Wine's time to shine
At this time of year, the activity of an independent wine merchant has the quality of a time lapse in a David Attenborough documentary.
Like some tropical plant growing in fast motion, our deliveries double in quantity and frequency and with them, we hope, our customers. Alongside the mispicks from the bond are the desperate scrambles to ship stock, load up on gift bags, make sure you have enough transit packaging and – of course – the inevitable and unpredictable stock shortages.
It’s impossible to have everything you might need in stock all of the time, so inevitably we consult last year’s sales and this year’s trends, amalgamating the two into an infallible prediction of what customers will buy, aiming for an empty cellar and money in the bank in January. That’s the theory. In reality, all the mature claret runs out a week before Christmas and this year turns out to be the one when everyone has decided that Prosecco is passé and the Riesling renaissance finally happens.
For many shops, Christmas trading becomes overfamiliar, but this is – for the majority of wine shoppers – the most exciting time of the year when they justify spending more than they normally would. While it might be a push to describe the British as carnivalesque come December 25, in a period of austerity that seems to persist like a hard-earned whisky hangover, there is a sense of steely determination about having a good time.
In days when we seem increasingly inclined to measure calories, kilometres and how many units of alcohol we’ve had, there’s a correspondingly increased pleasure in the excesses of Christmas. Unlike the rest of the year, when the only legitimate morning alcoholic drink is a Bloody Mary (and only at weekends), at Christmas anything goes: Champagne, Scotch, Martinis by noon; cold glazed ham and hot mince pies for breakfast; and several naps a day on alimentary grounds.
In the run-up to the day itself, Christmas is an opportunity for independents to engage the many new customers who come through our doors, having spent most of their year in the supermarket aisles or shopping online. In this month, so much more than usual, it’s important to be sensitive to price points, prejudices and to take time to talk about what makes us special as retailers. In the era of Amazon Prime, it’s never going to be convenience, so whatever Michael Gove thinks it might as well be expertise.
While there’s no point denying that we’re all somewhat jaded by the turkey-and-wine matching aspect of the holiday, Christmas trading is a great opportunity to show people what quality wine with provenance is all about. With every aged Barolo that goes out the door, waiting to release its perfume of warm cassia, old libraries and dried cranberries, I wonder if I will see a new customer in January, or if this will be the wine that finally reveals the pleasure and beauty of the vine.
Of course, at some point we’ll all have to drink something that won’t be to our taste – mulled wine, in my case – but the season is ripe for indulgence in fine wine. There’s a deep-grained traditionalism about Christmas that seems to lead many back to claret and Champagne, and that seems the right sensibility for this most nostalgic of holidays. Although December is a challenging and busy time for hard-pressed small businesses, Christmas is a holiday that seems designed for the civilised pleasures of wine.
Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at email@example.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar.