What Buying Tea Taught Me About Selling Wine

In addition to wine I like tea. Well, coffee too, but this is about tea. And wine.

In a moment when I felt like splurging (the trip to Paris was out, a new car was out, buying first-growth Bordeaux was out), I thought I would go to a very high end tea specialist to purchase some interesting teas that I cannot get at my favorite tea store. So I head off to a luxury store and looked at their extraordinary tea list. “Tea List”? WTF is a tea list? Obviously it is a list of their teas. But they don’t just have black tea, green tea, oolong tea, etc. They have 9,000 Darjeelings, 4 million Oolongs, even more green teas, and so many black teas that a list of them cannot be printed without destroying all the remaining forests in the world. And believe me, I am not one prone to exaggeration.

I was sniffing, smelling and deciding what Oolong tea to buy. Did I want Alishan Spring Harvest or Alishan Winter Harvest? Was I interested in Jade Oolong or Roasted Oolong? Was my preference an Oriental Beauty or an Oriental Concubine? (Well, both, but never mind that. This is about tea.)

The person selling the tea began to explain a tea ceremony, the proper preparation of tea. The pot, the cups, the water temperature. He asked how I heated the water. Well, I said, I put the water in a cup and put it in the microwave…..OMG, he collapsed on the floor. “A microwave? Oh, no!!” he cried. “Never boil water in a microwave. This destroys the oxygen!”

All I wanted was some nice tea to enjoy on a cold and damp day (of which there are many). And now I was told I couldn’t simply enjoy the tea, but I had to do it properly or it doesn’t count.

So this leads me (finally) to say that is this what we wine people do with wine? Do we take all the pleasure out of drinking wine because we tell them the proper temperature to serve the wine, the proper balance of flavor, mouthfeel, tannin, acid? Do we explain why this vintage is better than that vintage? Do we do all this ad infinitum until the poor person who just wanted a nice bottle of wine is totally confused?

When we pair wine with food, do we insist that only an unoaked Chardonnay will work or a Pinot Noir from the RussianRiver? Do we say a wine should be cellared because it will be better in 2 ½ years?  Do we just take all the enthusiasm out of a wine purchase just because we know about wine and know what we like?

Might it be better to ask what they have liked before and find something similar without going into historical references and flavor profiles? Does someone who does not like Cabernet be told that this Cabernet got 95 points?

I know why we say this. But does it turn some customers off and they figure they’d rather not appear ignorant and serve or order the “wrong” wine?

At a tasting one man was explaining to a novice wine drinker that you never ever hold the glass by the bowl, only by the stem, so as to not heat the wine. Well, bull. Maybe the wine is too cold. Maybe the customer likes it warm. Maybe it’s just easier to hold the glass by the bowl and not worry about it. I wonder if that novice wine drinker ever went to another tasting.

If a customer wants to know the trellising system in the vineyard where these particular grapes come from fine. Tell him. But if someone else just wants a good red wine, ask him what he liked in the past, and find something you think he’d like now. He may enjoy it far more not knowing anything about it. And maybe you can turn people into wine lovers. Enjoying wine really shouldn’t be work.

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