The Everyday Sommelier on the Corner
By LETTIE TEAGUE
SOMMELIERS HAVE RECEIVED a great deal of praise in recent years. Lauded for their powers of persuasion and adventurous palates (not to mention often-swanky attire), they have become the avatars of the modern wine world. Except that they're not. Or at least no more than another, less talked-about group whose power is arguably greater and whose influence is more widely felt: wine retailers. In fact, today's top wine retailers could be called the new sommeliers
There are several reasons why I think this is the case. The first is contact: Retailers have more direct interaction with more wine drinkers than even the most industrious sommelier at the busiest restaurant could possibly manage. This has, of course, been greatly enhanced by the Internet and where-to-buy-it websites such as wine-searcher.com, as well as the use of targeted emails, aka "email blasts."
Retailers are the new sommeliers, shaping and informing wine drinkers' palates. Lettie Teague explains why on Lunch Break. Photo: F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal.
I'm on the receiving end of at least 10 such blasts almost every day. While some can be annoying, most are quite informative and a few even manage to be entertaining as well. But more important, they've influenced my wine buying habits over the years. I've purchased quite a few wines that I otherwise might not have thanks to a persuasively written, well-informed email-and that includes everything from magnums of Burgundy to half-bottles of Merlot.
But such sales usually occur with retailers I already know-wine merchants with whom I've developed relationships over time, and whose palates I trust. That's the second advantage retailers have over most sommeliers: A retailer has more time to develop a long-term relationship with his or her customers. And of course, they can interact with dozens of customers simultaneously via email. A sommelier must interact with each customer, one by one-and they may have just a few minutes to make a connection.
Then there's the problem of the profession itself. As Joe Salamone at Crush Wines in New York put it, "As a retailer you have roots. I'm not sure a sommelier has the opportunity to really develop relationships with customers over a sustained period of time. For sommeliers, the trapdoor opens fast." In other words, with some exceptions, most sommeliers are nomadic-moving from restaurant to restaurant in search of fresh opportunity or higher pay. And many leave the profession altogether when they're still fairly young, as it's a job that's both psychically and physically demanding, with very long hours.
By contrast, most retailers I deal with have been working at the same places for years. Mr. Salamone has been a wine buyer at Crush for almost seven years, and Dan Posner, of Grapes The Wine Company in White Plains, N.Y., another retailer I consult often, has been in the wine business for 12 years.
I met Dan more than a decade ago when I first visited Grapes (then based in Rye, N.Y.). Now we mostly exchange emails. I'm on his list-and he sends email blasts as often as twice a day. (By the way, Dan, that's a lot of emails.) I've purchased wines from Dan based on his opinion alone-which he delivers along with wine-world gossip, wine-critic scores and sports commentary. The sports commentary was his wife's idea, according to Dan. "She thought my emails weren't personal enough," he said. Dan estimates he knows 1,500 to 2,000 of his regular customers almost exclusively through email. "I've met only about 20% of my regular customers," Dan said.
Sharon Sevrens of Amanti Vino in Montclair, N.J., another of my regular retail sources, said the opposite. "At least 75%" of her regular customers are walk-ins, many of whom shop in her store as often as five times a week. This is no doubt influenced by the fact that Amanti Vino is surrounded by restaurants, most of which are BYOB.
For her part, Sharon loves the personal contact (something every retailer said to me). She especially likes to persuade someone to try a favorite wine of hers. For example, when she opened Amanti Vino almost seven years ago, she was crazy about Grüner Veltliner, the star white grape of Austria. And soon enough, many of her customers were, too. "We had hundreds of people coming in for Grüner Veltliner," Sharon said triumphantly. Sharon currently stocks only five Grüner Veltliners but has had up to 12 choices in the past.
Every retailer I spoke with mentioned how readily their customers took their advice and trusted their taste-at seemingly any price. "I'm amazed at what I can sell to people," said Joe, sounding like many sommeliers I know. "Obscure varietals, wines from the Jura, $100 bottles of Sherry." But Joe, like every good retailer (and every top sommelier), has a point of view, and he looks for wines that will not only please but occasionally challenge and provoke-in other words, it's not about selling Yellow Tail or Silver Oak.
They also don't oversell. Keith Wollenberg, a wine buyer for 15 years at K&L in California, and a great Burgundy source, likes to suggest wines under his customers' stated price limits. "If they say they want to spend $50, I find them something that costs $30," he said. He estimated he has several hundred regular customers-as did his co-workers at K&L. Keith said his colleague Ralph Sands recommended some 2009 Bordeaux to a client who loved the wines so much that the man even suggested Ralph and he play golf sometime.
Of course, sommeliers are invited to play golf as well-some I know have even been taken on private planes to Burgundy by their best customers. (No, I won't be naming names.) And both retailers and sommeliers have been known to accept importer- or distributor-sponsored trips to visit key producers, whose wines will presumably end up on wine lists and store shelves
Chris Adams, the president of Sherry-Lehmann in New York, noted another thread that connects the two: Sommeliers help to drive business to stores. "People have a wine at a restaurant and they want to buy it retail," said Mr. Adams, adding that he thought a restaurant was an excellent place to experiment. "After all, it's a pretty safe environment-it's only one bottle of wine."
It was an interesting choice of words, since many people say they don't feel comfortable dealing with an officious sommelier. But maybe that's what the best wine retailers and sommelier have in common: They make you feel safe