Pouring for Retail: Wine Sampling 101

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Ever wonder how those hotties pouring sample shots at bars and sporting events got their jobs?

On any given weekend, especially around the holidays, you can walk into our local wine merchant and sample wines without paying a dime. At our local wine “superstore” on Saturday afternoons you can troll the aisles tasting a number of different wines and spirits. Most of the liquor samples are served by young hotties who know little about the product they are selling. And they don’t really have to, because they’re selling to men running in from the Sports Bar at half-time to stock up for “tonight’s party,” or the perhaps if coming from home, the second half.

Wine sampling is a little different. Most of the reps pouring the samples tend to be a little older, and know a little (or a lot) about wine. I have a part-time gig promoting wines for a local distributor. I don’t have a regular schedule, but tend to fill in during the holidays, or when someone can’t make her regular shift.  Sometimes I fill in at the local wine superstore.  Other times, I’ll pour at a neighborhood grocery store, especially when there is a “Grand Opening,” and there are more venues than our distributor usually staffs.

Retail wine tasting is different from liquor sampling, private wine tastings or those at a winery. This is especially true at grocery stores, where quite often the wines we’re targeting the less-sophisticated consumer who is looking for a wine that is “on sale.”  Many of the wines I promote are not those I would purchase for myself or to serve at parties.  I look at these assignments as a chance to provide a little education, and to get people interested in learning more about wine.

In my own experience as well as working with other wine reps, I’ve developed some ideas on providing information to the consumer, as well as successfully promoting (selling) the wine.  Here are some tips to anyone interested in the wonderful world of retail wine pouring.

Know Your Wines. Before you set foot at your assigned locale, research the wines you’ll be pouring. I print out tasting notes and growing region maps from a variety of sources (the winery website, Wine Spectator or other third parties). I put them in sheet protectors in a thin binder that I take with me for reference. I also ask my fellow wine bloggers on Open Wine Consortium and twitter.com for their opinions of the wine.

Have the Right Tools. Don’t take just any corkscrew. Make sure you have a decent sommelier tool that won’t break off in the synthetic cork. There is nothing more annoying, or embarrassing, than being unable to open a new bottle in front of a line of interested customers. And don’t take liquor pour spouts. Pick up some flexible wine pour disks. They’re easy to use and re-usable! If you’re going to be serving a white wine take your own ice bucket. Don’t assume one will be supplied. The same goes for a small, sturdy folding table. Make sure you have some small cups. We use 1 oz. plastic “shot” cups to comply with regulations on serving “samples.”

Do Not Wear Perfume. This seems like a no brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to a newbie wine rep who is sporting the latest floral scent. It not only impairs your own ability to smell and taste the wine, but encroaches on your customers’ ability to do so.

Get There Early. If you’re not the only wine representative scheduled for the day, getting there early sometimes gives you the opportunity to pick your own location, preferably near the wines you’re promoting. At one store they had already set up the spot for me, in the MEAT DEPARTMENT! One of the other reps had gotten there early and taken the only available spot near the wine.

Meet Your Contact Person. Sometimes you get the name of the Wine Manager in advance. Often you’re looking for the store manager. Introduce yourself to the Customer Service personnel and let them know why you’re there.  People are usually happy to help as long as you’re friendly, courteous and recognize that they are busy. Get a name of the person who can help you get more wine if you need it.

Meet Other Demo Folks. Not only does this help you learn about other products, but it also gives you the opportunity to help educate your customers on pairings. And sometimes you’ll meet someone unexpected.  Recently, I met Al Austin from Cin Chili & Co. When Al told me the name stood for “Cindy Reed Wilkins, two time winner of the Terlingua International Chili Championship” it jogged my memory. I’d seen her on an episode of Throw Down with Bobby Flay!

Set Up Your Serving Area. Many reps just plop down their bucket, open the wine, and start serving on a bare table. If you want to attract people to your area to buy your product, presentation, presentation, presentation!  I usually take a table cloth, a nice “wine art” towel, and some napkins. Make sure you have enough of wine you’re selling there, and available for the customer.  It’s much easier to sell when you can hand the bottle to the customer, instead of sending them to the shelves. But don’t overstock your table. Having only a few bottles available at a time, allows you to offer the customer some of your stock as a convenience to them.

