Pouring for Retail: Wine Sampling 101

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

Posted in Best of AWB, Education, Featured, Posts, Rant

Amy Corron Power View posts by 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 legions of twitter, Instagram and Facebook friends and fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events. Amy is also a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, and was most recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude.
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