Sommelier Masterclass Part 2 - Buying wine for a small wine list

Sounds simple enough. And you would be forgiven for thinking so, most would-be sommeliers cannot wait to get their hands on the company credit card. And far too many believe they are entitled to do so the day they pass even the most junior of sommelier exams. But as sommeliers with experience from both managing large annual budgets, with little oversight, and now small business owners, turning over every cent, we know all too well the leap of faith it takes to entrust your limited resources, the long term profitability - and the overall persona of your beverage program to just anybody.


This article then is not intended to be an exhaustive guide on how a good wine program is put together, but rather an overview of what goes into it. In an effort to give some insight for sales teams to better approach buyers, for aspiring sommeliers to grasp the complexity and responsibility of the task at hand all in the hope that we can build better beverage programs.


At its core a beverage program needs to do two things; Portray a personality, an image or a story and then of course, make money. More often than not the former is completely absent, resulting in the latter being adversely affected. With the average beverage program only succeeding in conveying which distributor’s reps showed up first, were most persistent, or could supply the most merchandise. Failing that, what you often see is an insight into the proprietors own palate or an incoherent list of their friends wines listed for political reasons, doomed to never sell and ultimately, although unintentionally, forming part of a maturation program.


A good beverage program not only facilitates direct sales, with the help of good on floor staff, but also builds trust and exploration, resulting in return visits, while simultaneously catering for the less adventurous palette and being different enough to attract new customers all wrapped up in that unique composition.


The average sales pitch goes something like this: “Hi, I’m here to sell you a low to medium priced Sauvignon Blanc in a commercially sound, bright and aromatic style from a cool-ish maritime climate. It’s great.”Yes, it probably is good and we make lots of those. Although we only need one or perhaps a few, we certainly don’t need a hundred. Yours will have to be one of the best on the market and cheaper than its competitors. And if it is, then I’ll have a pallet.

A more successful approach might look something like: “Hi, I would like to sell you an Albariño for your vegan sprout salad bar. It can fill a similar place on the wine list as a sauvignon blanc or a dry riesling, but it’s something different.” 


Whether buying the wine or pitching to sell it there should always be a clear purpose. Most brand representatives will either bring the entire portfolio, or focus on the wines that the rep would like to sell. With little regard for what the program actually needs. It might be worth assessing the sommeliers current wine list before choosing which wines to present and providing some compelling motivation for how it could benefit profitability. Such an approach would make the chance of success higher, given that the product contributes to the diversity or replaces something less distinct in style. This requires a sound understanding of one's own wines and how they compare in the market. 


Wine by the glass, with the exception of very large programs, tends to be cheaper, cover a broader range of styles and, more often than not, tend to also be your pairing wines. Often overlooked and treated as an afterthought, usually only determined by price, this small section can, and should, be the most thought out section on the list.


A lunch destination in an affluent suburb might well need two Sauvignon Blancs on a list that only has four or five whites. Why not add two very different styles, perhaps from a cool and a moderate climate, to facilitate a discussion on terroir. In such a setting heritage and sustainability might be as important as outright quality, do the wines convey that? How about ensuring that the one that works best with the food is from a lesser known producer, willing to negotiate a by-the-glass deal. A producer that shares your brand values, something different than your neighbour. Perhaps also adding that Albariño or Verdelho, for interest sake. After all, remarkability facilitates word of mouth.


In the aforementioned outlet there might be room for diversity in the white wine selection but probably not as much in the reds. Regardless of the quality or the price a big bold tannic red is probably not going to sell too quickly and certainly cannot be justified listing by the glass. For the hardened red wine drinker, a more conscientious approach might be to list only one big bold red. Ensuring it is of a riper disposition, with softer more velvety tannin, that will certainly still overpower most delicate lunchtime dishes, but at least won’t become overtly astringent and bitter, paired with salads and seafood. A list such as this is ideally centered around lighter style reds, perhaps a Pinot Noir from a well known producer supplemented by a light Cinsault, served slightly chilled, for the more esoteric consumer.


Similarly, the traditional hearty South African family grill house might not have space for yet another Sauv. And the clientele might not be too interested in a spontaneously fermented Carignan from the Swartland. But they might well start specialising in the Kingdom of Cab. And, instead of listing five mainstream commercial examples all dominated by generic dark fruit flavours, they could be listed according to their wine of origin, showcasing the diversity of Stellenbosch terroir and maybe oom Koos might even find a ward he likes the most. Now wouldn’t that be fun, and an interesting sales pitch. 


The by-the-bottle section of a wine list might be broader and less concise but needs to be no less well thought out. Here, various factors like initial capital outlay, ageability and storage need to be taken into consideration. Especially if the wine was to be bought for maturation, a topic covered in more detail in the future articles.


The previous mentioned lunchtime destination might not have much need for an extensive collection of mature red wine and even less so white. But a savvy salesman might see an opportunity to punt some vintage Champagne or MCC, while an informed buyer would recognise a safe investment that only increases in value over time. If stored correctly.


In contrast the South African family grill might have little use for vintage bubbles, but if specialising in Stellenbosch cabs, might have room for a well cellard vertical as well as something a little less middle of the road, as long as it fits the brief, perhaps a whole bunch fermented low alcohol Cab, from an old vineyard, out in Polkadraai?


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