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Wine articles

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.)