The complexities of wine

After 10 years of working in wine, studying through the WSET levels and now making my way through the MW, I would be the first to admit that wine is a complex subject and can be very confusing to many people. But, I do believe that no matter how complicated the subject is we the wine trade have a duty of care when talking to consumers and that bullshitting them is just wrong.

Take this example from a restaurant I was in just the other night:

Customer: “I’d like a glass of white wine, but I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc”

Waitress: “Well, we don’t serve New World wines here.”

The customer here clearly likes wine, knows what they do and do not like and wants some help from the person serving the wine. Great, this should be an easy request to deal with. But the response from the waitress is both confused and confusing. Does she assume the customer specifically doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc from the New World? Perhaps she doesn’t know that France, about as Old World as it gets, is the home of Sauvignon Blanc? Perhaps that is just a line she trots out on the assumption that her customers would rather drink Old World wine anyway.

Regardless of the reason, I can’t but help think she has failed the customer. Even if she didn’t know that Sauvignon is grown in the Old World (which would surprise me, given her position in the restaurant and clear knowledge of Old vs New world) she is still not giving the customer any real help or guidance on what to order. In fact, her response can’t have done anything other than confuse the customer – it certainly confused me. The restaurant had a short wine list, but everything was listed by the glass and the customer just wanted to be recommended something to enjoy.

When I’ve mentioned this incident since then there have been two types of response. The first berated me for ‘publicly bashing’ customers and service staff who didn’t know much about wine. I hope this makes it clear that wasn’t my intention. This really isn’t about how much wine knowledge you have, but rather how you use what knowledge you have – and more importantly, how you help the customer with what they want.

The second type of response illustrates that sometimes we in the trade do like to have a joke at consumers’ expense, making it perhaps unsurprising the first response came up. These comments asked if perhaps the customer would have liked a glass of Sancerre. For anyone confused at this point, Sancerre is a region in France where white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst I freely admit to making this exact ‘joke’ myself in the past (using the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay but I love Chablis’ example) – with this type of response it is quite clear why the general public like to label us in the wine trade as snobs.

So, please if you’re in the industry – be careful with how you use your wine knowledge with customers. Don’t fob them off with a half-truth or bullshit them because it’s easier. But equally, know that wine is confusing and if you can shine even the smallest light on one aspect you will be doing both your customer and yourself a favour. And let’s stop mocking consumers because they don’t know as much as we do. That’s ok. Maybe they just want a nice glass of wine.


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