Provide Some Food. When I started doing tastings in our area, no one provided food with their wine samples. Experienced wine tasters know you should try wine by itself.  But it’s much easier to sell wine if you can show people how it might be enhanced with food.  I tend to put out some crackers, meats and cheeses. Going early allows me to simply buy something from the store.  Often I can then direct the customer to the cheese or crackers to pick up for themselves, making me more popular with the manager! (Who is then more likely to go get more wine when I need it!) The food also attracts people to your station, especially when you’re competing with other wine reps for tasters!

Taste the Wine. Make sure you taste wine from each and every bottle you open before serving it to make sure the wine isn’t corked, cooked, or otherwise unfit to drink.

Pour the Wine in Order. Many of the folks coming up for a tasting just don’t know how the order of sampling affects their tasting of the wine. I’ve noticed that often the women prefer whites and men prefer reds.  But this gives you a chance to educate the consumer.  Ask if they’d prefer to try one or all of the wines, so you can start with the least tannin. And explain to them why you’re pouring them in that order.  Many of the folks I talk to are just excited to learn new things to impress their friends!

Don’t Volunteer Tasting Notes. While I always have the tasting notes for my own reference, I don’t tell people what notes they should be tasting.  Rather, I ask them what they think, and then validate their opinions. This not only helps the consumer begin to identify the notes themselves, it also is a great selling technique! I do, however, volunteer pairing suggestions.

Engage People in Conversation. If you’re gregarious like me, this will be no trouble at all! But if you’re more introverted this will take some practice. Be observant. Look for sports jerseys and listen for accents. For me, it’s pretty easy to spot someone who is not originally from Texas (Aussies, French and Germans being the easiest!) But if you can build a rapport, you can help them to feel more comfortable if they are new to wine tasting.  And it will encourage them to pick up a bottle of wine from you!

Don’t Be Offended if some people don’t like the wine. Not everyone is going to like what you’re serving. But it helps to get a sense of what they like before you pour. Last week I had a number of ladies tell me they liked White Zinfandel. So I had to let them know that the Chardonnay and Shiraz I was pouring probably was going to be something new for them. That’s where the food was helpful.

Follow the Law. In Texas, as in most locales, there are laws surrounding serving alcohol. If you’re required to have a license, make sure you have it with you. Watch your start and stop times. Don’t be afraid to ask for ID if you think the taster might be under legal drinking age.  Sometimes I ask people I know darned well are over 21, just to make them feel good. I can’t tell you how many senior citizens get a hoot out of this one!

Keep Track of Sales. Don’t try to “remember” how many bottles you’ve sold. If it’s not provided to you create an in-store tasting recap.  The sheet I use lists the date, store name, the name of the wine, bottles sold and bottles sampled.

Clean Up Before You Leave. Even if your mother works there, it’s your job to clean up your work area. Any left over wine should be corked and taken with you if that’s the arrangement you have with your distributor. Never just leave partial bottles in the store. Dump the ice bucket. Clean up the cups and throw away any left over food. Let the manager know you’ve finished your shift and thank her for her help.

If you’re not already involved with wine sampling, get acquainted with one of the reps sampling in your area to find out more.  While it’s not your typical wine tasting, retail wine sampling at wine merchants and grocery stores allows you to educate consumers, expand your own knowledge, and promote the wine industry.

~ Amy Corron Power
aka WineWonkette

About Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and nearly 10,000 twitter fans. She holds certifications from International Sommelier Guild, regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events and is currently studying for her California Wine Appellation Specialist certification through the San Francisco Wine School.
  • http://eaglesnestwinery.ning.com Eagles_Nest

    Amy:

    Great prep list. Out here the State ABC wants all pourers to be trained by an ABC approved trainer. They prefer we use the 1 oz pourers.

  • Amy

    Interesting. I have some 1-oz pourers but then tend to splash the wine. We usually get the tiny little cups that only hold an ounce. But we do have to take training as well — but ours can be completed on-line.

