Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Retailer's Responsibility or Being Overly Dogmatic?

Recently I was hanging out with a couple of friends who work on the retail side of the wine industry, as store owner and employee, respectively. During our conversation the subject of a retailers responsibility to the consumer came up. While that is admittedly a broad topic with regards to what you sell the consumer, the relationship you have with them, and where you steer their palates (for the new wine drinkers), the guys and I focused on the wines retailers hand-sell and recommend.

Why did this come up?

At the shop my friend owns, a local winery was pouring several wines, including a 2010 pinot noir. I tasted the pinot noir and put bluntly, it was not good wine. This 2010 pinot didn't taste like it should, based on the growing season Oregon experienced in that year. It lacked acidity and had no tannin, being instead soft and fruity, with a one-dimensional black fruit flavors and an evaporative finish. There was a perceptible ethyl acetate presence on the nose as well. Blind, I might have pegged it for a cheap pinot from Trader Joe's or Wal-Mart, but it sells for about $20. The wine was definitely not representative of Oregon pinot noir.

To that end, is it ok for the wine store to sell a wine like this? By selling pinot noir of such low quality, does that do a disservice to people who are buying what they think is a good expression of Oregon pinot? Those buyers may not know wine well enough to realize that this pinot isn't good, but there's an implied endorsement anytime a retailer stocks a wine. When I walk into a wine store, I trust the owner and employees to stand behind the wines they sell, it's an unwritten but incredibly significant contract.

Conversely, if the customer likes it, is that all that matters? Should those neophyte wine drinkers worry about whether or not a wine is "correct"?

During our friendly debate, my position was firm; stocking a wine like this and willfully selling it to customers is wrong, especially when there are similarly priced, higher quality alternatives available.

My friends position was that if someone wanted to buy it and liked it, there was nothing wrong with that. They also brought up the fact that a wine like this could be a good introduction to Oregon pinot noirs, whereby a neophyte wine drinker would slowly move up the ladder to better examples. I see where they're coming from, and that approach, building relationships with your customers slowly and over time, yields great results.

At what point do you draw the line with sub-standard wines though? If a wine is lacking varietal character and vintage typicity, shouldn't someone say something? I think that's where the contention was, and the source of our disagreement. Both guys admitted the wine wasn't great and they've each tasted enough 2010 Oregon pinot noir to get an idea of what the vintage expresses.

The reason I'm wrote this blog post is because I wonder if I'm being too dogmatic? Am I being too snobby by discounting this inferior wine? At the end of the day, if someone likes it, does that make the wine good?

Beau Carufel


  1. I don't think you're being snobby by discounting the wine.

    I liken your example to food. You may love beets...I, on the other hand, can't even stand the sight of them (I shudder when I see them in the grocery store and won't touch them...I hate them that much). The same is true for wine. What I find to be good, you may find inferior/unpalatable/etc. It's all within our personal preferences and where those preferences lie.

    One's education in wine is always evolving, as there's always a new producer, new style, a new varietal...hell, even a new vintage to explore, so if a consumer is truly savvy, they won't discount their experience based on one particular bottle/vintage/producer/style/etc.

    1. Using your example of beets, the question I then have is this: If you were looking to buy beets (for some reason), would you want me to steer your towards the good ones or sell you some other beet that was inferior?

    2. I would probably trust you in that situation, as I'd be completely and brutally honest in saying that I'm not a fan and I don't know the inherent differences.

  2. As a retailer who handpicks most of the wines we sell I totally buy into your "implied endorsement" concept. That said, the customer is, as they say, always right. Our job is to guide and educate but not to dictate their taste. We can suggest and recommend but at the end of the day we have to sublimate our taste to the customer preference if we are to stay in business. Therefore I carry many wines, that I personally may not rave about, but are wildly popular with my customers.

    Noted that the local winery was doing the pouring so how did they address your concerns? Also how did the customers react to the wine? Did they buy lots after tasting? If they did then I'd bow to the wisdom of the crowd, if they didn't I'd be taking some action to clear it out quickly and move on.

    FWIW, I did a study on what influences a customer's wine selection once in a store. It's downloadable at "It's All About Trust" - there's some neat stuff about how different demo/psychographics rely on disparate influences. This was published in 2010 and I gave a presentation at Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival in 2011 that adds to it.

    1. Hey Paul, I agree..the customer is always right, even when they're wrong. It's the age-old retailers dilemma, if you stock your store with only things that you like, you'll go bankrupt. I suppose I am striving for a middle ground, where the wine seller can steer their customers towards better wines, or at least try. The opposite of that, just letting the customers pick out a wine and blindly endorsing it as good, is something that bothers me to no end.

      I didn't talk to the rep from the winery and I don't know the sales history that night. Anecdotal evidence suggests this producer is locally-known but doesn't have a reputation for good wines. Given the crowd that shops at the store I references though, the wines might be perfectly acceptable even though they're "incorrect".

      I'll checkout your study, thanks for posting it and for taking the time to comment.