plates of discarded or uneaten food on the table next to them as they poured. People draped their grape stems on rum bottles in the aisles, left their empty plates on displays, and the employees working the floor weren’t paying attention to the cleanup. The store, which isn’t the swankiest to begin with, looked like the last night at sea on a cut-rate cruise.

I decided that the fastest, least inebriated way to get out of there was to limit myself to tasting wines over $30. I had to drop that down to $20, because nothing was over $26. So I got to sample only about six out of 100. (FWIW my order that never went through at the tasting two years ago included six wines over $36) Is this a sign of bad times in the wine store industry, or a reflection of the neighborhood’s hispter demographic (This store had a tasting the previous week at their location in a more yupscale nabe)? Yes, I know a lot of great wines can be had for under $15; I own about 50 of them myself. But again, it was a missed opportunity for the store to educate and upsell. Even with the event’s 20% discount, they would have a chance to increase the per-order amount had they gone a little higher up the sales list. At least my visit with my contact was worth it!

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2 Responses to “Grand tastings and why they’re usually gross”

  1. David April 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

    Great blog and it’s true many retailers don’t pour the big money wines. At our store we pour value wines a lot (or plonks as some call it). Because our customer is in search of it BUT we do mix in higher prices

    • Melanie April 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that, David (and your pouring different price points is another great reason why your WFM is my fave). I can understand a grocery store–even one as reputationally “upscale” as WFM– pouring lower-price wines. It’s not a grocery store’s primary line of business, and it’s a way to make the store a convenient one-stop shop for customers to bring them in more often. But when you see the lack of variety from a liquor store with a decent wine reputation and does these events a couple of times a year, it just makes me scratch my head.

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