Friday, December 23, 2011

Retail Flashbacks

Being in New Orleans around Christmas and not being in the wine business has left me disconcerted. I miss being involved with education and leading tastings but am thrilled to not be driving all over town keeping retailers' shelves full of my products. However, the aggravation of wholesale has nothing on the twisted world of retail where my career began.
I was reminded of the unpleasantness today while I ran a few errands...yes, errands, not last minute present stressing but run of the mill errands. It was so far removed from my nearly two decade long December routine of little sleep, few, if any days off, and the inability to make my brain function properly, that I found myself having retail flashbacks all day long. Muzac versions of Christmas classics should be banned.
The best year was the first one, as a stockman, because I got overtime. The end of the day was the end of the day, no work followed me home. As manager, opening and closing the store guaranteed brutal hours. Receiving a salary meant I actually made less per hour than stockmen and cashiers I managed. I actually did the math one night...and almost didn't bother coming in the next day.
As a customer service rep, long hours continued while I put in order after order. We had a system in place for multiple gifts to be passed along to some entry clerks but since they were part-time my decision was to input my own orders. Mistakes would come back to me no matter what so I did my best to limit them.
The store operated from nine to seven and that's a reasonable amount of time to be on duty during the busy months. However, opening, closing and typing orders took another two hours on a good day. Basically we moved in for the month of December.
Outside the store, dinner became the most important priority since lunch rarely happened. The constant flow of people made breaks nearly impossible. I thought about taking up smoking because, somehow, not matter how busy we were, the smokers regularly enjoyed a few minutes of peace and quiet.
Quiet was the best, no droning hum of mingled conversations, no store pages calling you in two directions (if you were lucky, instead of three or more) and most of all, no freaking Christmas music!
During my younger years the tradition for Christmas Eve involved Santa coming to visit the house before his night of work began. One present, just a taste of the magic to follow the next morning, was allowed. Later years brought church and some fancy dinners but my years in retail always meant closing down some bars.
Since days off rarely happened and everyone had off on the 25th, since the store was closed, a groups of us went out and thoroughly polluted ourselves. Despite the soreness of feet and complete exhaustion, enough energy returned that wrestling became an unscheduled part of a few very early Christmas mornings.
Being thrown out of a bar on the 25th was a badge of honor for a bit. Less so another year when we realized that we were so boisterous and, I guess, frightening that a homeless man actually left his warm spot near the dart boards of a favorite 24 hour watering hole in favor of safer, if much colder, environs.
I grew to hate Christmas (no doubt the vicious hangovers that followed the eve's debauchery played a part). Now we're back on speaking terms. Guess I'm glad I didn't open that retail wine shop after all...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Support Your Local Retailer

As someone who came very close to opening his own wine shop one of my big concerns revolved around online wine sales. I'm not talking about club shipments of a bottle or two a month. While those bottles would certainly cut into my sales they also encourage exploration. Many customers see low prices online and salivate until they see the shipping charges. Even more disappointment awaits if you want overnight or two day shipments - the only way you should ever ship wine. Those delivery trucks are not temperature controlled.
For reasons to be especially mindful of shipping, see my earlier post about online wine
Let's get beyond that and consider the unique world of wine and your access to it. Sure, some of the deals offered online are fantastic. Pay attention to vintages though, as I have found a handful of usually highly rated, expensive wines offered at insanely low prices...from less than stellar vintages. That does not mean they will be undrinkable, or even a bad buy at the cut rate price but it does mean you should temper your expectations. No one sells an $80 bottle of wine for $25 unless they tried some other price points along the way and still had no success.
Remember that you can not taste these wines. If it's a producer you know and enjoy, give it a whirl but if you're flying blind you may end up spending a lot more buying these "bargains" instead of wines you like available on shelves nearby.
You also can not ask questions or get a recommendation or easily return a selection you don't like. Some will credit you for corked bottles but most do not accept returns of unopened bottles for any reason even if you feel like paying to ship it back.
Your friendly neighborhood retailer hosts regular tastings, many completely free of charge, can answer questions, get you wine the same day and should remember you, your likes and dislikes. If they can't or won't do those things, then go somewhere else. Please do not read this missive as a call to support weasels and chuckleheads. Quality retailers exist everywhere and I promise you can even find some that offer wine at a reasonable rate when you consider other perks they might offer.
A couple in Portland, Oregon mentioned to me one night (not realizing I was in the business) that they loved coming to tastings at a particular shop but always bought their wine at a lower priced chain store nearby. I nearly needed EMS. Guess what folks, the retailer whose wine you love to drink, who gives you access to exciting wines, who teaches you about what you're drinking will be out of business if you only buy wine elsewhere and then you'll be reduced to tasting at the chain store from hired demo companies with people who know little about wine and offer only generic grocery brands and I'm only sorry I won't be there to hear you admit regret or see you crying in your assembly-line wine.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wine Gift Advice

