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Reconsidering the Influence of the Wine Store

Reconsidering the Influence of the Wine Store

OCTOBER 2, 2015  | Story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN  |  Photo: ALEXANDER RABB

In recent years, sommeliers have acquired a patina of celebrity and prestige, lauded for affecting trends and looked to as the end-all in wine expertise. But wine retailers have been undergoing their own revolution. Zachary Sussman on the changing influence of the wine store, and why it continues to be overlooked.

This November, the Esquire network will air Uncorked!, a reality TV series based on the 2013 documentary Somm, which followed a group of aspiring master sommelier candidates as they prepared for that notoriously difficult exam.  

The news comes as just the latest ripple of a much larger wave of attention that somms have been riding lately. By now, the point has been driven home repeatedly: Far above any other industry profession, including the score-wielding critics who reigned supreme during the nineties and early aughts, sommeliers have entered the spotlight as some of the most influential tastemakers in the conversation about wine.

This attention from the press coincides with the profession’s recent evolution from the archetype of the stuffy sommelier to that of the young, effortlessly cool “somm”—a narrative that reflects some of the wider generational changes taking place within the drinking culture.

For all the much-deserved recognition that the profession has earned, however, I find myself wondering whether our fascination with these intrepid men and women working the floor has diverted our focus from the contributions being made in that other, perhaps less glamorous corner of the industry: the retail scene, which has undergone an equally meaningful (if more frequently overlooked) evolution of its own.

For evidence of the way the media tends to ignore the influence of retail on wine trends, one needn’t look very far. Earlier this year, within a single week alone, the Food & Wine blog’s “Wine & Cocktails” section featured such stories as “5 Wines that Sommeliers Dream of Drinking All the Time,” “A Sommelier’s Rise to the Cellar,” “Why the Hippest Sommeliers Love Old-School Wines from the Jura” and “Tearjerker Wines: Somms of the Year Share Bottles From the Best Moments of Their Lives.”

Similarly, merchants accounted for just five out of the 50 individuals featured in Decanter magazine’s 2013 “Power List,” and although it’s difficult to calculate an exact figure, one could also point out the extremely low ratio of retailers to sommeliers included in the New York Times’ “Wines of the Times” tasting panels.

This isn’t meant to diminish the efforts somms continue to make as they champion new trends and push the industry forward, but I have to ask why we (and the media, in particular) haven’t given equal credit to the retail side. Why does it keep getting cast as the awkward third wheel in the love affair between journalists and sommeliers? Have restaurants overtaken retail as the main arena in which the conversation about wine takes shape, or is something else to blame?

It’s no coincidence, then, that the language of aesthetics informs the way we talk about the restaurant world: new ventures “open” like galleries, chefs are “craftsmen” or women under whom aspiring cooks “apprentice,” and sommeliers are said to “curate” a wine list (to repeat a term that has been overused to the point of abuse). And yet even the most exacting retailers, whose selections reflect just as much deliberate thought and care, still find themselves cast as salespeople.

Initially, the explanations seem obvious. For one thing, there’s a long-established precedent of restaurants appearing in print; the restaurant review ranks among the most enduring forms of modern criticism. There’s also the undeniable aura of glamour that surrounds the restaurant world, which has given rise to a celebrity culture of its own.

But I suspect that a deeper bias might be at play.

“There is definitely a perception that sommeliers are more independent and less tied to the people who are cutting their paycheck,” says Christy Frank of Frankly Wines in New York City. “They’re viewed as putting together these exciting, cutting-edge wine lists, but the crucial bit about the numbers seems divorced from the conversation.”

If we’re more willing to overlook the commercial aspect of the experience in restaurants rather than wine shops, there’s good reason.

After all, dining out today—at least, at the kind of establishment that can afford to hire a full-time sommelier—has been elevated to the realm of high culture: We’re there to be transported and entertained.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the language of aesthetics informs the way we talk about the restaurant world: New ventures “open” like galleries, chefs are “craftsmen” or “craftswomen” under whom aspiring cooks “apprentice” and sommeliers are said to “curate” a wine list (to repeat a term that has been overused to the point of abuse). And yet even the most exacting retailers, whose selections reflect just as much deliberate thought and care, still find themselves cast as salespeople.

According to Frank, this common misperception involves a lingering stigma from an earlier wine-buying landscape, when stores heavily relied upon “shelf talkers” and point scores from trade publications to push case after case of whatever might sell. “When people think about a retail shop, they’re usually thinking about a big box store that sells everything,” she says. “It’s that stereotype of the lazy retailer who is only interested in the points or the ‘top ten’ lists and trying to move inventory on that basis. But that’s not the reality any longer.”

If sommeliers have successfully shed the outdated image of the snobby, condescending “up-seller,” the retail landscape has transformed just as dramatically over recent years; it’s just that the shift hasn’t received the same level of coverage.

Sure, the ways that retailers exercise influence might be less conducive to catchy soundbytes or photo-ops (“Somms are considerably better dressed than we are,” jokes Jamie Wolff of iconic Manhattan retailer Chambers Street Wines). But long before the profession of sommelier even emerged as an institution in this country, several generations of historic shops were busy laying the foundations of how we drink today.

Manhattan’s Sherry Lehman, for instance—still an Upper East Side landmark—first brought Bordeaux futures to New York and introduced such recognizable brands as Dom Pérignon, Chivas Regal and, for better or worse, Georges Duboeuf to the United States. Similarly, it would be impossible to overstate the role legendary importer Kermit Lynch’s Berkeley-based shop would play a few decades later, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, in expanding the American palate to embrace the regional, estate-bottled French wines we now take for granted.

The list goes on. There’s the aforementioned Chambers Street Wines, whose early advocacy for natural wine helped usher in a new wave of that movement’s now-canonical producers; or UVA in Williamsburg, a store whose critical impact upon the emergent Brooklyn wine scene equaled (if not surpassed) that of pioneering restaurants like Diner or Marlow & Sons; or even online entities like Garagiste, whose email-list model launched the concept of the boutique shop into the digital age.

Guided by the same kind of specific, “on-premise” approach that sommeliers have brought to the restaurant environment, which expresses a personal vision, today’s most compelling retailers carry this legacy of innovation forward. More than anything, they’re seeking out new avenues for transcending the traditional merchant’s role and engaging customers in a broader conversation about wine.

According to Ian McFadden, Director of the Fine and Rare Wine Department at Crush Wine & Spirits, this opportunity to open up the dialogue and speak about wine in a meaningful way isn’t just educational; it subverts industry stereotypes as well.

“It might take a long time for retailers not to be viewed as overly beholden to scores, or just following the tide of what sells,” he explains. “But the more we all demonstrate a sincere level of thought and attention to our selections, the more we’ll be viewed in a similar light as sommeliers.”

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