The following blog entry is an excerpt from Steven Lane's debut book, "The Drunken Sommelier".
Available now in our online store.
The Upsell Thing: Altering the approach.
Time to talk about money. OK, maybe we’re just talking about human nature. But, we’re talking about how people spend money, and what makes them willing to do it, as it relates to wine. We’ll do it again later, as well. I don’t think it is talked about enough when it comes to wine, and I think it can reveal a lot about our tendencies. Sommeliers are trying to sell too hard in the restaurant, and so are the wine merchants when you come into the store. It makes people feel uncomfortable. People can’t see that the wine has leather seats and power windows. They don’t get it if you just try and tell them it’s better. You have to be more creative than that.
See, upselling someone on a wine isn’t that hard. In fact, the best way to do it, is not to sell at all. If you’re any kind of storyteller, you really just have to start telling the story of the great wine you want to sell. Take Schloss Johannisberg Riesling (well, there are a bunch of different Rieslings from this estate, but let’s not worry about that right now) from the Rheingau region of Germany, for example. Now, I used to represent this wine as a sales person, and I also had it on my wine list when I worked for the Four Seasons. This wine was a piece of piss to sell. I would have people combing over the by-the-glass list, looking at Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris. Maybe they had a seafood tower for four coming and they had no idea what to order for the table that they thought might also be a nice match for their food. They might have been looking in the $50-$60 range, which was the bottom end of our wine list. And hey, you know, nobody has to sell me on WHY restaurant prices are higher. Of course they’re fucking higher!
Tangent: First of all, the restaurant has to buy the wine and keep it for an indefinite amount of time. Then they have to invest in the proper storage of it. Then they have to hire someone to write it on a list, keep track of the inventory, chill it, open it, serve it, re-order it, taste it again when the vintage flips...the restaurant has to buy expensive glassware and decanters to serve the wine in. Plus, they have to lease the restaurant itself. A lot of costs to cover. Why would you expect it to be the same price as it is in a retail shop? Would you sell your house for the same price you bought it for if you had renovated it and the market had gone up considerably? Don’t answer that. Where was I?
Right. Schloss Johannisberg. $50-$60. Low end of our list in terms of pricing. The other stuff. Schloss costs more, blah blah blah. I’m back. I mean, if I knew I was going to pay double or triple the retail price of a bottle of wine that I knew nothing about, I would probably look on the low end of a wine list as well. Well, I happened to really care for this Schloss Johannisberg wine. A lot of people out there don’t think they like Riesling. They’re being narrow-minded. Somms maybe talk about jerking off to Riesling a little too much. It can be isolating sometimes. I am not saying I wouldn’t participate in the pleasure circle, though. There’s just not as much bad Riesling out there as there are bad versions of other widely grown varietals. And once you get beyond even glut, cheap, commercial Riesling, it gets very pleasant, very quickly.
So anyways, Schloss Johannisberg. Are you interested yet? Well, I can’t think of a lovelier wine to have with a seafood tower or platter or schmorgasbord than a bottle of Schloss Johannisberg Riesling. But I wouldn’t lead with that.
Now, I don’t know how true it is, and call me unethical, but I frankly didn’t care how true it was, because it was true enough to be an awesome story and to demonstrate the power of the spoken word. This is wine marketing 101. The guys I used to host from Schloss Johannisberg who would come to see us sales people in the market used to always say that Schloss Johannisberg was the oldest continuously farmed vineyard in the world, and that it had been farmed since the 1200s. How fuckin’ cool is that? I mean, if someone said to you, “hey how would you like to taste wine from the oldest vineyard in the world?”, are you gonna say no?
So instead of saying, “wellll I have a nice Riesling hahaha maybe you wannnnaaa try ittt”, I would say:
“How would you like to have a bottle of wine from the oldest vineyard in the world that would also go great with your seafood tower?”
“Oh, wow. Oldest vineyard in the world. Do you think we could maybe get a bottle?”
Sometimes, I’d already be halfway to the wine room when they would have the afterthought and say, “oh, how much is it?”
Then they’d just breathe out and give the little scurry wave as if to say oh that’s nothing just run along and get it for us.
What did my words change? How did someone go from “hating Riesling” to “I can’t wait to try Riesling” in 90 seconds? NOTHING changed. Except their approach and their attitude, at my hands. But the point of this book is nobody really needs me to do that.
I guess this is not really a chat about price, but it is, kinda. It’s about perceived value. See, when you don’t know a thing about wine, but you’re supposed to order it, it’s a chore. You’re afraid. You’re afraid that the people at your table might be disappointed in you and your wine choice. You’re afraid that the sommelier or the server might think you made a bad choice (a good sommelier should not put any customer in a position to make a bad choice if they’ve put the right amount of thought into their wine program), and you’re afraid that, worst of all, you might not like the wine. You’re worried it might not taste like something you liked before. But you’ve barely tasted anything before, so how would you know? Ignorance is not always bliss. Ignorance is often fear. What happens to the stock market when people are afraid? They stop spending, and prices drop. Just like you trying to choose a wine.
But BOOM! Here’s someone who is bursting with enthusiasm, sincerity, and who genuinely wants you to have the best dinner you’ve ever had in their restaurant, drinking the wine that they got to choose for you. (That’d be me). And they’ve told you this great story about this wine that clearly excites them (Schloss Johannisberg was also the birthplace of Spätlese, and all of a sudden, instead of saying stupid things like, “Is that dry AND sweet?” or “Is that like Kim Crawford?” or “Is that expensive?”, your attitude has shifted completely and your first thought is, “How can I get some of this wine? Is there any chance we could possibly order a bottle of this wine?” You didn’t even ask what the price was, you were so excited! And somehow, I just made the restaurant another $30-$40 in revenue, and I didn’t have to make you feel pressured or uncomfortable. The truth is, if Schloss Johannisberg cost LESS money than what you were going to spend, I’d be equally excited for you. But you were comfortable with spending more, because I opened you up to try a phenomenal wine that you never otherwise would have tried before, that you actually thought you didn’t like and didn’t care about.
And after you pounded the first one down, you ordered another bottle.
It’s magic when it happens. And it’s all about finding a way to put yourself in that frame of mind, every time you drink wine. Think of the entire journey as a discovery of a unique story. Every wine tells a story. You just need to be open to hearing it. And the best part is, you get to drink it, too.