Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Wine Trenches

            For most of November and December of this winter, I’ve been in West Virginia, and back working at the Wine Shop as a way to make some extra money while still staying close enough to help out my mother recover from her hip replacement last month.   So I’ve been spending a lot of time in the wine trenches, which are actually pretty good trenches to be in.   For one thing, the customers are generally pretty happy when they're shopping in our store.  

            The wine store I work at is part of a small boutique market of about half a dozen vendors.   The various stores makes the market a great place to people-watch, since we have not only our own shop’s regular customers, but also the regular customers of all of our neighboring vendors.   Many of our regulars are food-obsessed. They look rapturous when talking about goat cheese, and can remember what specific vintages of wine were served at their wedding twenty-seven years ago.   These folks are probably as close as West Virginia gets to having real foodies, and most of them love our shop. By association, the foodies love everyone who works here, too.   (And it’s mutual. Mostly.)    However, this means that taking lunch breaks in the market’s public areas has its downsides.   Earlier in December, I went on break, and sat down at a small table in the market’s public area to eat my lunch.   Even though I work at a gourmet food shop, I am not a gourmet food person.   My lunch was a two-day-old piece of stale pizza.   Two mouthfuls in, a guy who I vaguely recognize as a Wine Shop regular comes over to my table,  leans over the plate and takes a big sniff of my cold, stale slice of pizza.

            “Is that any good?” he asks.

            I said yes (though I’m not sure it was very intelligible since my mouth was still full of pizza), and went back to eating.   He wandered away with a puzzled look.   I looked back at my stale pizza and wondered if I'd just outed myself as a food cretin.

            I know that as a wine salesperson, I talk to customers about food.   This usually does not extend to the food that I bring in for my lunch break.   Because even if I were a real for-sure gourmet cook, no one who works in retail has the time to make meals like that during December.  So please, Mr. Wine Spectator, do not be judgey about my lunch.   Especially when you lean into my personal space bubble to sniff my food, and especially when I do not know who you are.   That’s creepy.   

            One seasonal project involved mailing out eighty individual bottles of a particular cabernet to an architectural firm’s clients.   The specific wine they chose comes in a non-standard-sized wine bottle.   There are only a handful of non-standard-sized wines in the store, but they had to go and pick one.   And since the bottle is a weird shape, it doesn’t fit in the wine shipping containers very well.  So I spent the better part of three days finagling the bottles into the shipping containers.   It took a ton of tissue paper to wedge the bottles so they didn’t rattle around.   The eighty bottles were all going to separate addresses all over town, and the total cost of shipping the wine came to over twelve hundred dollars.   The company would have done a lot better to pay an intern to rent a van and hand-deliver the wine in person.  I mean, I would have happily delivered all that wine to their clients for a quarter of what FedEx is charging them.

            One fun thing that happens during the holiday season is that we host a lot of wine tastings in the store.   We hold the tastings in an adjacent building, and generally we try six or seven wines, plus a little appetizer spread of fancy cheese, crackers, chocolates, or whatever else we think would pair well.   One themed tasting we do every year is a blind tasting of red wines.   Prior to the tasting, we wrap all the bottles in brown bags so that the neither the servers nor the tasters have any idea what wine they’re tasting until the very end.   It is, according to many wine experts, a better way to judge a wine, because the taster isn’t being influenced by the wine’s price.   (People generally perceive more expensive wines as tasting better.)   The day before the blind tasting, our manager had a strange phone conversation with one of our regular customers, in which he had to explain that we do not actually blindfold people for the blind tasting.   (She was unsure about attending because she ‘didn’t think her husband would be into that sort of thing.’)

            The only problem with the wine tastings is that we almost always run out of tickets  - they nearly always sell out.   Which means that the customers who know this will call the shop as soon as we open on Sunday to reserve tickets.   The phone starts ringing at noon and literally does not stop for fifteen minutes.   After that, we get walk-in sales, and more phone calls, and eventually the tasting sells out.  We hit this limit around 1:30pm and from then until the tasting begins at 2pm, it's the Half Hour of Rage.   This is the one time where we have to do what no sales person ever wants to do to a client.   We have to tell them ‘No’.   This pisses some people off to no end.   And I have to deal with a steady stream of pissed or and/or disappointed customers, occasionally interspersed with the arrival of someone who was bright enough to reserve a spot in advance.   Not all of the disappointed customers are mad.   It’s usually a trajectory – from confidence that their request will be offered, to a sudden dip into confusion and disappointment.   Some customers continue from there to either outrage (or plain old rage) or kicked-puppy-like disappointment. 

            In some ways, the timing works out perfectly.   By the time we deal with the last of the disgruntled customers, the tastings has already started, and will be a growing pile of not-quite-empty bottles that need emptying…

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