set loose in the aisles, excessive perfume, phony French accents---wine
store owners have seen (and hated) it all.
Here’s a retailer’s-eye view of faux pas to avoid.
By Lettie Teague
Sept. 7, 2017
How do you become a wine merchant’s favorite customer, rate
personal service and perhaps even receive an email when your favorite
wine goes on sale? It seems pretty obvious: Visit the store often, get
to know the sales staff and generally show your support. But what about
the customer faux pas that might put a wine merchant off? In search of
insight and a few good stories (of course), I asked retailers what they
wish customers wouldn’t do while shopping in their stores.
Customers who put on fake French accents get on Daniel Posner’s
nerves. Mr. Posner, proprietor of Grapes the Wine Company in White
Plains, N.Y., reported that “a small group of people will be talking
normally and then they’ll ask for a French wine, and all of a sudden
they’re fluent in French.” Except that they are not; these customers
usually mispronounce words and get the names wrong. “We will have to
say, ‘What did you say?’ It’s totally unnecessary,” Mr. Posner
said. Do customers ever put on, say, a fake Spanish accent?
Occasionally, said Mr. Posner, but he confirmed that it’s most often
fake French, and most often men who do it.
This problem seemed to be Mr. Posner’s alone, but another pet peeve
cropped up repeatedly among the retailers I surveyed: customers who talk
on their phones, ignoring the sales staff behind the counter or on the
floor. One man actually completed an entire business deal while talking
on his phone in Jeffrey Wolfe’s eponymous wine shop in Coral Gables,
Fla., and then he walked out without buying a single bottle. The store
had simply been a quiet place for him to complete a conversation. Mr.
Wolfe was duly affronted. “Walking into my store is like walking into
my home,” he said.
Harris Polakoff, the proprietor of Pogo’s Wine & Spirits in
suburban Dallas, has also watched plenty of shoppers talk on the phone
and ignore sales staff, and he’s had others who go a step further by
putting headphones on after they finish their phone conversations, as if
to guarantee there will be no interaction at all with the staff. But
even that isn’t as off-putting as the customers who have walked into
the store, declined Mr. Polakoff’s help and actually videotaped his
wine shelves. “I thought that was rude,” said Mr. Polakoff. Not to
Mr. Polakoff emphasized that the vast majority of his customers
don’t wear headphones or videotape the bottles on his
shelves-they’re people who visit a small, independent wine shop
because they actually want to get the retailer’s advice and
recommendations. A trained and knowledgeable sales staff is one of the
great assets of a small business, as is the presence of the merchant
him- or herself. Mr. Polakoff likes to help customers, too, especially
since he and his staff have tasted most of the offerings in his store.
Sometimes a customer at MCF Rare Wine in Manhattan will actually pick
up a bottle and ask proprietor Matt Franco if he’s tasted the wine.
The fact that the store is quite small, with only 100 or so bottles on
the shelves, doesn’t seem to register. Some people will even add,
“Is it any good?” Shouldn’t the fact that Mr. Franco has culled
his selection to such a tiny number signify that these are wines he
Other times, a merchant feels hamstrung by a client’s perception of
her shop. Gina Trippi, co-owner of Metro Wines in Asheville, N.C.,
recalled how she started carrying Apothic Red, a mass-market brand, to
attract customers buying it at a large discount liquor store in town.
But Apothic Red drinkers refused to buy it in her store. “They said,
‘Oh I couldn’t buy that wine in a nice wine shop,’ ” she said.
But reluctant Apothic Red drinkers don’t bother Ms. Trippi as much
as the customers who refuse to take wine advice from a woman. If a
female staffer approaches such customers (who include both men and
women), they will most often just grin and keep walking toward a male
staffer, said Ms. Trippi, who has both witnessed the phenomenon and
experienced it herself. “They assume if it’s a woman staff member
she won’t know what she’s talking about,” she said. What does Ms.
Trippi, who is both a woman and the store’s co-owner, do when this
happens? If the customer happens to be talking to her, Ms. Trippi will
simply flag down a male staffer for help.
I find it hard to believe that in 2017, with so many women in the
wine business, some shoppers actually presume a woman will be ignorant
based on gender alone. But then I also have a hard time believing people
would show up for store tastings reeking of perfume or cologne. But they
do this as well, said Ms. Trippi.
Some customers also like to give their dogs free run of the shop.
This was a common complaint among retailers. “They will just drop the
leash,” marveled Mr. Franco, who has found a dog in his back office
more than once.
Margaux Singleton posted a sign outside her Calistoga, Calif.,
business, Enoteca Wine Shop, that says, “Attention Dogs-No Pee Pee
Here!” She’s not sure it’s comprehensive enough. “I’m thinking
of changing it to ‘Dogs and Children,’ ” she said.
Retailer Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame,
Calif., has a sign in his store warning customers they should not expect
to find wine scores posted. It name-checks two famous wine publications,
noting that Weimax is a “Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate Free
Zone.” He said people who come in looking for a wine with a certain
number of points often aren’t thinking about the wine itself-whether
it fits their taste or will work with their meal. Mr. Weisl regards
scores as detrimental to the enjoyment of wine. He worries that someone
who buys a highly rated wine and doesn’t like it might conclude that
he or she simply doesn’t like wine.
“A good wine merchant will ask the customer a few questions as to
what characteristics they find appealing, what food they are pairing
with the wine and what price range is comfortable,” he said.
‘Some customers also like to give their dogs free run of the shop,
a common complaint among wine retailers.’
Like the other retailers I talked to, Gary Fisch, owner of the Gary’s
Wine & Marketplace stores in suburban New Jersey, works the floor,
though he notes this has its disadvantages. When he’s helping people,
sometimes “they assume they can negotiate the price,” he said. Mr.
Fisch prides himself on his pricing and will generally match most other
stores’ prices, unless a wine is in limited supply. “When Insignia
was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year,” Mr. Fisch offered by way of
example, “we decided not to be the cheapest.” One customer was
outraged when Mr. Fisch wouldn’t meet the price the man found on a
competing retailer’s website, and he left in a huff. Mr. Fisch saw the
same man in his shop a few days later, buying the same wine-apparently
the online retailer didn’t have it in stock.
After hearing tales of poor etiquette and general gracelessness, I
was relieved to realize I’d never committed such infractions. I’ve
never worn headphones in a store, videotaped bottles or bargained on
prices, let alone let my dogs off their leashes. I am, however,
seriously considering putting on Maurice Chevalier’s accent the next
time I visit Mr. Posner’s store-just to see if I can pull it off.