How condescending is your wine merchant?

When I received PR bumf from a new wine website called Ten Green Bottles with phrases such as ‘innovative concept’ and ‘unique wines’, I was going to write something on the meaningless guff used to promote things. Then I realised that this isn’t the letters page of the Telegraph and that everyone is at it. Even the dear old Wine Society’s catalogue is full of wines described as ‘iconic’ when they mean ‘famous’, ‘sought-after’ or just plain ‘expensive.’ Instead I thought I would look at one of their claims that when visiting a wine merchant ‘the service is either non-existent or can be condescending.’ The patronising or, even more damning in today’s egalitarian society, snobbish wine merchant is a great stock character in conversation (normally in conversations between people in the wine trade trying to differentiate themselves from this stereotyped image.) I wonder, however, whether this figure might be more of a useful myth rather than anything mired in reality.

I have had two bad experiences with a wine merchant. One was in 2000 at Corney and Barrow on Kensington Park Road where they had some mature Pewsey Vale Riesling at a very reasonable price. I asked the shop assistant whether it was any good, he looked down his nose at me and said ‘well, it’s Australian riesling’ with the implication that as it was Australian it couldn’t be any good (turns out it was excellent.) My other bad experience has taken place in Nicolas on countless occasions where the staff more often than not combine superciliousness with ignorance. I don’t shop at Nicolas anymore. Oh and there was a wine merchant in Barcelona who actually threw me out for browsing too close to his wines.

To be fair to the chap at Corney and Barrow, I was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, jeans with holes in and looked like I hadn’t been to bed in a while. I was working round the corner at Oddbins on Portobello Road. When a customer walked into the shop, I tried to gauge how interested in wine he (I’m using he in its little-used but grammatically correct neutral gender form) was. Pitch it too high and I would end up boring the customer, too low and he might feel patronised. With a complicated subject like wine, it’s a tricky act to pull off. Despite going to wine tastings every week and having read widely on the subject, I still glaze over when people start talking about soil types or fermentation temperatures.

It’s interesting to compare a wine merchant with other keepers of arcane knowledge such as bicycle shops or motor mechanics. I have lost count of the number of times that people in bike shops have actually been rude to me (I’m thinking of you in particular short stocky man with dark hair in Condor on Greys Inn Road) and with cars, I’ve been badly ripped off on a couple of occasions. Knowing quite a bit about bikes as I do about wine, hasn’t prevented these bad experiences (I know almost nothing about cars once you open the bonnet). My point, I suppose, is that in my experience wine merchants are no more unfriendly than other shopkeepers and certainly much more personable than many other people we deal with, bike mechanics, bank tellers or, worst of all, midwives. The problem, I think, is that some people are intimidated by the sheer multitude of bottles and so the whole process is fraught with nerves.

Ten Green Bottles have an answer to this as well in that they only stock a limited range of wines. I’m going to be looking at their wines in more detail in a forthcoming column in the Lady but meanwhile I’d like to recommend their Castello di Potentino Piropo at £13.50. This is a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Grenache. Sounds like it’s going to be a dog’s dinner but it’s actually rather beautiful. It’s pale-coloured, a sort of tawny red hue and mellow with flavours of spiced oranges and some gentle tannin. It’s a very laid-back sort of wine.

I’d be very interested in hearing readers experiences with wine merchants (and indeed bike shops, banks and midwives.)


About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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11 Responses to How condescending is your wine merchant?

  1. Emma B says:

    I have yet to have a good experience with Adnams in Southwold, where I foolishly pop in if visiting local friends from the area. Being none of male, middle-aged, affluent looking, nor dressed like a boring git, I have been treated like pondlife every one of the handful of times I’ve been in over the last 10 years or so.

    Yes, I get it, I don’t come up from West London for the weekend in a pristine 4WD that’s never struggled anywhere harder than the harbour. But oddly enough, that doesn’t mean I know nothing about wine, so kindly don’t patronise me. Or even – on one memorable occasion – refuse to open another bottle of what’s supposed to be on the tasting table that weekend “because we’re closing in 20 minutes”. I can only assume that the wine must have been liable to go off by opening the following morning, as red Cotes du Rhone notoriously does.

