I realize that when many of you are worried about basic survival, the question of how to sell “difficult” wines is a later stage concern - may be much later. Yet this issue will be there when normal life resumes, even if it doesn’t resume completely. What’s to be done with the many orphan-wines we love but haven’t sussed how to sell? I recently learned of an answer.
A few years ago a visionary sommelier named Theresa Paopao had a by-the-glass program at a super–trendy restaurant in Brookline, MA, named Ribelle. I’d never seen anything like it before, and sadly, haven’t seen it since. I’m remembering it now, because I’m kind of painfully aware of how often it sounds like I’m scolding you guys in the business for not showing enough luv to my kinds of wines. Or rather, to loving them all right but protesting how hard they are to sell.
You can sell them. Anyone can sell them. You have to get creative at removing barriers. And the first barrier, of course, is identity. That is, the wines people assume they “won’t like” only by dint of the names or origins of those wines.
Ms. Paopao, who didn’t seem to know what was “impossible”, decided to do something about this.
Her by-the-glass program, consisting of roughly 12-13 wines - “4 whites, 4 reds, at least 2 sparkling and 1-3 pinks depending on the season.” were not named, but only described by how they tasted, or as she puts it, “only by a one-line tasting note that was crowd-sourced by at least 2-3 staffers including (and mostly) the kitchen.” I was a guest at this restaurant when I first saw this, and was stupefied with joy – at last someone had figured it out. Entice the buyer with a persuasive and charming description of the wine, so that they order it without the static of their prejudices, and let them taste it with their simple, true palates.
So when were the wines finally identified? Only after they’d been ordered and tasted. I saw this myself, as I ordered three or four of them just to watch this daring concept at work.
“Once the one was ordered by it's identifier (we called them White 1, White 2, White 3... etc), the bottle would come to the table and a small taste was poured before anyone had to commit. It was not uncommon for a skeptic to quiz the attending waitperson on every single glass pour before choosing one. Wine education was a huge part of daily training; it was expected that all servers had to the know the 'dropline' of every wine BTG which meant a mandatory recall of vintage, varietal recipe, producer and all location info.”
So, yes – a lot of work, but also alot of enlightenment among guests and a huge lot of so-called “unsalable” wine actually being sold.
Are you thinking “My staff would never get on board with anything like that,” well, who hires your staff? Paopao says “Everyone knew in the interview process that learning wine would be a huge part of the process. Honestly, I think it attracted people who wanted a deeper wine education. Even people who were originally hired to support staff (bussers, bar backs... even cooks!) came to wine class.”
Her one-word answer to the question “Was it a success?” is: “YES!”
To me this is a self-evidently brilliant idea, but I have to ask (myself at the very least) why, if it is self-evident, it hasn’t been repeated elsewhere (to my knowledge at least). I asked her to see whether my blithe assumption was justified.
“It's a LOT of work (and people are lazy). One needs to be paying constant attention and making honest tasting notes. It would be so easy to copy and paste a note but that's not right or fair. We created a unique note for every new wine we ever served by the glass and that takes time and a bit of fearlessness.” And there’s your answer. To make it work, you’d have to be not-lazy and not-fearful. You’d need to consider the vibe of your place, the number of seats, and whether you attract (or seek to) a clientele willing to “let go” and experiment. The idea won’t work for everyone.
But it will work for a ton more people than have ever thought to try it. And it is the answer to our constant lamenting that we can’t sell the kinds of wines we ourselves like the most. With a little creativity and moxie we really can sell what we want to. All we need to do is spend less time analyzing the impediments to selling wines and more time considering how to obliterate them. It can be done! It has been done, by one smart and fearless somm.
I beseech you to use her example and make the world welcoming for wine-orphans-with-umlauts.