Last year, our very own Sophia Luckett was shortlisted for the 2013 Young Wine Writer Award, where she got to meet the one and only Oz Clarke. Here’s the piece she submitted, all about her first year at hangingditch.
How the customer changed my spots
About thrice daily I am told, “You must love your job.”
Well let’s talk about that.
Next week marks my one-year anniversary working at a Mancunian wine merchants. Imagine a library with wine instead of books (complete with a ladder), and an opportunity to grab anything off the shelf and drink it there and then. That’s what it’s like. A sweet shop for adults and a bar that has a wine list of over 300 wines.
It’s a pretty sexy shop, full of specialist wines that cater for the newly wine-weds at £10 a bottle, to the Harvey-Nic shoppers next door who want something to pole dance for them. Some people want to spend some quality time alone with the wines and others want to be introduced and persuaded.
The latter role seemed suited to me. My previous summers had been spent in Nova Scotia working at a winery. I’d seen grapes planted and pruned, stomped and boozed, so I was confident I had a good grasp of the basics of wine. Ha. Or so I thought.
On my first day I was asked to point someone in the direction of a Claret. I scanned the shelves with a forced knowing look, searching out that word written on the bottle. Eventually, a colleague silently mouthed behind the customer, ‘Bordeaux! It’s the same as Bordeaux!’ That didn’t help. Still no mention of that on the label.
My second day a lady inquired after vintage champagne. My association with ‘vintage’ was classic, moth-nibbled clothes from a long past era found in second-hand shops. Vintage = old. Well how old exactly? She fidgeted awkwardly and replied, ‘It’s more about a specific year.’ The clouds parted and all became clear.
The third day, a man with the air of a wine army Major lunged into the shop and barked, ‘Lebanese. But I won’t drink Musar.’ At this point, I turned to a colleague pleadingly and went to load glasses into the dishwasher.
Facts that seemed everyday knowledge to many customers were a vast valley of void to me. Hearing new words like ‘grand cru’, ‘Marlborough’, ‘Valpolicella’, ‘Touriga Nacional’, ‘malolactic’ took me back to teaching in a Czech primary school and having to learn the children’s names. You said your name was what? Borry vodge. What? Borivoj. The same applies with wine words. This comes from where sorry? Kondrjjjjaiyoo. What? Condrieu.
It seems it was not only expected that I could pronounce these multi-lingual words from across the globe, but it was also assumed that I could recommend the juice to each different character. Imagine going to a restaurant and suggesting one certain thing to eat. You want to recommend something suitable, however the menu consists of several hundred offerings and you’re not exactly too sure what everything is (Coq au Vin, Arroz Negro, Yaprak Sarma for example). One of my co-workers had a trusty technique.
1. Limit the customer’s choice. Ask them their inclination/food pairing/mood and pick three wines you think might be suitable. Place these bottles away from the temptation of other wines.
2. Tell them a little fact. This may be something quite obvious, perhaps displayed on the label: the alcohol percentage, the grape varietal, if it is visually pleasing to the eye. Add something personal if you know it: this wine is made by a husband and wife, there’s a very limited quantity produced, this bottle is displayed in the Tate Gallery.
3. Let them make up their own mind. Walk away.
This helped me. Nonetheless, at times, I still felt that the consumer deserved more than what I could offer them.
As time passed, my unlikely hero turned out to be the customer. Asides from internet dating, it’s not often you can meet a stranger and know you share a common passion. There’s always something to talk about; whether it be that certain grape that got you wine-hooked, the tippy-toes tingle of the Albariño you had last night, or that first punch in the face you got from a bloody-black Malbec. Like true geeks we want to swap our experiences like 1977 Star Wars cards. Much of what I have learnt has been though our regulars.
Toby introduced me to Chardonnay. He’s in the air force and is very serious. With furrowed eyebrows and a concerned look on his face, he asked me, ‘Have you tried a Napa Valley Chardonnay?’ No Toby, I haven’t. He requested a bottle from the fridge and I fetched the decanter and glasses. Isn’t Chardonnay for wine philistines? The uncouth? What kind of colour is this; slightly like ‘a sample’? I was hesitant to smell it. However, it wasn’t long before wafts of vanilla and banana came floating out of the decanter like a Genie. That power! Pure muscle! Everything you expect from the Terminator-run state.
After that I was encouraged to try a rich Burgundy, then a creamy Austrian Chardonnay, a fruity one from Canada, a grassy Chablis, a frothy blanc de blancs Champagne … Chardonnay our social chameleon. Now, when faced with the inevitable ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ customer I tell them all about Toby.
Andy and Phil choose to drink anything they’ve never tried before. I admire their philosophy. They come in on Sundays and like to be fussed over; but most importantly they enjoy sharing every drop and discussing its character. When I see their faces at the door I skip gleefully along the shelves and inspect the unknown. What is a Pinotage like? Well, let’s see! It’s chocolaty and sticky; bitter if young and velvety if aged. How about a Viognier? It’s as silky as a seal in the sea, like dipping your tongue in peachy oil.
Just as dog owners mirror the image of their dog, so I see the grape in the personality of our customers.
There is a couple who live above the shop. Kathy walks in sharp-clippity-cloppety stilettos and Chris has the charm of a Soave: this results in their choice of stylish, crisp whites. They choose Pouilly-Fumé, Italian Bianchos and Verdejos. They are as devoted to God as Sancerre is to Sauvignon; with Manchester Cathedral next door, they claim they have God to their right and God below.
Dionne and Mike are the beatnik hipsters who introduced me New York wine. Terence the Tailor savours the custom-built oaky white Rioja. Big Al insists on the giant Amarone.
Sometimes a customer can throw me and leave me pondering their meaning for days. For example, there are those wonderful wine-drinkers who explain their choice of wine by the effect it has on their mouth. ‘I want a wine that makes my tongue curl up at the sides.’ I scan the shelves frantically. Something high in acidity? ‘Well yes, but no. Just something that instigates your spit to do a little back-flip.’
Another lady requested any wine that had a castle on the label. I enquired if she had a special memory or event that related to this specific requirement. ‘No, I just feel in general that they tend to be better wines.’ At times, I ponder if wine is almost too personal for anyone to agree on anything.
But who am I to talk? Many things which I once thought unusual I now find common. How I hooted with laughter at ‘personality’ words for wine: ‘nervous’, ‘austere’, ‘volatile.’ And now I hear myself chatting with a regular it’s tough, almost aggressive but it has a timid side. ‘Disgorgement’ no longer sounds like a sex word.
About thrice daily I am told, “You must love your job.”
Indeed I do.
follow Sophia @hanginditchsoph