First of all, I learned to have a great respect for wine retailers. Everyone needs to earn a living, and wine retailers are no differerent. But most I've come to know are in the business because they have a passion for wine and want to share that passion with others. There is a lot of money being made in wine these days, but for the most part the mom and pop store owners are not the ones getting rich.
Secondly, I can't think of a better crash course in everything vinous than the experience of selling it. I learned so much in such a short time. Let me cite a few examples:
- No matter how much you think you know about wine, there's always so much more to learn. Until I had to sell them, I had no idea how many quality varietals were available. The real point is that wines today are generally made with such quality and consistency that there's never been a better time to experiment with variety. I learned to always try the offbeat. Don't play it safe if you ever want to learn.
- Tastes are, in the end, a personal business. A wine can get 91 or 92 points, but if it's a style that people are not familiar with, or comfortable with, they still may not like it. I can recall a number of times when customers returned bottles of Burgundy, or syrah, or a Rhone blend because they were sure the wine was "bad." After tasting, I knew (and others in the store confirmed) that the wines were not bad at all. They simply were very peppery or acidic, and as such were alien to the customer. But, as they say, the customer is always right so we rarely argued.
- Many people fall in love with brands, just as they do with jeans or soft drinks. We had customers who wanted cases of Silver Oak cabernet each year when it became available, no matter that we had different cabs that could beat it for less money.
- A lot of Americans like residual sweetness, though they eschew overtly sweet wines as unsophisticated. No matter that German rieslings have a premium reputation worldwide. Yet they often reach for cabs or chards that sport (unadvertised) just a bit of residual sweetness, puffing up the fruit-forward character of the wine.
- Wine knowledge is sexy. I never failed to be surprised at how often my single, young coworkers were able to turn their wine insights into dates with attractive young customers. Not that this was at all important for this married man, but I wish someone had shared this gem when I was 22.
- Full spit buckets and fruit flies are decidely unromantic.
- Getting a deep discount on wines made it all worthwhile.
Most of us can really benefit by having a good relationship with a local wine shop. While I once worked in a store and regularly read wine magazines and columnists, I still rely on my favorite wine retailers for insights on new stuff and new vintages. While wine retailers generally believe in the quality of everything they sell, you can get a nod toward the really exceptionally stuff or have it held for you when the proprietor knows you and your tastes. You don't have to work at a wine store, just talk to the proprietor as though you did.