A punter walks into a bar….

April 11, 2016

So. Recent months have seen a number of people contact me asking about ordering wines.

Seems simple, right?

On a Facebook group, the point was made that the punter should try something new,  or different, or outside of their comfort zone when they go to a bar with a good wine list. Much in the same way that one orders from the menu food that we generally do not make at home, a good wine list is an opportunities to branch out.

And I completely get the pride a venue takes in their wine list.  It takes time,  inspiration, money. And that deserves a certain respect.

And yet. Yet I have wine-aware friends and family asking me continuously how to avoid the feral wines (to their palates) on the wine list. Sure. Some of them are more likely to just accede to a suggestion rather than voicing a preference. They are terrified of being “wrong”. Or looked down upon. They just want a wine they *want* to drink.

This is where a number of consumers find themselves today. And it is the industry which creates confusion rather than clarity – something we have accomplished admirably. We tie our industry and our products up in knots. We use a very specific language much of the time which draws a line between those in the know and those just looking for a glass of wine they might enjoy. We make it a mystery where we are trying to make it a discovery.

Case in point: friend goes into a bar. Looks at list. Bar person spruiks for a wine which my friend is fairly sure is not their thing. Bar person has not met my friend before. Bar person knows nothing of why the friend is there, how their taste buds skew, whether or not they plan on ordering food. Bar person didn’t even ask whether they might prefer white, pink, or red. Sweet or dry. Full or lean.

Bar person wanted to show off,  and all they showed was a fatal lack of comprehension of the service industry.

Serving someone a drink has very much to do with the drinker’s tastes.  And very little to do with the preference of the bar person.

Good sommeliers understand this. Good sommeliers also understand that their role is about providing a great experience for the diner.  Full stop. Whether they want the same wine style they drink at home, or are willing to be taken on a journey. A good sommelier will find a way to enliven the experience and slowly open the diner’s mind and maybe tempt them with a half step to the left of the usual selection next time.

A good sommelier does not push. They tempt. They entice. They enhance the experience where suitable. They understand when someone just wants a safe choice, and to not diminish that choice.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of people working in hospitality with some experience, but often not necessarily the tools and experience of a good somm. A distinct preference for a wine does not necessarily make for a good fit for your customer. A venue which is entirely bound up in their own preference is missing one of the key bits of hospitality. That of actual ‘hospitality’.

The wine industry is often guilty of the same thing to a certain extent. Being too focused on the sales pitch to ask where the punter fits is a common error. Everyone brings something to their wine selection. Past experiences. Personal preference. Earlier tipples. Unless we ask, how are we to adequately take to this into account when guiding choices?

And unless we take this into account, we are not suitably working toward the best exposure of our wines.


When serving at events and tastings, my first question is what the punter would choose to purchase. Given their choice. This is a starting point. It’s not rocket science but understanding from where a customer comes is the key to building a relationship and not wasting people’s time. Let’s be honest – a scattergun approach might graze its target but it is rarely a bull’s eye.

Same goes in a bar. I’m certainly all for taking the path less travelled, but it is probably fair to say that I am also in the minority. And yes. I want this minority to gain ground. I’m just not entirely sure about how we are going about doing it.

Pushing wines onto a customer is not the same as listening to them and educating them. It annoys people. It makes them less likely to take that step to the left next time. It does nothelp any of us. Except for the more commercial end of the game.  Making it harder to select and enjoy wines only drives people to the predictable choice.  Because most people want to know what they are getting. A degree of predictability is about delivering security to the buyer. They know that what they have ordered will tick the boxes.

I would rather that everyone tried new things. That they handed over the keys to their palates and let us take them on an adventure. That they were open to their minds being expanded.

But.  They are not our palates. We as the wine trade, the vendors, the somms, the bartenders do not get to dictate the preferences of another’s palate. They do not belong to us. What we can do is listen. Take on board what the customer tells us. Believe them. And use this information to either deliver what they want exactly, or to best provide a viable, engaging alternative. This is our role.

Never to denigrate. Always to listen. Engage. Build a bridge from where they are to where our wines might reside. Make it fun, rather than a hard lesson learned.

Why do we make it so damn hard to enjoy wines? No freaking clue. We build walls of words and language. We as an industry struggle to define our own terminology consistently. We write tasting notes embedded with the science and zero connection. We say we engage because we do events and talk to the people. But look around. The peopleare bemused.

Wine can be a journey. An outstanding, vibrant, engaging journey. Except the guidebook appears to be written in a foreign language and the translator is banging on about technique and tools rather than addressing the journey in the glass.

My favourite customer back in the day came to the restaurant four or five times a week. He had the same thing. A half dozen natural, fish of the day grilled, sauce on the side. A couple of glasses of Cloudy Bay sauv. He didn’t want anything else. And it was our job to deliver that.

Occasionally he hosted larger tables. And then he asked me as the somm to recommend wines his guests would appreciate. Not him. His guests. He was a consummate entertainer, and it was purely about ensuring his guests had a great time.

Simple really. There are probably a few people who could learn a trick or two. It’s not about us. What is about us is getting it made and in the bottle.  Spruiking/marketing/selling is about translating our wine into a voice. Once we are there, it is all about the consumer palate.

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