Thursday, June 17, 2010

More Tales from the Dark Side: Wine Retail Horror Stories

Ready for some more strange retail stories? Weird advice from the folks in the trenches? I know I am. Sorry if I sound like a flippant jerk, but here's the thing: it's easy for me to think that every wine store is like Chambers Street or Uva or Slope Cellars. When you are shopping at these stores and you have a question, the people who work there will answer it honestly or tell you that they don't know the answer. But sometimes the hunt for a specific wine leads me away from those stores and the few others like them, to random friendly neighborhood wine shops, and I am reminded that all is not right in the vast world of wine retail.

People love to answer questions, even if they have no idea of the factual answer. People love to criticize without any context regarding the object of their criticism. People love to make blanket statements that are misleading, and may or may not pertain to the issues at hand. And friends, I'm not speaking of the fine men and women who serve our country as United States Senators or Congressmen. I'm speaking of the people who work in our friendly neighborhood wine retail shops. And although you and I aren't really hurt by this because often times we know what we're looking for, imagine what transpires between these folks and 95% of the customers, people who just want a little advice on what to drink.

I think it is the responsibility of the wine store owner and manager to make sure that the sales staff knows something about the wines being sold. It's risky to make things up when asked a question because sometimes we customers can tell that you're making up the answer. And this does little to build trust between you, the seller, and us, the buyers. I'm not at all suggesting that retailers, or anyone else, should know everything. But if you are asked a question and don't know the answer, just say so. Ask another employee, ask the manager, or just leave it at that - "I don't know" is a fine answer, when it's the truth.

Some of the things I've been told by retailers lately make me feel very sad. If I had accepted these things as truth, as I'm guessing 95% of customers do when speaking with wine sales staff, I would be ignorant of my own ignorance (probably already true, but that's another story). Here are a few recent tales, Wine Retail Horror Stories... (I would love to insert drops of blood or something here, but Blogger for some reason does not enable that function).

They Shouldn't do that in the Jura
I was shopping at a large store in lower Manhattan, looking to buy a few bottles of Jacques Puffeney's 2007 Trousseau. There was only one bottle on the shelf, and the wax seal was a cracked mess. I asked a sales guy if he had more bottles. "How many do you want," he asked. "I'd like three," I said. "Okay, I'll grab two from downstairs.""Actually, the wax on this bottle is cracked and I want to cellar these for a while, so if you don't mind, I'd like three bottles from downstairs. I'm hoping for intact wax seals." Yes, I was being somewhat anal, but the point of the wax seal, as opposed to the typical capsule, is to prevent air from getting into the wine bottle.

The sales guy then says "They shouldn't do that in the Jura. The wax seals are always breaking and they don't do anything for the wine anyway. There's no difference whether or not the wax is chipped."

Now, I'm no scientist, but everything that guy said sounds wrong to me. Was he simply too tired to haul a third bottle from downstairs? Was he angry at the Jura and the lovely people who live there? Why say these things? I realized at this point that further conversation was pointless, and simply said "Fine, but I'd like three bottles with intact seals, if that's okay."

Doesn't that seem like a strange thing to say to a customer? That's a New Thing They're Doing in the Jura
Recently I was poking around in a wine store on the upper-west-side, a neighborhood joint that I had never before stepped into. Not the same store where I witnessed the Jura/Jurançon debacle, but it was the same afternoon. The selection was very good, and there were some slightly older vintages mixed in with the usual assortment of '07s, '06s, and '05s. I stumbled across a few bottles of 2000 Domaine de Montbourgeau L'Étoile Cuvée Spéciale, a delicious Jura Chardonnay made in the oxidized style. Two of the three bottles on the shelf had no vintage labels, the third had the 2000 banner at the top. Wow, I thought, I might have stumbled on a great deal here - the price is right. But wait - none of the bottles had wax capsules, and I felt as though Montbourgeau's wines always have wax seals at the top. Maybe these bottles were from an original shipment that arrived 6 or 7 years ago. I asked the very nice guy who had already competently answered other questions - "Have these wines been in the store for a while or are they newly released?"

