By now, the effect of “expert” opinion on runaway consumer spending has washed away in the flood waters of billion dollar Ponzi schemes and predatory lending.  Now, all of the lip service in the world from talking heads about “recovery” this and weak “holiday spending” that doesn’t mask the fact that we’re living in a new reality, in more ways than one.

This “new reality” is reflected in two ways – first, immediate, tangible sales.  And, second, the process through which people make their wine purchase decisions.

It seems as if the age of consumer excess that occurred over the last decade has given way to, dare I say it, a more quaint way of doing business.

Trust_1The glory days of stamping “92 points!” on a case stack and watching it fly it out the door have come and gone like house values.

Second, the opinion of an unfamiliar distant voice, an alleged wise voice, simply doesn’t carry the weight that it used to.

In fact, I’ve heard a chorus of distant trumpets recently, their echoing wail acting as a clarion call for the fall of our industry’s once revered palates, rendering them, at the very least, less relevant.

With these twin trends of more judicious spending and a lack of institutional trust, you could suggest that, as a wine retailer, I should be wallowing in misery.  Quite the opposite, however – I couldn’t be happier.

Don’t misunderstand me, the old boys do indeed have a depth of knowledge and experience that few will ever be able to claim, and some will always trust their word above all others. Many consumers, however, are simply soiled on the entire concept of accepting counsel from so-called experts.

The immediate by-product of this trend towards a more personal well of knowledge and advice is a much welcome return to the “shop keeper” approach to retail; an ode to the days of your trusted local merchant.

While, yes, your local guy may get beaten by a dollar on price from the national, mega-retailer down the street, he offers something that they cannot– he KNOWS you.

It sounds so simple.

Your retailer knows your palate (or wants to learn it). He knows you only like New Zealand Sauv Blanc with food. He understands your collecting habits and knows exactly what you want in your cellar. He knows that your boss prefers Highland single-malt whisky to Islay. He knows that you will probably enjoy this Washington cab more than that California cab because you like yours with a bit more minerality. He knows how to make a dynamite chocolate martini, just the way you like it. He makes it his business, nay, his personal MISSION to know what you like, your habits and idiosyncrasies.  He knows to have some extra bottles of that Cava you like in stock this year because it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving. Simply put, aside from your family, accountant and Doctor, he may know more about you than anybody else, based on your consumption habits.

That’s a job that nobody can replicate, not even a vaunted palate in Monkton, Maryland.

Recently, I had a frequent customer joke to her friend, “Is it weird that my wine guy knows me better than my husband?” While I’m good, I certainly can’t replicate pillow talk.  But, more and more I am hearing “Well, what did you think?” Or, “Will I like this?” I am tickled every time these words are uttered. It shows that my clients not only respect my professional opinion, but also that they know I have taken the time to understand what THEY enjoy in a wine, regardless of whether or not it is something that I personally enjoy.

trust_2It is important that wine professionals, especially at retail, take this responsibility seriously, as trust is a rare and extremely valuable commodity these days.

Likewise, from a retailer’s perspective it feels good to be able to look someone in the face and know that you wouldn’t sacrifice your integrity or their professional faith in you just to make a buck, especially in a business such as ours that’s predicated on one small sale after another.

No, the rewards are much richer than a quick sale.  We are the end of a long day. We are a romantic evening at home and a personal reward. We are a thank you and a happy birthday. We are good tidings and merriment.

Who would dare soil those things?

Every day it’s all over the news. Somewhere someone is scamming somebody. Lives destroyed for financial gain at the cost of nothing less than one’s very soul. It’s a sad day when we can’t trust people to do the right thing simply because it is the right things to do.  As someone charged with the noble duty of knowing each and every one of my clients on a personal level, I take great pride in being their spring of wine and spirits knowledge.  That in and of itself is worth its weight in gold, and is not something any retailer worth their salt would ever be willing to trade.

If you don’t have your own trusted relationship with a wine shop, go start one today and take charge of your own “new reality.”

LouisCLouis Calli has been involved in the wine industry for over a decade in several capacities. He currently works as a Wine Director for 21st Amendment Wine and Spirits located in Indianapolis Indiana. When he’s not enjoying vino he spends his time hiking with his pooch Frankie, and working on expanding his impressive collection of sweater vests.

Edited by Jeff Lefevere.

15 Responses

  1. Paul Rickett

    Lovely piece and so true. I run a small winestore in a small market. My customers aren’t even interested in what the big guys say. I polled a few wine stores in Canada and USA recently about who influences every day buying (not collectors), it was a very small poll and totally unscientific but outside of the Parkers there is little if no buying influence except for some local wine writers who have established themselves via print media first. None of us could discern any significant (or, in most cases, any at all) buying influence from non-pro bloggers as yet.

