December 07, 2007

Wine Anxiety

Are you ever reluctant to buy a wine because of what the wine shop staff will think?

I know I am, and I’m not alone. In fact, I recently wanted to write about this situation, but initially decided not to when I thought maybe it was just me. You know, buck up, don’t worry about what people think.

But it’s not so simple. Just the other day, I was in a local wine shop talking to the proprietor and the subject came up. And the stories I heard made me think about the situation in a whole new way. The experience made me want to write about it again.

What originally brought all this on was a visit a few weeks back to another local wine shop that had two different wines from Loire producer Denis Jamain. Click here for a write up I did last year when Denis himself was here pouring at yet another local shop.

Jamain makes nice if light, delicate wines from a lesser known Reuilly appellation. Only instead of bottle prices ranging from $14 to $20, here were cases of the 2005 Jamain Reuilly Pinot Gris Rosé for $5 and the 2002 Jamain Reuilly Les Pierres Plates for just $7.

Usually such startling discounts suggest damaged goods. Here was “old” rosé from a grape you’re not “supposed” to make rosé from, and a five year old sauvignon blanc, albeit from a terrific vintage. But this wasn’t some lowbrow shop. They wouldn’t bring in wine that was damaged, right? Right, as it turned out in this case.

But I’ve worked in a fine wine shop that occasionally had wine for sale at bargain prices that wasn’t very good. It happens. And if you think that you can just ask the staff for an honest opinion, even at a “good” shop, what could I say when a customer asked me for my opinion. Usually I hemmed and hawed, unsure of how honest I could be and completely uncomfortable about the whole thing. One time I was completely honest and I got in some trouble. I didn’t work there long and the owners were probably fine with that.

Still, I asked a staff member who I know for his opinion on the Jamain wines, and though he was fairly positive, I could tell he was hesitant. He ended with the faint praise that the wines are priced “appropriately.” Hmm, what does that really mean? Is that code for “don’t buy it, it’s only here to satisfy our cheap ass customers who can’t tell Gallo from Maxim Grunhauser?”

I knew he couldn’t be completely honest with me. His boss was right there. And he didn’t want to rain on my parade if I was interested in the wines. These are delicate situations to be sure. But I know that it’s common for wine shops all over to have wines that are sold with at least some amount contempt. Were these such wines?

Which brings me back to the conversation the other day with the proprietor, who had joked about his wife asking him, “what, another gruner veltliner?” when he came out of a store a while back after having to buy a last minute pinot noir on the way to a dinner party. He’d gone in for one bottle but felt the need to buy something else to keep the staff from snickering.

Now why would this matter? Surely we’re above such adolescent behavior, right?

Wrong. The proprietor rolled into a few stories – and I have plenty of my own – of being in wine shops when a customer leaves with a bottle of, say, high priced California cabernet, only to have the wine geek staff, and even the shop owner, tear the customer to pieces for buying such awful wine. Let’s not get into the rumors you’ll hear about what supposed crap some famous winemaker adores, or how drunk he or she got toasted at one event or another.

The fact is, this happens a lot, maybe more than you think. And while we must rise above that fray, it can be tough in the moment to feel comfortable buying what you want to buy. Call it what you want, but that’s the honest truth we all go through in any purchasing situation.

I appreciated the proprietor’s take that it’s bullshit for wine shop staff, and especially an owner, to participate in the somewhat public hazing of a customer. Who knew who else was listening, or if they knew the person or, at the least, might take the opportunity to tell a stranger what the shop really thinks of him.

Why’s this important? Because it’s at the heart of the weird feelings people have about some wine shops. That snobby sense of not belonging or not measuring up, when we’re at most trying to satisfy an intellectual passion or at the least just trying to get some hooch to make the night a little more fun.

I’ll be honest. I’ve passed up some things that I just couldn’t, for whatever reason, bring myself to bring to the counter. And I’ve done as the proprietor and mixed in some coded wine in some weird attempt to display my alleged wine cred. I’ve quietly enjoyed compliments at some of my selections. And I imagine I’ve been the butt of some jokes about the “bargains” I like to purchase.

This time, of course, I bought one of each Jamain wine. The rosé wasn’t so hot. Not tired or oxidized, just a bit tart and more phenolic than I remember. Maybe we shouldn’t make rosé out of pinot gris after all (though secretly I want to try it myself…oops). Yet the blanc was delicious, more like a light, dry chenin than sauvignon with a waxy roundness that kept my interest over a few nights. This isn’t a wine to cellar much longer, but I bought another and will enjoy it in the coming months.

In the end, yes, we should be resolute with the confidence to buy what we want to buy. But it doesn’t always play out that way, and that’s what interests me in the whole affair. What do you think? Ever been ashamed to buy a wine? Maybe next time, we’ll be a little less reluctant to be who we are. And hopefully those who exchange our big bills for change will keep their oh-so-knowledgeable opinions to themselves. That includes you too, boss.


Marshall Manning said...

I don't ever remember being afraid to buy anything, but then I'm not that concerned with what some wine shop yahoo thinks about my purchases.

I'm concerned with what my family, friends, and co-workers think about me, but you'll drive yourself crazy if you worry about what everyone in your world thinks about your purchases/choices/etc. If the clerk at Fred Meyer thinks I'm a cheapskate for buying $4.99/lb. chuck eye steaks, it doesn't bother me at all.

The funny thing is that you probably know a lot more about wine than the employees or owners at most local wine shops and restaurants. You don't have to flaunt that knowledge, but you can also be safe and secure in your choices because of it.

And here's the secret...if you want an honest opinion on a wine from a good, knowledgeable wine shop employee, call them over to the shelf away from the boss!

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Of course I know it doesn't matter. But it apparently does matter, that is we see people's behavior change because of "it." I just wanted to explore that. It doesn't come up all the time, but it's there sometimes and interesting, I think. Sometimes my supposed knowledge is the issue, like in the example of buying one thing but feeling like you need to toss in something else that has a little more credibility.

Are you telling me you'd be comfortable walking up to the counter in your favorite old record shop with a Kenny G holiday album? You know you're going to give them the old "it ain't for me" look. Or better yet, you'd toss in something from the Specials to make the point that obviously Kenny's a gag gift. You can deny it all you like, but I'm not buying it.

And the boss guy wasn't around when the conversation started. Only at the good part.

Marshall Manning said...

A Kenny G holiday album? I wouldn't be caught dead with it, but it's based on taste, not on someone seeing it in my hands. If I truly thought his music was interesting it wouldn't bother me if the hip high school dropout sneered at me or not. I don't care if the CD dude thinks John Hiatt or the Old '97s are "cool", I buy them because it's what I like.