"Oh these are new," he said.

"And this is the Cuvée Spéciale, the one made in the oxidized style," I asked. This was mostly to keep the conversation going, to help me to determine whether or not I could believe anything else he said about the wine.

"Oxidized style?" he asked. "This isn't oxidized. Why do you say that?"

Okay, so he doesn't know the wine. Whatever, maybe I can find out whether they bought it as a library release or if it had been sitting there for the last 6 years. So I said "But is this something you recently bought, or is this something that's been in the store for a while?"

"This is brand new wine," he said. "That's a brand new thing they're doing in the Jura."

I'm sorry, but if you're selling something you should know what it is. That's not asking too much - that's a very basic standard. Again, it's all well and good not to know something, but why pretend, like this guy did? Can you imagine how much nonsensical "information" is going out everyday to unsuspecting customers at their local wine retail shops...

Wine is Wine
When searching (in vain) recently for a specific bottle of Sigalas Santorini, I went to a wine store that I'd never heard of in Manhattan, just because an internet search said that the store carried the wine. I should have called to confirm before going, but I didn't. When they didn't actually have the wine in stock, the manager took an interesting tactic. He basically tried to make me feel like an idiot for desiring it.

"Why would you want Sigalas 06," he said. "That wine is dead now anyway."

"Hmmm," I said. "I tasted one recently that was delicious."

"No, you don't want that. Get a different wine," he said. "I have another Santorini wine back there now."

"Yeah, but it's the Sigalas specifically that I wanted."

The guy then said "Sigalas thinks he is doing something special, but he's not. Wine is wine, right?"

What can you really say to that? And how many people get their wine wisdom from this guy? Not every store can staff up with the best and brightest, obviously, but this is all too common at our neighborhood spots.

Am I wrong? Am I expecting too much? What do you think - how is the service at your neighborhood joint?


Anonymous said...


From what I know Jacques was extremely happy with some of the wax he was using a few years ago and recently switched to another kind that didn't chip as easily. Seems it was causing no amount of headaches for retailers and distributors. So for what it's worth, you may have have been the way for the retailer to take out his frustration on this. Or maybe the guy was just an ass.

- Cory

Timothy Lock said...

hmmm, well, yes i've certainly come across this in the less established/niche wine shops (i.e. the straight up lying), which is frustrating, but i actually find the your third experience even more frustrating (i.e. someone trying to TELL the customer what they want) since the first can just be written off to cluelessness, but the latter is arrogance. This has even happened to me at Astor, specifically when they "man up" for the holidays.

a classic example was last year i went in to buy a couple bottles of Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Peters seeing they had a slightly better deal than Chambers. When i asked to the salesman to point them out to me (store was packed) he quickly told me that i wouldn't like them and literally put a bottle of Veuve in my hand. I handed it back to him and said i'd go get the wine i was looking for elsewhere...this has not been the only instance of this.

god bless Chambers and Slope Cellars!

The Wine Mule said...

You are anal. The condition of the wax doesn't make a damned bit of difference.

Brooklynguy said...

Mule - yes, i am anal. but you have to explain yourself - why use the wax if it serves no purpose as a seal? you are saying it is purely aesthetic? i highly doubt that. what are you saying, exactly?

Deetrane said...

Gonna jump in here, it's been a while.

