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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: Great-ish Expectations

Some time back, in one of my finer moments of customer service diplomacy, I fielded a complaint from someone who had been dissatisfied with a purchase that they made at the ol’ State Line. The shopper in question stopped by one of my favorite parts of the store, the closeout bin, and had purchased a Cabernet Sauvignon for $5. Shopper X came back a day or two later and wanted a refund because the wine, and I quote, “wasn’t very good.”

In wine service, be it restaurant or retail, I am of the opinion that if a wine is flawed then it should be replaced or refunded without dispute. The question of what to do when a wine isn’t to someone’s taste falls into more of a service gray area. Did a wine team member recommend the wine, extolling the virtues of its life changing qualities or sell it in a misleading way? If so, then a case could certainly be made for a refund. But if the product itself wasn’t technically flawed (e.g. oxidized, corked, maderized or damaged by temperature, etc), and no staff member was involved in persuading or dissuading the purchase as appropriate, then I’m slightly less inclined to refund a wine because it wasn’t to someone’s liking.

Now this Cabernet Sauvignon in question is one that we sell dozens of cases a year of, not because it is revelatory, but because it is $5, and I would argue that for $5 it does what it needs to. The disagreement in this wine’s merit, I think, comes down to what is expected of it. And the bigger question, are our expectations in line for what we’re drinking?

Not to brag or nuthin’, but I was afforded the rare opportunity to taste Château Latour at Château Latour in Bordeaux about a decade ago, it was pretty darn good stuff. To Bordeaux enthusiasts the name will be immediately recognizable as one of the four Chateau recognized as First Growths in the 1855 classification of wineries in Bordeaux.

That sentence alone smacks of erudition and excellence. Right?

Aside from issues with the 1855 classification scheme, another rant for another time, it should seem reasonable that a wine which has achieved international reputation almost a hundred and seventy years ago should be critically appraised differently than a $5 Cabernet from the sale bin. Which is exactly the philosophy that I abide by.

In 2018 I found myself seeking a wine that could be sold out of the sale bin at $5 a bottle and, most importantly, one that I wouldn’t feel bad about recommending at that price. I tasted a few different options and finally decided on the brand Obikwa out of South Africa. And unfortunately despite an inevitable and unsurprising price increase in the current market, I still find value in it at $5.99.

So again, is it life changing? No. Will I cellar cases and cases of the wine for decades? No. If I find myself alone and eating Tontino’s Pizza Rolls (not yet a sponsor for this newsletter) on a weekend evening with my wife and kiddo out of town, will I drink this now $6 Cab? Yes, absolutely.

And just as I had finished up this piece of unsolicited wine advice, the sheer serendipity of a question that I received struck me as particularly amusing. A longtime friend of the store came up to my desk late Monday afternoon to ask if I had any more of the Cabernet that he had bought out of the closeout bin last week. I went from wondering whether I was correct in questioning someone’s preference for a $6 Cabernet, to selling two cases of it to one person who found much merit in the wine. I was struck at how expectation can truly affect enjoyment of a wine. Now, about those pizza rolls…

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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