    Perhaps any buying influence caused by bloggers is flowing to the mail order/large format retailers where the customer is largely left to themselves to decide on what to buy but its not evident at the smaller, boutique level.

    Customers still prefer the experience of someone knowing them and their tastes. With that comes the confidence to take recommendations, not only for wines that they will like but haven’t yet tried but also for wines and varietals they would never have selected without the personal recommendation. There’s still a huge trust factor in wine buying.

    Be interested to hear from other stores whether they are seeing an impact from bloggers and other non-traditional prognosticators like @garyvee. Where there is influence is it coming from ‘remote’ or ‘local’ bloggers?

    As Gen Y moves further into its wine years, I’d expect them to find out more about wine from the blogosphere but I suspect that the person of a competent wine seller has a long future.

  2. tricerapops

    great piece, and as a consumer – i would agree. i have befriended a number of wine merchants in town, and these are the guys/gals i speak to when i visit their stores. i treat wine shopping like i treat dining out for sushi – i only go to places i’m familiar with and have a rapport with the folks behind the counter. what’s assuring to me, when speaking to a retailer – is when they are genuinely excited about a bottle or takes the time out to provide thoughtful suggestions. at the end of the day – i believe that the merchants i’m dealing with are stocking bottles they themselves have tried and enjoy – so they’re not selling me swill.

  3. The Wine Mule

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but in our shop, customers still come in looking for wine that have been recommended by Parker, or by John & Dorothy at the WSJ. There are still plenty of customers who buy wine by the numbers. As for the rest of it, I’m mildly insulted: Our business exists because customers trust us to give them honest advice. It’s not like we’ve suddenly become fashionable; we do what we’ve always done.

  4. JwineNY

    WineMule.. That kind if speaks for itself. I don’t think the author meant anything other than a friendly reminder of the importance of honesty. If your “wine by the numbers” strategy works for you, then great!

    I for one look for wine studs, not wine mules. So you keep printing your spectator shelf tags, and I’ll buy from this guy.

    John <3 Wine NYC

  5. Justin

    Nice article, and well said. I think for many people, they do not immiedately trust their wine guy or gal b/c of so many other negative experiences they’ve had with salesmen, people working on commission, etc.
    A lot of casual shoppers don’t always know the passion and personal interest wine retailers have. Of course, it’s our job to show them that.

  6. leanne aldrich

    Loved this article. It is so true. I am lucky enough to have two such “true” wine shops near to me. Having someone who knows my palate make suggestions on new items in the store is fantastic. The individual attention and everything else that goes w/ the “mom and pop mentality is great. Keep the liquor barns, who needs the generic truck load wine there are so many great affordable wines that are waiting to be discovered. A small local wine purveyer is where you will find them. Remember less is more!

  7. Wine Naturalist

    Great Article! JwineNY, great comment about a retailer who lacks self confidence. Shop owners taste just as much, and often more wine than wine writers. They meet wine growers and Sale reps (who are hopefully and most often knowledgeable if they’re selling real wine), and seek out information all over the web and books because it really matters to them. Because they love wine and love being able to give their customers something they believe in. Because consumers actually prefer to buy a wine with a story like: This comes from a 5th generation family of growers, farming organically in the vineyard where Great, Great, Great Grandpa turned back Napoleons army, as opposed to: This wine got a 93 from a fat pothead who smokes cigars and can’t even get anything to register on his “Rambo Palate” unless has 14.5% alcohol (preferrably 15%) and 10g rs.

  8. Evan DiSilva

    I’ve been a collector (mainly boutique CA stuff) for years, and you sir have just earned yourself a new client. Let me know how to contact you. Great article!

  9. Cab Daddy

    Mr. Calli does have a wonderful palette. He also does understand that integrity and honesty is the best policy. I have watched him work for many years and it is good to see that he is back in the wine business not in the window business. True gift for writing, wine tasting, and wine sales.

    He will pick you a winner Evan- and I agree ratings are overated. True wine talent is hard to come by and when you find someone that you can trus forget about WS, WE, and Parker. I’ll take Louis’s choice way before anyone else.


  10. merlotman

    (Smiling with you) I would like to think..instilling trust in my customer, they come in better equiped to make choices, smart phones, pda’s etc. But (a big but) They want to hear our opinions, have we tasted, what do wwe think? It works and it is a pleasure to help steer them down the wine road………….