Three years ago, we signed up with what is now our main wine supplier, the excellent and ever-improving Liberty Wines. We asked them to deliver a mix of wines, from various countries and at a range of prices, and they delivered an intelligently thought-out range (although perhaps five different Chianti was a bit over the top). If only someone, somewhere was delivering an equally well thought-out range of customers.
I have to admit that, despite being "that beer bloke", I like wine too. I like it for the same reason that I like beer - for its endless variety of appearance, aroma, flavour and texture. I like almost everything about it, from bone dry manzanilla, to unctuous sparkling icewine. To work successfully in drinks retailing, I think you have to have, at the very least, a passing enthusiasm, and the more obsessed you become, the better. Again, if only all our customers had the same idea, every day would be a laugh-riot of wine and beer appreciation.
Of course, I'm not saying that our customers are ignorant. Far from it. They know what they like and, by and large, what they like is defined by a common-sense range of constraints - price, abv (either too high or too low), grape variety, and what they might be eating that night. But I also find that most customers have found their groove, and won't be dislodged. Every
now and then, I spend a while chatting with a chap of a certain age who is surprised that we don't have any Menetou-Salon,
and that we only stock one Alsace Gew urztraminer when there is such a variety of flavours and quality levels available. One delightful old buffer asked if we had any Vouvray, and I was so delighted that I asked if he was looking for sweet or dry. "Which do you have?" he asked eagerly. "Er, neither sadly" was my shamefaced reply. I just wanted to demonstrate that our lack of Vouvray wasn't down to my ignorance, but to the old problem - there is no call for it. Sure, we do stock one Alsace Gew urztraminer, but it turns over s-o-o-o s-l-o-w-l-y, that it's almost dead shelf space.
Conversely, we must bow to the pressures of what sells, so we stock three Pinot Grigios - two whites (Italian and Californian) and a rosé (Italian, so we could call it a ramato if a) the word didn't look so much like a radish-tomato hybrid vegetable and b) customers knew what it meant). But people still occasionally moan that we only have three. A woman who looked alarmingly like Anne Robinson in full-on Weakest Link mode (middle-aged, stern, ginger bob) looked at them, fixed me with an arched eyebrow look over the top of her glasses and said: "Six quid? Bit expensive for a Pinot-gee, isn't it?" Harrumph.
Of course, some customers know that what they're asking for is a rarity, like tartan paint, or a bubble for a spirit level, and look gleeful when they cause my brain to do somersaults. A recent one was someone looking for Cannonau, a wine that I'd never heard of. Of course, it takes Google one-third of a second to tell me that Cannonau is actually Sicilian Grenache, so perhaps I can move that enquiry forward a notch. Sometimes, if enough people ask for something, you have to act on it, otherwise you find yourself saying: "Look, you're the fifth person I've told this week - there's no demand for it."