Opinion: Getting customers to order unusual wines

Hamish Anderson

02 June 2016

How do you promote the USP of unusual wines to a hesitant customer? asks Hamish Anderson

Starting from scratch, writing a list for a brand new project is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a sommelier. Having done it a few times, I have learned it is a skill.

Experience has taught me that discipline is the main attribute needed. It is all too easy to write a brief that sets out the number of bins, price range, margin aspiration and style, only to take your eye off a number of these as you start to slot wines into place. The hardest decisions are not what to list but what to leave out.

The list I’m writing at the moment is very different to the current one at Tate. Previously we have focused on classic European wine regions. By and large the Tate team has an easy job: many of the bins sell themselves and advice often consists in helping a guest choose between two wines they already know.

Our new list will be very different. Few classics, long on the up-and-coming, and featuring regions and varieties that excite the trade, but, as we often forget, barely register with a wider audience – in short, it will have wines that need selling.

On a recent trip to Piedmont, I found great wines from beyond my usual confines that were just right for our new list: a Dolcetto producer making wine that’s serious instead of just fun and a Gavi that I actually thought was worth the price.

The undisputed highlight was a visit to Walter Massa in the Colli Tortonesi region. He is credited with saving the white variety Timorasso from extinction. He was late, but we were met by his barefoot assistant who, it transpired, had no love for shoes.

We duly sampled from tank in a chaotic cellar, then moved to the tasting room where bottled wine was enjoyed alongside plates of salami and pecorino. Most of us left the room a Massa fan and I’m sure listings will follow, despite his range being far from the most consistent we tried over the trip. But the experience of the visit would have appealed to novice, wine geek and trade alike – it made you want to buy and drink the wine.

The characters, history and ethos of an estate can hold just as much influence for customers

This left me wondering how to transmit the experience of that visit to potential purchasers of the bottle in the new restaurant.

Consumers choose a wine for many reasons. Taste is obviously one of them, however other factors such as the characters, history and ethos of each estate can hold just as much influence.

But while taste is something we can give our customers a sample of, the rest is pretty hard to communicate through the medium of a wine list or even the best-trained staff.

I’d like Timorasso to walk off the list at the same rate as Marlborough Sauvignon or Chablis. How I achieve that I still don’t know, although to set the scene I am thinking of asking some staff to remove their socks and shoes before service each day…

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