When I was starting my wine career, I worked at and eventually managed a wine shop in Brooklyn.
There I learned first and foremost how to communicate with customers of all levels of wine knowledge, in spite of my own tendency toward know-it-all-ism. Even though I knew my way around reds and whites, I found that my geekiness was actually a roadblock for getting to know a customer’s needs. They became intimidated or flustered, and often apologetic, for not knowing how to talk to me.
Often, they’d settle for a subpar bottle rather than engage in more awkward conversation with the wine guy (me) who was too pedantic to hear that they just wanted a wine to go with dinner.
Hoping to shift my approach, I started encouraging people to “drink what you like.” While it helped put people at ease, I quickly learned that this did not improve things much.
“Drink what you like” is a popular axiom in the wine biz, but what if customers don’t actually know what they like? I soon learned that when it comes to wine, knowing what you don’t like is as important as what you do.
Instead of asking novices and advanced wine buffs what they liked — especially as I transitioned into writing about wine rather than selling it — I started each conversation by asking what they didn’t. I found that most people had a laundry list of flavors, aromas and textures they avoided, impressively rattled off with aplomb. And then they’d stop, apologize and say, “but I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about wine. Can you help?”
The apology always baffled me. They already knew a lot about wine, as it pertained to their tastes.
As I undertake this wine column, it is my sincere hope that I can get you to stop apologizing for not knowing about wine. To help you trust your own palate, your own gut.
That’s more important than my opinion, any day. When I was selling wine, the only skin I had in the game was getting customers a bottle they liked, so they would keep coming back for more. In all my years in the wine industry, this is the only 100 percent truth I took away (aside from wine being wonderful): No one wants to sell you a bottle you’re going to hate.
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You’re likely to have a visceral reaction to the things you dislike. Maybe you scrunch your nose when you smell a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but can’t describe what aroma set you off. Or perhaps sipping oaky chardonnay sends you searching for some water. Knowing this, you are likely to avoid these things, and you’re armed with knowledge about your own preferences.
This is powerful stuff. Communicating your preferences to sommeliers or wine shop clerks helps them avoid pouring those bottles. Remember, these are the folks who have likely tasted the merchandise. They’re the ones making the wine list or drafting the tasting notes on the shelf, and they want to earn your trust. They can (and should) steer you away from qualities that turn you off.
Don’t fear having an aversion to specific flavors and aromas. Not every bottle of wine is perfect for everyone, and they aren’t bad, per se — they’re just not for you. It’s easier to say no to flavors that don’t turn your gears. It’s a process of elimination that one day yields knowledge.
When I started my love affair with wine, it was a struggle to describe the ephemeral, fleeting, intangible qualities of certain bottles. I could tell I was drinking liquid poetry, but I didn’t know how to understand or communicate it.
Over many empty bottles, I picked up a vocabulary. Sweetness became residual sugar; tartness became high acidity. Barnyard? Thank brett aka brettanomyces, a naturally occurring bacteria that contributes characteristic funkiness to wine and beer. As you sip and learn more, you eventually become more conversant.
My tip? Don’t be afraid to start with the negatives. To flip the script on a popular fairy tale, it takes kissing a lot of frogs to find your prince, or in this case, your preferred style and type of wine.
“I know I don’t like funky, I don’t like pinot noir, and I don’t want to spend more than $20.” While this sounds terribly dismissive or critical, it does help the wine clerk eliminate a percentage of her inventory. Her job is, actually, made easier: She will mentally block these picks as she helps narrow your focus. In the process, she may even find you bottles you didn’t know you wanted. Creating boundaries can lead to creative problem-solving.
I know this to be true. As I got on in the wine shop, I became a better listener. Customers told me what they didn’t want that evening — sweet German riesling, say — and I’d show them a bottle of Loire sauvignon blanc, Italian vermentino or California chenin blanc, a narrowing of choices to a select few that skewed opposite of what they didn’t like or want. Or, if I felt challenged to expand their horizons and be a little contrarian, I’d show off a bottle of dry Finger Lakes riesling, ideally to combat any negative associations they had with riesling and its assumed sweetness.
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More often than not, my approach of leading with dislikes created a rapport with repeat customers. Of course, it helped that I started to understand their preferences, but even more important, they began to command a vocabulary of their own.
It was always a good day when a regular came in and said, “I liked that wine. Show me more.”