Gift giving intimidates the best of us.  Once in a great while the perfect gift idea combines with the time to give it and proves to be at least as well received as expected.  More often, some portion of that trifecta does not happen quite right.  I can sense those moments and only hope for enough success that the recipient does not injure themselves forcing a smile to his or her face. 
A present of wine appeals on many levels but brings a special level of intimidation with it.  The stress level created about buying wine for an aficionado lands somewhere between that generated before meeting your potential in-laws and that dream about showing up for a final exam without studying...and also being naked.  Relax. 
Buy wines you enjoy and include a favorite cheese with them or even a favorite recipe for pairing. Unless you exclusively drink white zinfandel or buy only wines from the closeout bin, the effort will be appreciated.  Even serious wine collectors enjoy experimenting or at least need something for guests.  If you can share a story about visiting the winery or enjoying a bottle it will mean so much more.  Unless he or she is a total ass, your personal touch will mean a lot.  If he or she is a total ass, why are you giving them a gift anyway?
I think spending a lot of money on a special bottle you have never tried and may or may not be to the liking of your recipient is a much riskier proposition than a few moderately priced bottles that mean something to you.  
Don't waste time tying to figure out their favorite producer they probably have plenty already. If you are adventurous, share the adventure.  If you play it safe with standard grocery store brands, stop it!  Get out of your comfort zone and try some new wines, you may find yourself the recipient of a great gift as well...the world of wine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month) Part Two

The white show is all A.N.'s this month. Her honorable (?) mention manages to describe a gewurztraminer (98 points) as having, "hints of vanilla, iodine, espresso and bourbon." Glad those flavors aren't in my glass.
White winner: A.N. reviewing Henri Schoenheitz Gewurztraminer Alsace Holder Selection de Grains Nobles 2005 $61/500ml 94 points
"Refined and focused, with exotic cardamom, incense, myrrh and cumin notes accenting flavors of pear gelee, quine paste, candied lychee, smoky mineral and tarragon." The rest of the review actually makes sense and does not read like someone trying to show off the depth and breadth of their culinary knowledge. Myrrh? Really? Couldn't you save that for December?
Another sweep in the red category by J.M. Impressive efforts throughout with inspired wackiness like "singed iron" which he featured in three reviews (one is our winner) and "The long, supple finish just lets the fruit smolder." Nothing I like better in a wine than burning metal and scorched fruit.
Red Winner: J.M. reviewing Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas Le Poste 2009 $69 96 points.
"Broad and deep, delivering gorgeous perfumy black tea and warm anise notes up front, followed by dense flavors of bittersweet cocoa, roasted fig, hoisin sauce and smoked alder wood. The long, fleshy finish has great cut, with a singed iron note hanging on." If it was anything but warm anise I bet he might have dropped it below 93 points. The specificity of alder wood won the day.
My gripe with these sorts of reviews centers on the insane amalgam conjured up and imagined in a glass. I adore St.-Cosme and agree with J.M. that they make the "most compelling Gigondas."
However, too many reviews seem more focused on the microscopic when most consumers may not even want a magnifying glass report. We're getting full soil analyses when we just want the lay of the land.
Since these sorts of reviews often make casual wine drinkers feel inadequate and I rail against the snob factor unfortunately inherent in much of the wine world, I plan to continue tilting at windmills. Please pass these along, maybe someone will actually listen and put a halt to the blather.