    As with all such things, the mark of the truly classy vendors is that they don’t give two hoots whether a customer “fits in” or not. Step forward the lovely Uncorked, OW Loeb, and BBR as people from whom I always thoroughly enjoy buying at the allegedly posher end of things.

    My general test of a new merchant is to go in, give them a figure, and ask them to sell me something “interesting”, with the explicit caveat that I don’t like Cab Sauv. A good percentage – always the useless ones – will promptly try and flog me an “unusual, I think you should try this, it’ll change your mind” Cab Sauv, often within about 50p the budget. I won’t go back to them.

    The good ones, of course, demonstrate that they know their stock and like having a customer who wants to explore it. And usually get my repeat business. Funny, that…

    Thank you for the opportunity for a swift rant. 🙂

    NB: Ten Green Bottles aren’t my favourite Brighton’n’Hove indie (Butler’s is), but they have a magnificent selection of northern Italian random varietals which are well worth exploring.

    • Henry says:

      Dear Emma B, I seem to have struck a chord with you. Thank you for sharing all this.You would have been my ideal customer when I worked at Oddbins. It’s always nice for someone to trust you and say ‘sell me something unusual’


  2. We’re very lucky here in Tunbridge Wells; we have this: ; everyone who works there is knowledgeable and nice, and it’s a pleasure to shop there. They suggest things based on what we like that are almost invariably worthwhile; they recommended something good and cheap in both colours (tricky) for my book launch last year (& delivered it for nothing); and they have wine tastings, tutorials and more elaborate banquety things (they supply our local Hot. de Vin). They also buy from small, little-known vineyards & suppliers. Liking what they do must be the biggest part of it. Midwives, however, are something else… if you ever have to give birth, I recommend hair as a good thing to hold onto.

    • Emma B says:

      Another vote here for the Secret Cellar. They send out a good newsletter too (text only, thank goodness), which is a rarer merchant habit than it should be.

  3. Henry says:

    Good tips, Lynn, both wine merchants and what to hold onto when giving birth.

  4. worm says:

    Great read Henry! I think anyone who has worked in a wine shop will have struggled to hit that exactly right note with a customer – and as you say in reply to Emma B above, she sounds like the perfect customer; ie one who says ‘surprise me!’

  5. Henry says:

    Thanks Mr Worm. I’m going to do another post on this topic as it’s clearly one that people are interested in.

  6. Stay Drunk says:

    My favourite wine merchant is Robersons in Kensington. They are knowledgeable, kind and relaxed. They ask you your budget, what you need and even how adventurous you want to be. I have bought some really great wines from them. I am a wine eejet and their choices have made me look really competent at dinner parties so I am forever in their debt. Nicolas have always been right knobs to me – the eyebrows alone put my back up. I once went in and told the guy my budget and he looked at me like I’d told him I had prolapse and could he please do something about it.

  7. This book is a legend. First published in 1920, it is a collection of the words and wisdom of Oxford Don, man of letters and wine-lover extraordinaire, George Saintsbury. It is in fact a series of reminiscences inspired by the notes Saintsbury made on the wines in his cellar between 1884 and 1915. So, for example, memories of a Richebourg from 1869 lead on to the merchant in Pall Mall where it was purchased, and the genial and wise old Scotsman who recommended it. The last chapter of the book is a series of menus from the strange but magnificent dinners Saintsbury hosted, along with the fabulous wines served. One of the lovely things about the book is comparing what has changed in a hundred years, and what remains exactly the same. Conclusions: This book is probably not for everyone. It’s not the easiest read, with copious footnotes and archaic use of English. It is fascinating however, especially if you share Saintsbury’s almost spiritual devotion to wine.

  8. Pingback: Towards greater synergy between merchant and customer in a modern retail environment | Henry's World of Booze

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