OK, Brooklynguy - this is hands down the most anal and melodramatic post you've written in 2010. I love you to death, but jesus christ. Oh HORROR, the guy at the wine store doesn't know anything about Jura wines?!

a) First of all, hardly anyone does, other than you and your pals, and I wholeheartedly applaud you for it. But the guy making $10.50 an hour working in some undistinguished shop somewhere is probably doing this as a job, plain and simple, and that's it. He most likely has little of the passion that you or even I have, in terms of exploring and thinking about and understanding the origin and traditions of what we're drinking. That's right - the retail folks who do share that passion are instead earning $12.50 an hour at Chambers St, where the exposure to world class wine and the accumulation of real wine knowledge is at least partial recompense for the fact that wine retailing is at best a breakeven business for owners, and labor of love for hired staff. (Donning flame-proof jacket now, Chambers St people - I honestly have no idea how much you make, but we all know you up careers in investment banking and Hollywood to do what you do, so it's not like its a secret or anything). Anyway, Neil - cut the average retail guy some slack, not everyone lunches with William Fevre at Jean Georges on Tuesday mornings or goes clubbing in the meatpacking with Jacques Puffeney.

b) Most wine consumers probably don't understand or need the kind of factual knowledge about regions or growing conditions or elevage techniques - what they need is to be steered towards something good, that they enjoy, that will keep them coming back to wine. Chances are, more of the folks who walk into that random east side store will like the stuff he is pushing more than what you or I might seek out. Because real enthusiasts won't often be in that store.

c) Um - what's the laydown window for the 2007 Trousseau? Maybe 10 years, 15 max? You don't need a wax capsule. Its overkill from a preservation perspective, especially now when you can buy a ChinaCave at Home Depot. But it's utter marketing when it's being sold in a store like the one you were at. It's like those little gold threads on the Lopez de Heredia - a little sumpin sumpin to stand out in the crowd.

The market clearly has many levels, and I think it is necessary to have many different combinations of price, quality and information to support all the market segments and maximize sales. Honestly - I can't believe you even need help in a wine store. I certainly don't (unless I'm saying, "um, excuse me, can you reach that bottle of Blaufrankisch on the lower-middle shelf way up there?").

But what I do need now is to try one of those wax-capsule Trousseaus. Sounds yummy!

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

"Wine is wine, right?" - Ah, to had been with you that day...I would have burst out laughing.

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

Oh, and King Krak is sending out his minions to destroy all wax capsules; they displease him greatly.

Nicole said...

Ok, so I follow your blog kind of off and on when I have time but I thought I'd say something on this post. I'm a retail store employee and I kind of agree with you about the BS that goes around. I work in a retail store part time because I'm interested in wine and I want to improve my wine knowledge so that I can bring it back to the restaurant and blog world. Most of the people I work with just take one or two of the comments myself or my manager gives them and then make up whatever else. It's just a job and they don't really care all that much about the little details. Even at good wine stores, the pay kind of sucks for your average employee so once the knowledge has been accumulated, it's onto somewhere else. There's too many stores and not enough people enthusiastic enough about wine who are willing to work for those low wages. It's just the reality of things I'm afraid as far as I've noticed:( I try to be honest with people and sell them a wine I've tried and I hope they'll like but I've definately been guilty of stretching wine facts and apparently I'm considered pretty knowledgeable on the subject....
Also, many wine stores don't offer much of an opportunity to try alot of the wines so it's pretty hard giving someone the wine they want when you've tried only a few of the hundreds of bottles on the shelves.

Anonymous said...

I sent my mom to a store with the suggestion that she try the ONLY Pineau d'aunis they stocked. She did not know where to look and asked a salesperson who promptly sold her a bottle of Pineau des Charentes. Not even the same color.

Brooklynguy said...

nicole, jack, anon - thanks for thoughtful comments.

dan - i keep re-reading your comment and i get no closer to appreciating the arguments you make. i think you are missing the point of what i wrote. Jura is incidental. insert napa cab and the point is still that people make things up, and often don't know their merchandise. forgiving them because they make low wages is all well and good, but the customers who don't know there is something to forgive (95% of customers those people deal with) - they are the ones getting hurt.

and wax seals - it's tradition, which is important. to dismiss them without any knowledge of or appreciation of that is kind of foolish. and some wine makers say that this type of seal is necessary when the wine is protected primarily with carbon dioxide - there can be no exchange of gases, CO2 cannot be allowed to escape. and, um, when Jura wine makers think about marketing, it will be the first time they think about marketing, so that's not it either.

i need help in wine stores all the time! i need to hear from the people who work there and know the wines (at good stores, anyway). if i'm going to try something new and it costs more than $15 (although I ask all the time about under $15 bottles too), I like to hear their advice.

also - your tone is false, demeaning, and highly obnoxious. keep it to yourself next time.

