Wine column no. 54: Consider these rules when buying wines

July 27, 2014: It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. The aisles are clear. No one is stopping you from walking out of the store. Yet there it is, the wine that has somehow, inexplicably, drawn you near. Around you are boxes of beer, stacks of vodka, the shadows of flickering fluorescent lights. And right in front of you is the 2009 Cameron Hughes Lot 300 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Calif., the bottle that, in 2011, SF Weekly said sold for north of $100. It’s right in front of you for only $34.99, you tell yourself, tamping your voice down. There is silence. There is disbelief. Pull it from the shelf, you think excitedly, your mood suddenly pensive, inquisitive. No, it’s not a big deal to spend that much since you will be having it with steak, you tell yourself. Yes, it is the right vintage, you think, seeing the long line of 2009s behind the one now in your hands. Besides, it’s been a while since you’ve thought about Cameron Hughes. It’s been a while since you’ve approached the idea of salesmanship. It’s been a while since you’ve thought about all those things that used to mean so much to you.

Sounds like the start of a pretty decent story, right? After all, it’s got some necessary elements that could make it believable. There’s the liquor store scene that doubles as a setting. There are at least three characters: You, winemaker Cameron Hughes, and the wine itself. There’s mystery, as in how a $100-plus wine is now miraculously listed for only $35. (It turns out that’s how Cameron Hughes makes his money; he repackages and resells other people’s wines.) There’s a universal concept — marketing and sales — that most people can relate to. Finally, there’s drama, an allusion to something personal. And we all know how interesting things can get when they turn personal.

But here’s the truth: Only parts of that story aren’t embellished. These details reveal the smoke and mirrors: 1) You bought that Cameron Hughes because you wondered why it was priced so much higher than the other two Cameron Hughes wines in the store, and you wanted to know why there was a price hike and if it was deserved. 2) The lights weren’t even close to flickering at Frontier Liquors on Covert Avenue. You just added that for effect. 3) You had no idea that this blend of Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap grapes had once sold for more than $100. You didn’t read the SF Weekly review — weren’t even cognizant of it, in fact — until you got home, opened the bottle, and did some research online. Seriously, who other than Cameron Hughes himself would know what that wine originally retailed for in 2009? 4) Your opinion of the wine changed after you read that review. Somehow — oddly — the wine improved. It was better. It was suddenly worth $35, which is interesting considering that when you first tasted it, that wasn’t your impression at all.

So that’s how you tell an honest story. Now how do you make an honest sale? Since I’m not a saleswoman, I’m not sure. But I am a consumer who has learned how to detect some dishonest sales tactics. Here are some rules to think of the next time you head for your favorite wine shop:

No. 1: “Your opinion is the most important one out there.” You never know if a wine is worth your time and money until YOU open it, pour it into your glass, and take a sip. An award-winning wine with good credentials (age of vines, length of time in the barrel, price, placement within a wine region, education and experience of the vintner, etc.) isn’t a guarantee that this wine will be a good buy for you. It’s not even a guarantee that it’s any good at all.

No. 2: “You’re so intuitive.” Note if the salesperson tries to spark an immediate personal connection and is quick with compliments. Connections are good, but only to a point. Think about it: Are they providing you a service that they are paid to give equally to anyone who walks in the store, or are you making a new friend who also, coincidentally, needs the sale? Either way, be glad you aren’t paying that salesperson by the hour. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed an odd correlation between compliments and salespeople who either work on commission or who have just met someone with the potential to give them more money.

No. 3: “Trust, but verify.” A salesperson who tells you that another wine store’s inventory is overpriced is counting on you not to visit that other store to see the inventory for yourself. Professionalism is key here. Go with your gut and wonder why they would say that in the first place. Sometimes they are telling you the truth, and sometimes they just aren’t.

No. 4: “Beware of scare tactics.” If someone says a wine isn’t worthwhile, but they aren’t able to provide specific reasons or examples as to exactly why, tread carefully. It’s fair to wonder why they can’t explain themselves. Are they just repeating something they heard? Better yet, is what they said even true? Don’t allow them to hide behind an illusion of mystery or drama. If they haven’t had the wine, I think it’s reasonable to wonder why they would have an opinion about it at all.

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