Over the six or so years I’ve been a buyer of beer and wine at a retail store, the job in my head has metamorphosed how I look at wine in general.
From the predictable wanna-be connoisseur to the unexpected laissez-faire, I’ve gone from one extreme to the other only to end up in the middle.
Starting out as a beer-drinker-got-tired and looking for an alternative, I found what kinds of wines I liked but I didn’t know why nor did I necessarily care. The job gave me education and experience but also brought me snobbery and anger. Time, of course, has evened the playing field.
The first time I ever got drunk, Chardonnay was involved at some point. Years later, when I was courageous enough to try wine again, I went for the reds. The heavy, tannic Cabs to be exact. The lighter, easier drinking reds were okay, but if it was my choice, it was going to be thick. To my uneducated mind, anything white scared me after that Chardonnay incident as if all whites were somehow grouped together in that big glass jug complete with finger hole. Somehow Pinot Noir equated to a more fanciful wine, perhaps because I knew that noir meant black in French. Like the forcefield of two opposing magnets, I stayed away from Merlot, and even today I can’t recall why. Cabs were where it was for me- big and chewy and reminded me that I was drinking. I liked that.
Once I got into the job of buyer and read some introductory books, I began to recognize and track the traits of the wines I liked. Words like dry and tannins, fruity and earthy, full-bodied and leather kept showing up. I tasted the light bodied and fruit forward wines and began to appreciate them for the profile they represent in the spectrum of wine. As a dutiful buyer, I finally got over myself and examined white wine again. Once I discovered Sauvignon Blanc, it was like a bomb went off in my head- not all white wines are Chardonnay. I started devouring books and going to wine tastings. I flew over to O’ahu and went to a trade show full of nothing but wine and pupus. I got to taste bottles of bubbly that cost over $500, and then I got mad when I brought a $15, $18 or $20 bottle of wine into the store and it didn’t sell. Didn’t they know how good it was?
They didn’t, as a matter of fact, and who wants to spend twenty bucks on a bottle that is unknown when they can spend less on a bottle they know they like? I started hostessing in-store wine tastings. I loved finding the stories behind the wines, really enjoyed hearing the customers describe the wines and felt a sense of accomplishment when I sold a $12 bottle of wine to someone who was going to come in for their regular $8 bottle. Anger and frustration began to seep in when customers wouldn’t put their trust in me, though. Some would ask if any of the wines were organic and then openly scoff when there were none, others would eat the pupus I had set out for palate cleansers as if I had made them dinner, and then, my favorite, some would mess with the line-up and then boisterously condemn the wines for being bland. The line-up is there to facilitate order within the wines so none are lost and the best traits of each wine are allowed to stand up and be built upon. A sweet wine can taste sweeter than it really is following a dry wine while a delicately fruitful Pinot Noir can taste like water after a big and robust Cab. Other rules began to creep into my book of wine standards: the well-known drink white wine with white meat and red with red and decant big red wines for about a half an hour before drinking, but also lesser known ones like, let the bubbles of sparkling wine disappear in your mouth before swallowing, certain glasses for certain wines and, holy moly, don’t put ice in your wine. It was official, I had become a wine snob.
Thankfully, it was when I put my trust in the customers that I found a happy medium. Listening to their stories of beers they’ve drank, wines they’ve made, trips they’ve taken and all that they had to try brought me to the realization that we all have to drink within our means. Sure, everybody would love to have a $500 bottle of Champagne, but how many of us could really enjoy it when each glass is worth $100? In the height of my frustrated connoisseur stage, I met a woman during a wine tasting. She liked Chardonnays, and I just happened to be pouring one that evening. I’m sure it was around $15. She tried it and didn’t like it. She then proceeded to tell me no matter how many Chardonnays she’d tried (and some were expensive ones, too), she kept coming back to a certain value-priced brand. I shuddered silently at that time and only much later did it hit me, what the full meaning of it really meant for me. 1. There will be wines that are pitched to me that I positively abhor but, as a buyer, I must weight what’s right for the store- if it sells, it already has earned its right to be on the shelf. 2. Just because I like it doesn’t mean that everyone else will. 3. If everyone liked the same thing, no one would discover the next best wine, friends wouldn’t pass tips and tricks along to other friends and there wouldn’t be a need for any wine departments.
So it was when our fearless editor sends me this message via facebook, “Thinking of you as I sit here sipping iced Chardonnay with fizzy water to dilute it.” Once upon a time, I would have been awfully offended. Now I can appreciate the differing tastes of friends and extrapolate, “Hmm, different kinds of fizzy water could really highlight different varietals of wine.” It also reminded of me sangria and how good it would be with all this hot weather. A bottle of fruit forward inexpensive wine, a bottle of fizzy water, some sugar to taste and some cut-up fresh fruit thrown in the freezer to play the role of ice cubes can be a step from the norm and also stretch that bottle of wine a little bit more. I write ice cubes and think of them made with fruit purees and how they can make a glass of sparkling wine into a little tasty show. I learned all of these tricks from friends. Left to my own devices, I would still be drinking those chewy, tannic Cabernets and hating on Chardonnay. I guess this is where I say, thank you to my family, friends and all of the people I’ve been lucky enough to talk wine with. We’ve shared a lot, I hope we share some more and, the next time you think of me while sipping some weird concoction, please do tell. I’ll try anything once and, even if I don’t like it, I’ll be glad you do. Cheers.
Selene Alice Wayne was born and raised in rural Alaska but traveled around the States (and six months in England) while attending college to attain her English degree. After moving to Hawaii over 10 years ago to be with her husband, she found a job at the natural foods store in Pahoa. The first thing she read when promoted to the beer and wine buyer over five years ago was “Wine for Dummies.”