Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to organize your wine shop?

The place was called Winestyles. I don't think it exists anymore, anywhere.

I work in a store which organizes wine by "style," rather than by grape variety or country of origin. The more I consider it, the more I think -- with all due respect to Mr. Entrepreneur whose idea it was -- this concept is a bit of a dead end street. While first-time customers seem pleasantly struck by the notion of searching for a taste profile ("Mellow") rather than a grape, nobody ever returns asking specifically for another mellow wine. In fact, understanding the differences between the various profiles, which are sensible enough in themselves, presupposes quite a bit of wine-tasting experience. But the store is meant to welcome people who have little or none. Also, organization by style makes the retail clerk's job more difficult. People come in to the store looking for a grape or a place of origin, even if (especially if) they know nothing of wine and are buying a gift for someone who does. Many a time I have had to roam the shelves like a doofus hunting for a pinot noir or a Chianti, because I can't remember in what section they have been put and the computer inventory, "mellow," "crisp," etc., does not acknowledge the traditional categories, per se.

I had no idea what might be the benefit of such a system, then, until by chance I came across The Sommelier's Guide to Wine (Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2003), at a discount book store. Author Brian H. Smith writes:

"Some stores have been particularly successful in placing a maximum price on the majority of all their wines, and organizing by wine style, with frivolous and humorous categories such as 'Robust and Bold Reds,' or 'Kid-glove Whites.' This can be particularly useful for those customers who know what kinds of wine they like, but are not married to a particular grape type or geographic area ...."

Maximum price on the majority of all wines leaps out at me. (So does Mr. Smith's use of the word "particular" three times in one paragraph, but that's another matter. Where was his editor?) I suppose it would be possible to charge unusually high prices on wines if they were separated from each other in the store, and all the pinots and all the Chiantis thus spared competition with each other. But if that was the Entrepreneur family's Cunning Plan -- apologies to Blackadder -- I am not sure it works. Our prices are generally below $20 or $25 anyway, and that's not me looking over my shoulder, but me reporting company policy as well as reality at our store. Besides, customers coming in looking for pinots are going to want to see all of them, and once they've found them, they can compare prices as usual.

All of the foregoing has made me speculate on the way I would organize my wine shop, if I could wave a magic wand and have one of my own tomorrow. Hugh Johnson in How To Enjoy Your Wine separates the quaff into eleven categories, "viz. and to wit." (as Amy makes her will in Little Women):

1. Dry, simple white wines -- jug whites, supermarket-level Chablis, etc. "Essential as a foundation for more exotic wine-drinking."
2. Lightweight, grapey, aromatic whites -- ordinary rieslings and gewurztraminers.
3. Sparkling wines, "with champagne as the boss."
4. Assertive, full bodied whites -- chardonnays and the higher-end examples of almost any other white.
5. Sweet whites -- Sauternes, dessert-quality rieslings.
6. Rosés
7. Fresh grapey young reds -- Beaujolais, lambrusco.
8. Standard cheap reds -- jug and supermarket types. "Traditionally, always on tap."
9. Medium to full-bodied reds -- fine Bordeaux, Burgundies, the higher-end examples of almost any red. All need aging.
10. Turbo-powered reds -- Napa cabernets, Italian Barolos and Brunellos; "Australia's massively succulent Barossa Shiraz." (Think B for Big, perhaps.)
11. Fortified wines -- ports and sherries.

I'm sure Hugh Johnson's list is beautifully thought out and bespeaks decades of experience. But I would organize my wine shop based on what people ask to buy. In that case, I would divide wines into half a dozen or more categories, and I would have big signs on the wall announcing them:
sweet, sparkling whites (moscato d'Asti)
sweet whites (moscato, riesling)
soft whites (chardonnay, pinot grigio, blends)
very dry or acidic whites (sauvignon blanc)
sweet, sparkling reds (lambrusco)
sweet reds ("Sweet Red")
soft, lush reds (merlot, blends, zinfandels, some pinot noirs)
dry, tannic reds (cabernet)
dry, sparkling whites (brut champagne). 
What most people want to know about an unfamiliar wine is whether it is sweet and whether it is bubbly. They don't necessarily ask those questions, but eventually that information is what seems to clarify and hasten their decisions. And that too makes sense, given that for most of us, the taste profile we really know well is soda pop.

The one style I've forgotten in my imaginary wine shop -- apart from fortified wines and dessert wines specifically, which I wouldn't separate from their color categories -- is rosés. And considering the sales behemoth that is White Zinfandel, I suppose I must leave room for rosés, too, mostly sweet, sweet, sweeter. 

Now Mr. Entrepreneur is not going to ask my opinion of his concepts anytime soon, but I do notice that the one wine we absolutely do not carry is white zinfandel. You'd think someone had determined that it cannot fit anywhere.

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