Stylin’ with wine How we buy, order wine needs to be user-friendly
I was watching the couple next to me at the restaurant where I was eating. They were looking at the wine list. Of the 50 wines listed almost half were Cabernet Sauvignon. It was clear they didn’t know much about wine, but they had heard of Cabernet Sauvignon. All right, but which one? Why were there so many and what were the differences?
The waiter was less than helpful. He pointed to two or three of the more expensive ones, mentioned the words “bold” and “flavorful” and asked if they were ready to order. They ordered dinner but decided to skip the wine altogether. Later, I heard the man mention it was their anniversary. He had wanted to order wine but didn’t want to pay so much for something he wasn’t sure he would enjoy.
Could we make buying wine any more confusing, intimidating or embarrassing? For years, people inside the wine business have talked about the need to create a bigger base of wine- drinking consumers, all the while maintaining what is practically the equivalent of a secret society. If you don’t know the secret wink, private handshake and the never-to-be-spoken-out-loud password, well then, you deserve what you get.
Where did it go so wrong?
In America we label wines using what is called a varietal system. We name the wine after the principle grape used in its production. Wines labeled Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon all employ the named grape as the principle ingredient in the specific wine. But that still won’t tell you what the wine will taste like.
It is even more confusing with European wines. There the wines are typically labeled after the region from which they are produced but do not mention the grapes used. If you don’t know that Sauvignon Blanc is the grape of Sancerre or Chardonnay the grape of Burgundy, well, the label is not going to tell you. Depending on what kind of store you purchase the wine in, the store clerk may not have a clue, either. Would you buy food that way? How about a CD? You know it will have music on it; you just have no idea what kind.
In a typical American wine shop or restaurant, the wines are arranged by varietal categories; all the Chardonnays are lumped together, the Zinfandels interwoven, the Cabernet Sauvignons strung in a long list. That might work if you know what variety you want. But even then, within each variety is a range of styles. As all Chardonnay drinkers know, the wines can range from lean, tart and unoaked to creamy, buttery and heavily oaked. A Zinfandel can be light-bodied, medium-bodied, full-bodied or in the case of Late Harvest Zinfandel, even sweet. How are you supposed to know which bottle is most suited to your preference style?
It’s time to change the way we sell wine. It’s time to sell wine by its style, not its place of origin or its varietal make up. Most wine drinkers know what style of wine they like. What they don’t know is which wines offer what style.
Suppose on the restaurant wine list, instead of listing the reds by varietal they were listed by light, medium or full-bodied style. You might then have Cabernet Sauvignon in all three categories. You could easily have Zinfandel, Syrah or even Merlot with choices in each of the categories.
Then, going back to our restaurant scene, once having determined which style you prefer, the waiter can confidently recommend any wine listed in that category, regardless of varietal or place of origin, as being to the customer’s liking. Not only is it easier for the waiter to make the sale, but the customer, reassured they will like the wine, is much more willing to experiment, trying wines they would never otherwise try.
There are several ways to divide wines into style categories. In their newly published book Wine Style, authors Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy use 12 categories. They use four white categories including fresh and unoaked, earthy, aromatic, and rich and oaky. Reds include mild mannered, soft and fruity, fresh and spicy, and finally, powerful reds. They have two categories for rosé and two for sparkling wines. They house every wine in the world in one of those boxes. Anyone looking to experiment in a range of unfamiliar wines will find this book useful in not only finding great wines but wines that will also taste great to them.
WineStyles is a chain of franchise wine shops (now over 100 stores) that organizes its wines into similar categories. The founder recognized that many wine drinkers are caught in an odd predicament. They like to experiment but too often end up with wines they don’t like. They stop experimenting and go back to the wines they know.
WineStyles’ strategy opens up the world of wine to their customers while ensuring they continue to get wines they will enjoy. Julie and Eric Moreland own a WineStyles store in Granite Bay. Julie explained “The organization of our store empowers our guests to confidently select their own wine by shopping in the section that suits their taste the best.” After a few questions Julie understands your style preference. She can then point you to an area of her store saying, “You’ll be happy with any wine from this section.”
The Melting Pot is a Roseville restaurant that has a “progressive-style” wine list. Their categories are similar, whites that are crisp and lively, sweet and fruity or stylish and mellow. Red categories include soft and silky, rich and velvety or bold and classic. Chad Snyder is a waiter there.
I asked him about working with it: “Well, speaking strictly from a waiter’s prospective, I love our progressive wine list, especially when the list is as large as ours. It’s difficult for me to be knowledgeable about all those wines. But with our list, I ask what kind of wine they typically like and then suggest something comparable in style. It’s a great way for our customers to try something new but still familiar.”
Never, in the history of the world, have we had as many choices of wines, and with the increased choices, we’re increasingly confused. It’s expensive to experiment with wines. A bottle of wine in a restaurant can easily be the equivalent of taking two extra people to dinner.
Most of us are too intimidated to ask many questions first and too embarrassed to send it back later. If the wine industry really wants to promote wine as part of the culture of dining in this country it needs to find a better way of matching people’s preferences to what’s in the bottle.
One final note: Grape Affair is coming. It’s never too early to mark your calendar. Most of the Nevada County wineries are getting together for a wine event at Smith Winery on Saturday, June 3. Call any local winery or go to http://www.northernsierrawinecountry.com for details. You’re going to want to go.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 530-913-3703.
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