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Dispatches from Behind the Counter: How to be a Satisfied Customer
By Christy Frank
Feb 1, 2022
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Back in my wine shop days, I used to do a feature called “That Customer.”  You can find those posts over at bending-elbows.com where I’m currently reposting these historical snippets of New York City wine shop life.  To be very clear, they weren’t complaints or rants (well, maybe one or two were a little bit ranty).  While the last two years have certainly seen the rise of nasty, entitled customer behavior, it’s still a very rare day that wine shop people complain (publicly) about the smaller stuff.  After all, without customers, a wine shop would just be a very expensive wine closet.  

Those “That Customer” posts eventually evolved into etiquette lessons for customers and for shop people.  While they were written over ten years ago (I really didn’t want to do that math), not much has changed.  Wine is still confusing.  And wine shops are still confusing.  But happily, they still tend to be staffed with people who like to talk (and talk… and talk) about wine.  So, what you may think of as a silly question, shop people likely just consider an opportunity to…talk about wine.  

But all that talking doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t result in a bottle that you’ll like at the price you want to spend.  Many articles have been writing about this, but they never seem to go into the “why” of things.  So that’s what you’ll find below – some tips and tricks to make you a more satisfied customer.  

Please, please, PLEASE give us a price range: I know this has been said a million times, but a good shop should be able to recommend a bottle that you will like at the price you want.  That’s not to say you can get a no-added-SO2-skin-contact-organically-farmed-picked-by-hand-by-farily-compenstated-labor bottle for $10.  Some wines just don’t exist at certain price points.  But a good shop person should be able to explain why that’s the case – and point you to a range of options.

Take pictures: Yes, it’s another “how to get a wine you like” cliché, but it works.  A picture really is worth a thousand words – especially when trying to talk about something as subjective as taste.  Pictures also mean you don’t have to rely on your memory to get the bottle you want.  If you swear to me you’re looking for a green bottle with a blue and pink house on the label, there’s a very good chance that the bottle is actually brown, and that house is really a dog.  (There’s a reason why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.)  If you really want to get fancy, set up two folders – one for wines you loved and one for wines you hated.  A few flips through this sort of “Wine Tinder” set up and there’s a 95.67% chance we can triangulate you a bottle you’ll love.  (I just made that number up, but based on my years of experience, I would bet it’s fairly accurate!)

Be open minded: Even if you have a picture handy, try not to get hung up on finding a particular bottle.  According to the Wine Institute web site, in California alone there are 4,200 bonded wineries.  Let’s say each of those wineries produces 5 different wines.  (If you’ve ever been to a winery tasting room, you know this is a conservative estimate.)  That’s 21,000 wines…and that’s just California.  Throw in the rest of the country – and the world – and you get to a very big number very quickly.  Tracking down that bottle you had that time when you were on vacation at that place… it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.  And given the legalities surrounding wine distribution, that needle will need to be carried by a distributor in the state you’re trying to buy it in.  Even in New York, where we like to say we have everything, we don’t really have everything!

Ask about special ordering… but know how it works: We get requests to special order wine all the time and we’re happy to chase down these requests.  But… we usually throw in a few caveats: you’ll probably need to get a case, you’ll need to be flexible on timing, and you’ll have to pay in advance.  There are good logistical reasons for this.  Distributors often charge shops a fee to break a case due to the extra labor (and cardboard!) involved when opening and re-boxing loose bottles.  Distributors also have minimum order amounts because there’s a cost involved every time one of their trucks stops at our door.  Order below that amount and… you guessed it, there’s a fee.  If you’re chasing a $100+ bottle, those fees may not matter so much, but a $10 bottle can quickly turn into a $20 bottle if you’re not getting a case.  If your dream wine is with a distributor that we already work with, we might be able to avoid any fees by just waiting until we can put together a bigger order.  Sometimes this is happening tomorrow.  Sometimes it can take weeks…or longer.  And for even the most regular of regulars, I insist on collecting payment info in advance.  Pre-ordered wine has a way of lingering after it’s arrived.  We’re happy to hold it at the shop for nearly ever…as long as you’ve paid for it!

If we’re in the process of closing, and you walk in, we’re probably in a hurry.  I consider it a general rule that if I let someone into the shop after the closing hour, I’m obliged to be as helpful as if I had just opened the shop.  But…if you happen to be that customer who wanders in when the lights are dimmed, don’t assume that operating a wine shop in the dark is a new trend.  If you spot someone counting out the cash register, that’s a pretty good sign that we’re in the middle of closing up.  This is not the time to wander around slowly picking up bottles (in the dark), trying to read the labels (in the dark), and ignoring our request to let us know if you need help (as we stand in the dark.) Let us know that you’ll be quick and then actually…be quick.  

If you’re in a hurry, tell us.  It might break our hearts, but yes, we really can pick out a bottle...without all the chit chat!

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