Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Handsell

Some wines sell themselves. Consumers know about and want these wines, and do not require any discussion with sales staff in order to buy. Not being in the business myself, I don't know for sure which wines these are, but I'm guessing things like high end Bordeaux, cheap Malbec or rosé, or most any California wine in the $20 and under price range.

Then there are wines that simply will not sell without some special urging. Think of the customer that walks in and says "I want a dry white wine and I don't want to spend more than $20." If left to their own devices, are they going to decide on Clos des Briords? I don't think so. The bottle is shaped funny, and what the heck is Muscadet anyway? Actually, Clos des Briords and particularly a wine like Granite de Clisson are probably not good examples here because they also sell themselves. To a far more limited audience than high end Bordeaux, let's say, but there are people (count me as one) who anticipate Granite de Clisson the same way others anticipate Bordeaux futures.

Think back to the days when you were in the early stages of learning about wine. If you wandered into a retail store, would you have picked out a bottle of $24 Granite de Clisson? If that's the bottle you got, it's more likely that you would have told one of the staff about some of the other things you enjoy drinking, and that person might have asked you "Well, have you ever tried Granite de Clisson?" Five minutes later, after they helped you to develop some context for the wine, you bought it.

It's easy to forget that there are many wines that I love, you too probably, that require conversations like the one above before they sell. Entire categories of great wine - Beaujolais and Jura to name two. If you don't already drink those wines, even if you drink wine several times a week, who wanders into a retail store and picks out a $20 Morgon or a $29 Trousseau without help from the staff?

I guess this is why the stores that carry those wines tend to be the stores that employ intelligent and well-trained sales staff. How else can you move the wine? And make no mistake, as much as we all respect Clos Rougeard, it doesn't make sense to have $45 Saumur-Champigny sitting on the shelf for over a year. The wine has to move.

The other day I was in Astor Wines and I noticed a few bottles on the shelves by Henri Milan, a producer that I really like in Provence. I said to the wine buyer "Wow - I love Henri Milan wines, that's so great that you carry them." She said "yeah, I think they're great wines, but Henri Milan was in town last week and I had to get him in here to train my staff on how to sell them before I agreed to carry them."

This is Astor Wines, one of NYC's mecca's for great wine, and Henri Milan is, as she put is, "completely a hand sell." Makes sense I guess - the wines start at $25 for a VdP and go up to over $50 for his top wine, a gorgeous Syrah blend called Clos Milan. But the wine isn't one of the spectacularly popular Provence wines, like a Bandol for example. You have to know what it is before dropping $50 on Clos Milan, or $25 on the VdP, never mind $35 on the VdP white blend.

Last week I was hanging out with my friend Clarke who represents Neal Rosenthal's wines, and he poured me something that I had never heard of, a white wine from the Languedoc by Mas Jullien, the 2006 Mas Jullien Vin de Pays de l'Hérault. (sorry for the rough photo, but it was taken with a blackberry) I was immediately captivated by this wine. It had been open for almost 2 days and it was showing great balance, an expressive and expansive nose of dark floral and wet stone aromatics, bright fresh fruit that was completely infused with flowers, and that elusive (among Languedoc whites, anyway) combination of richness and intensity with lean texture and energy on the palate. Truly delicious wine, something I would love to explore further at home with dinner.

You might have noticed that I didn't give the price of the wine, and that's because as far as I know, no one sells it. Clarke says that perhaps 25 cases come in each year, and so far, only restaurants buy it. When I asked why no retailers have bought it he said "This is the ultimate hand-sell - an over $30 white wine from the Languedoc."

I guess there are hand-sells on the importer/distributor side of the business too. There are hand-sells everywhere, come to think of it. I need to think about this more, but it occurs to me that most of the interesting and good things in life are hand-sells.


Debra Morgan said...

One of the biggest losses of the recent economy has been the loss of the hand-sell. Many restaurants and wine shops cut back on staff last year, giving the remaining ones less time to spend with guests.
As times get better, I hope the owners who were forced to make staff cuts find the time to train those that remain, or hire-up.

Great post btw.

Scott Reiner said...

mas julien is amazing, white and red. the rose is nice, but not the same level, imo.

also look out for his father's wines from mas cal demoura. also by rosenthal.

Unknown said...

With most wine coming out of the Languedoc priced well below $20, a wine priced in the over $30 range does become a hand-sell just because of consumer and possibly wine buyers perceptions.

There are plenty of producers like Henri Milan making fantastic wines from exceptional vineyards in La Clape, La Liviniere, part of Pic St Loup and in the Roussillion that should be rewarded for their efforts. But for now these wines remain hand sell catagory

Kathe said...

I'm curious about Peter's take on ICSWI. Quite a few of the producers were stranded due to that volcano, but I'd rather grounded in New Orleans than most other places. There were some GREAT champagnes there.