Welcoming the wine rookie

It’s all true. Wine writers loaf around in a state of partial inebriation and partial undress, bitching about having to taste free wine all day and using recondite words like malolactic, terroir and recondite. 

Little wonder that vast majority of wine drinkers find wine alienating.

Recently, I’ve been teaching WSET level-one courses, which has been a metaphorically and literally sobering experience. I had to get dressed and everything. It was a stark reminder of the presumptions and misconceptions that so many people have about wine. 

Most of the students knew nothing about wine. One claimed never to have never drunk wine in her life and grimaced her way through every tasting. She’d make an excellent wine writer. Beyond recognising the most commonplace brands and varieties, they were typical wine rookies.

It’s easy to forget that we were all like that once. One of my WSET students thought all rosé was white Zinfandel. Another assumed that when fruits are mentioned in tasting notes, they have actually been added to the wines. Several had no idea that the year on the bottle told you when the grapes were picked. And pronouncing some of the words we routinely use in the trade had all of them confused.

For these people – in other words, 99% of the UK’s wine drinkers – choosing wine to buy from a shop remains a combination of guesswork, luck and half-remembered facts. Look around your off-licence and imagine you know nothing about wine. How welcoming is your merchandising? How easy is it to choose what to buy if you have no wine knowledge whatsoever?

Now, wine is always going to be a complicated subject – but that doesn’t mean a simplified message is impossible. Granted it’s also true that many wine consumers have no active interest in learning about wine – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer everyone the chance.

Thankfully, nowadays there are plenty of wine retailers trying their hardest to make wine accessible. Tasting counters or sampling machines have become increasingly common; tablets are often there to offer information; and interesting, unconventional spaces are commandeered to host pop-ups and tasting events.

Yet many off-licences persist with a format that has all the appeal of a motorway service station: walls of identical shelving displaying hundreds of confusing bottles with minimal signage.

Improving the retail experience and engaging with your clientele should be a no-brainer: it prompts increased bottle spend as well as encouraging return visits. And creativity needn’t be expensive: try merchandising a premium brand next to your bestseller, along with a personal recommendation. Make a wine-of-the-week display and mention it to everyone who comes to the till. Teach yourself one new wine fact every day and pass it on to your customers.

It’s the kind of thing my wine rookie students would have found welcoming.

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