Last week I was in the Zinfandel aisle at Total Wine—a megastore for wine and liquor purchases–when a man asked a store employee to recommend a bottle of Zin for him. The employee asked one question, “What are you looking to spend?” and at hearing the price range of $20 to $40, zeroed in on exactly one bottle which he highly recommended.
What caught my attention wasn’t the recommended bottle, it’s the conversation that didn’t take place. The employee never asked the customer questions like: Is this for you or for a gift? Will you be serving this with a specific food or having on hand for friends? What kinds of wines do you normally buy? I also was little surprised that he only had one perfect bottle of Zinfandel to recommend, given an entire aisle of options.
After they finished, I walked over to take a closer look at what the employee immediately identified as the perfect Zin for anyone looking to spend between $20 and $40. I noticed there was also a shelf sign next to the wine he recommended declaring it an “Employee’s Favorite” from one of the store employees.
I started looking around the store and noticed that a few producers kept popping up with Employee Favorite signs next to them, regardless of varietal. Three different Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir were all Employee Favorites from River Road. The Titus Cab, Titus Zinfandel, and Titus Sauvignon Blanc all had Employee Favorite signs next to them. Courtney Benham and Martin Ray (both labels of Courtney Benham) had Employee Favorites in the Cabernet, Red Blend, Pinot Noir, and Merlot aisles. Oak Ridge, Baldacci, Amici, and Seven Rings also had employee favorite signs across multiple varietals. These aren’t bad wine producers, but, given the breadth of equivalent quality offerings in the store that weren’t favorited, instinct suggested perhaps something was influencing these selections.
Intrigued, I made a point to stop at the local Total Wine stores in other areas of the country to take note of what wines the employees at stores in other states listed as their favorites. Indeed, I found Employee Favorite signs next to wines from the exact same basket of producers across all stores I visited, regardless of location. Although there were also a number of Employee Favorites not from the list of usual suspects at each store, given the thousands of bottles carried by Total Wine and the breadth of options available, it seemed beyond coincidence that the same few labels just happened to be the “Employee Favorites” across multiple varietals at stores located thousands of miles apart from each other.
Am I suggesting that Total Wine is doing something underhanded? Not at all. They are a billion dollar private company with a goal of growing the bottom line. They are no different from other retailers who are in business to succeed financially. If the wines they promote provide them better margins or other ways they can benefit as a business, then I would expect they would push them above other labels.
Am I suggesting you should not talk to employees at wine stores nor read any of the shelf material, including Employee Favorites? Absolutely not. The shelf readers can provide interesting information and I have had many wonderful conversations with wine store staff who were knowledgeable and personable. I learn something new from almost every conversation.
My point is that wine consumers should understand that store employee recommendations and shelf information may not always be 100% in the consumer’s interest and as such should think critically about what they are reading or hearing, especially if the selection seemed too perfect or too easy.
So if you get overwhelmed or need some options when choosing your wine at the local retailer, here are four tips for navigating the information available to you in the store:
- Unless you have knowledge otherwise, assume every sign, from a rating to an employee recommendation, is a paid advertisement. It may not actually be directly a paid ad, but often it is there to help the retailer or employee benefit in selling that specific bottle. These ads are not necessarily bad, but they certainly require more scrutiny on behalf of the consumer.
- Think critically about how the recommendation of a specific wine is made by an employee. Did the employee ask any details about your specific wine needs or go right to one perfect bottle as soon as you said the word “Cabernet?” Did the employee offer only one recommendation or provide multiple options and then help guide your choice between them? Given the breadth of the selection at most retailers, there is typically more than one wine that would meet your need, so offering just one bottle as the perfect selection, especially without getting any additional details on your situation or what you like, should be a huge beacon that perhaps the recommendation is influenced by something other than the full and complete desire to assist you.
- Make sure the recommendation provided is based on the same vintage of the wine being sold. It’s not infrequent that a sign will tout a wine’s rating, or an employee will be quoting a review or experience with the wine, but the rating or experience is from a year other than the one actually being sold by the retailer at the time. In other words, compare the year of the wine on the posted recommendation to the year of the wine on the shelf. There’s often a discrepancy.
- If you are in doubt about a recommendation or just want a second opinion, there’s a plethora of websites and apps to guide you. So grab your smartphone and do your own quick research. A couple of my favorite resources are www.wine-searcher.com (includes both an average of professional wine reviews in a weighted average score and an average user rating) and www.cellartracker.com (user reviews of wine).