Another week, another underground wine tasting. This time the venue was the cellars of one of London’s old school wine merchants. Hardly the most welcoming of places, it has the appearance of a posh jewellers or exclusive boutique hotel from the outside. It definitely has the feel of the old school, reserved for the upper crust. However, once you get inside and down into the swanky cellars, it has a much more modern feel.
We kicked off with a glass of English sparkling wine which was very good. While we were enjoying the wine we had some talking from the bankers about market volatility (yawn) and liquidity (double yawn). After this, the wine host took over, and it was after a few minutes of his talk about the history of the cellar and the wine that we were to be served that my heart began to slowly sink…
He was one of the poshest people I had ever hear speak, almost to the point that it felt like he was
putting it on. Not only that, he was better dressed than most of the investment bankers for
goodness sake! I could see the awkward glances around the room as people started going into their shells, feeling more and more inferior with every word they heard as he used word after word that the people didn’t really understand, like malolactic fermentation.
It reminded me of Giles Coren’s recent review of Noble Rot Wine Bar in The Times, where he
described his own trepidation when approaching a wine list in a restaurant, hoping just to get
through the conversation with the sommelier without “looking like a dick”. Most people think like
that. Most people like wine but only have a limited knowledge. They know a few wines they like and don’t like but that’s about it.
Surely an event like this is an opportunity for the merchant to show a wider range of wines at a price point normal people are comfortable at, in an effort to get people to try something new, and (shock, horror) turn them into future customers. I spoke to one guest who told me “I don’t mid spending £8-9 on a bottle from Waitrose, but anything over a tenner is a bit too much”. This was from a banker. This is normal. So if the merchant is in touch with its customers, then why not show a range of really good wines, and there are plenty, in the £8-15 range? Show them the benefits of spending a few more pounds. Instead we tasted expensive wines like an £80 Brunello and a £85 vintage port. Both enjoyable but not something Joe Bloggs is ever likely to buy.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. This is part of the reason I started writing about wine. I am fed up with large parts of the wine industry being so old fashioned and snobby about wine. Talking and writing about wine in a way that normal people don’t understand. The world has moved on. Most people don’t wear ties in the office anymore, so why do wine merchants? I spent 15 years working in professional services and the golden rule when picking your attire was, what will the client be wearing? If they have a dress down policy, you dress down. You should be doing everything you can to make your customer feel at ease, not alienating them by trying to make them feel inferior.
Fortunately, not everyone in the wine industry is like this. We are blessed in London to have so many enthusiastic people spreading the wonder of wine in a language that Joe Bloggs can understand. My recent visit to Noble Rot for dinner was testament to this. All of the waiters and sommeliers were approachable, helpful, down-to-earth, and talked passionately about wine in plain English. So it’s not all doom and gloom. We just have to rely on this new breed of wine enthusiasts to remain fresh and relevant to the consumers and hopefully they can drag the wine industry into the 21st Century.
And my plea to the new breed of wine disciples? Unless a customer specifically asks, never, ever
mention malolactic fermentation.