Anonymous said...

I don't go into Home Depot and expect every last salesperson to be an expert in every dept., that's unrealistic. Do your own research.

Brooklynguy said...

yeah, you don't want them to make things up if they don't know something, either.

dea1936 said...

How can you possibly expect everyone to have such thorough knowledge at large stores? I prefer to find an expert and I seek them out whenever I need help. This has always worked for me. Life's too short to get worked up over this.

Director, Lab Outreach said...

Hey Neil, I don't like being lied to either. Here's the small truth I know about wax seals. I think they are mostly just about the history. I suppose you could make an argument that they provide a back-up system for when cork fails. When cork works -- in spite of some of the myths out there -- all the science says there is zero oxygen transfer from outside the bottle to the wine. So the problem -- with corks in general -- is when they don't work. When they swell and shrink and get soaked with wine and create a channel for oxygenation. I guess an intact wax seal might provide an air-tight(ish) barrier against a failed (not flawed) cork. But a Stelvin closure would be better. Even in the Jura. Or Jurancon. Can never remember which is which. ;-).

J David

PS. Happy Father's Day!

Deetrane said...

Neil - you caught me - my tone was indeed false. I was pretending to be obnoxiously outraged and I'm sorry you took it so seriously. I should be more careful not to offend.

That said, Nicole and Dea1936 seem to have echoed some of the sentiments I offered.

Sophieb. said...

In the first 10 minutes of my first day at Chambers Street (literally... I'm not exaggerating), I was told never to lie if I didn't know. It was impressed on me in no uncertain terms by one of my bosses that saying "I don't know" when asked a challenging question is infinitely better than making up an answer. Coming from Astor, where the only person who has tasted most of the wines is the buyer who never works on the sales floor, which necessitates some fibbing and embellishment on the part of the sales people, I found this championing of honestly extremely refreshing. This is why we make the big bucks at Chambers... so we can tell you we don't know!

Cliff said...

I seem to recall hearing Puffeney's answer as some combination of tradition and class. I have heard of Burgundy producers starting to use wax to try to ward off the pox, though I don't think there are good grounds for thinking wax will keep air out (not that I've seen any studies).

I'd say you'd have been on stronger ground asking for bottles from the basement that hadn't seen room temperatures. I can imagine a wine store getting annoyed if people refused chipped wax on that Trousseau, given how easily it chips.

By the way, it's a beautiful wine.

Deetrane said...

One further note on wax capsules - maybe its the wax - but I just bought a lot of six wax-covered bottles at auction. From the 1996 vintage. And litterally all but one of them were already chipped, or cracked and about to chip. The wax they use seems to be very hard, not pliable like candle wax.

keithlevenberg said...

I believe it's well-established that the wax seals are totally oxygen-permeable so they really don't make any difference other than aesthetic. It's worth mentioning that most producers keep bottles in their own cellars for years without capsules or wax, and only put on the tops when the bottles are rolled out for sale. That said, we all have a right to be anal about anything we want to be anal about, without which no "collecting" hobby would be possible. If you want triple-mint wax, then the guy should find a bottle with triple-mint wax. It does seem to make a slight difference in resale value, for what it's worth. Although if it's the hard plastic-type wax instead of the pliable rubbery kind, cracks and chips at the slightest tap of the bottle are inevitable.

Cliff said...

What Keith said

Cat said...

I think I would have been worried about the conditions in the guy's storage room. Cracked seals and lack of knowledge (especially the "wine is wine" guy) don't give you much confidence that they are storing the wine in ideal conditions, especially in a place that gets as hot and humid as New York City.