  • chanda

    I REALLY WANT TO BECOME A WINE CONSULTANT, I WOULD LIKE TO START MY OWN BUSINESS. BUT NOT COMPLETELY SURE HOW TO START,OR WHERE TO GET MY LICENSE TO START.IF YOU COULD HELP ME WITH WHAT YOU KNOW IT WOULD BE VERY APPRECIATED. THANK YOU.

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com WineWonkette

      Chanda, you did not mention where you are from. In Texas, you need a TABC license to pour. TABC certification is available on-line through http://www.learn2serve.com/ The site provides certs for other states as well.

      I learned about local wine consulting from going to tastings at Specs, our local wine retailer, and talking to the folks who did the tastings. Kathy, a great wine consultant who pours on weekends hooked me up with her employer, who was looking for extra people to do demos.

      You also might want to join Open Wine Consortium http://www.openwineconsortium.org/ Where there are many members with knowledge about the industry and how to get started. Good Luck!

      • Misswisconsin

        Hi — I recently moved to Texas and would like to pour at tastings at grocery stores etc. Could you please tell me what the name of the organization(s) are that would be looking for people?

        Thank you. Carol

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com WineWonkette

    Chanda, you did not mention where you are from. In Texas, you need a TABC license to pour. TABC certification is available on-line through http://www.learn2serve.com/ The site provides certs for other states as well.

    I learned about local wine consulting from going to tastings at Specs, our local wine retailer, and talking to the folks who did the tastings. Kathy, a great wine consultant who pours on weekends hooked me up with her employer, who was looking for extra people to do demos.

    You also might want to join Open Wine Consortium http://www.openwineconsortium.org/ Where there are many members with knowledge about the industry and how to get started. Good Luck!

  • http://www.anotherwineblog.com WineWonkette

    Chanda, you did not mention where you are from. In Texas, you need a TABC license to pour. TABC certification is available on-line through http://www.learn2serve.com/ The site provides certs for other states as well.

    I learned about local wine consulting from going to tastings at Specs, our local wine retailer, and talking to the folks who did the tastings. Kathy, a great wine consultant who pours on weekends hooked me up with her employer, who was looking for extra people to do demos.

    You also might want to join Open Wine Consortium http://www.openwineconsortium.org/ Where there are many members with knowledge about the industry and how to get started. Good Luck!

  • Misswisconsin

    Hi — I recently moved to Texas and would like to pour at tastings at grocery stores etc. Could you please tell me what the name of the organization(s) are that would be looking for people?

    Thank you. Carol

  • Glitzysue

    does someone know any websitesfor companies pouring samples in stores other than flow wine group?

  • erkan

    sens ankara

  • Sheila P

    I am starting up a new Liquor demoing business. I hooked up with a local distributor. What is the average pay per hour for pouring liquor samples at various liquor stores in both the state of Minnesota & Wisconsin? Also, what do I charge my distributor per hour to pay my company as well as my liquor demo subcontractor? Is the rate usually doubled? Please email at your earliest convenience. Thanks.
    Sheila P
    Sam’s Gourmet Hut

    • http://www.anotherwineblog.com WineWonkette

      Sheila

      Thanks for reading! I don’t know the rates in Minnesota or Wisconsin, because I am only licensed in Texas. I do know that the demo-ing company guy never paid us until after he got paid, and he only paid us for time pouring. Not time setting up, or time tearing down. For some locations he had a charge account and others he had the demo person (me) buy the wine up front and then he reimbursed. I tended to be less available when I had to front the costs, and wait a month for reimbursement since I was an independent contractor.

      As far as mark-up, you might look at how wine is marked up in a restaurant and in Minnesota and Wisconsin and use that model for pay. You may also need to look at Prevailing wage issues. Are you providing the pourer’s license, or will you require the workers to be licensed before you hire them (my demo company required them before placement).

      For hourly rate, pouring in Houston is about the same hourly rate as an inside sales rep or a recruiter for a non-accredited “trade” college. Just look at those salaries in Wisconsin and Minnesota for a comparison. Good Luck!

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