It's The Thought That Counts

(Originally published November 2005)

Well, the holiday season is almost upon us. Ain't that grand? In expectation of the drudgery of fulfilling many customers' orders, Hanes thought he would briefly discourse on the phenomenon of giving wine as a gift.

This breaks down into two basic areas. First, there's gifts one gives to a friend, family member or other loved one. Second, there are corporate or business-related gifts. With the first, it's a gesture of the heart, an expression of caring intended to reward or provide the means for celebrating special moments. With the second, it's a gesture of thanks for providing major business for one's own business, for keeping one out of jail, or to suck up in hopes of getting a promotion of some major coin down the road. At first glance one would think it's the former which would be easier for the salesperson and more personally rewarding for a job well done. Well, nertz to that, most of the customers in the former camp are a pain in the ass. Here's why.

Wine's a peculiar thing, as we all know. There's a zillion types of grapes, grown all over the blessed earth. Some are red, some white. Some full-bodied, some light-bodied. Some acidic, some fruity. And so on. The upshot being there's waaaay too much choice, especially when one is trying to give a gift which is meaningful and hopefully well chosen. So the poor schlub working in the wine store is screwed from the start. It's like this. Customer walks in. Wants to get a gift. A good salesperson asks many of these sort of questions: Red or white? Full or light? Young or aged? Do you know any grapes or regions the recipient likes or (more importantly) hates? Naturally, 9 out of 10 customers don't have the answer to any of these questions. So, you're flying in the dark.

Then there's the really important part - how much is the customer willing to spend? Either (a) they never have figured this out before or more likely (b) they think they'll be able to get Lafite for like $15. But unless this can be figured out quickly, the salesperson is looking at a 15+ minute encounter during the heaviest season of the year when the store is packed with other customers who also need help. Sweet.

OK, Hyperbolic Hanes is on the job here, sure. But, still. Let's say we're able to get it out that the customer wants to buy a bottle in the $30 - $40 range. Cool, that's a start. Then you can narrow it down some by getting past the red versus white wine question. Making some progress here. You try to size up the customer. After all, they're friends so hopefully if you can figure out what type of wine buyer the customer is, maybe this will help pick out the right gift bottle for the friend. God help you if the gift recipient is supposed to actually know something about wine because this just cost you an extra ten minutes with this one customer (when you should be in the back room downing scotch to get through the day). It comes out - the recipient likes Bordeaux and hates Italian wines. More progress. Does this person have a cellar? Err, no. So, should you recommend a nice wine for $40 which is only ten years too young to drink? Or a lesser wine that isn't as “fab” of a gift but at least won't rip enamel off teeth? There's an existential crisis going on here.

If you pose this question to the customer you might as well be running down a deer at midnight. You get the same frozen look. That's what YOU are there for, asshole sales clerk. Just make the choice perfect and stop asking me questions. So, you as clerk smile and nod attentively and end up picking a wine that you have no clue about in terms of its suitability. The temptation is always to go with a “safe” call. Either a well-known brand name or something like a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, something that may not thrill be at least won't piss off the gift recipient. Even if you could pick out an hundred more interesting wines in a second. Then you have to really focus, put on your “game face” and look the customer in the eye and authoritatively state that after much soul searching and wringing of hands you have found the perfect choice. There can be no hesitation. In fact, it's best to announce this factual resolution and just start walking to the register to get the bottle paid for and gift wrapped. If you can't bluff and bully get out of retail, sonny.

Look, the facts is that unless you really know wine, don't need help picking anything out, and, better, know the recipient's taste in wine, wine is a crappy gift to give. Better to stick with socks or a CD or a gift certificate to Bed, Bath and Beyond or something. Hanes knows that everyone likes wine. It's just that everyone likes different wines and that's a problem.

Unless the customer decides to go the hyper-lame route. Yes, it's the ultimate Lowest Common Denominator wine gift. It can only be… a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne! Yeehaw!


Ahem. Which is a good segue to corporate purchases. These can actually be fun for a whole host of reasons. First, you do get to foist cases and cases of Veuve Clicquot onto people you probably wouldn't like anyway. Bonus! If not, here's the opportunity you've been waiting all year for, to dump expensive, poorly chosen purchases by the store wine buyer. Remember back in June when that 10 case drop of $100 Cabs from the subpar vintage arrived and you wondered how in hell you were going to move a single bottle? Or why any retail store wine buyer would load up on 1998 Brunellos when everyone wanted the 1997s and 1999s? Here's your answer. The buyer is waiting for a call from some secretary at Mega Investment Bank whose boss, Big Swinging Dick, wants to send special bottles of wine to his pals and clients as holiday gifts. (Rather than host another big holiday party at Scores like last year. Gotta be different, you know!)

The secretary is clueless and overworked. This person just wants to dump it all in your lap and no one cares how much it costs. It's all going to be expensed anyway. Here's the price range, the names and addresses and I'll messenger over the cards that go with the bottles. Just make it happen before December 25th.

Expensive, off-vintage close-outs from wholesalers are the manna from heaven when it comes to corporate holiday gifts. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. In this case, an under-fruited and over-oaked barrel. And the wine store increases their margin by a huge amount. As it goes, any retail wine establishment makes the lion's share of their annual revenues during November and December. And these kind of corporate gifts are a major reason why.

OK, Hanes, this is so depressing that when I read it I don't even want to ever drink a glass of wine again, never mind give wine as a gift. Can it possibly be this dismal? After all, I trust my retailer! He ain't no Slim Shady! No doubt, this may be the case but said retailer is still operating a for-profit entity and still has kids to put through college. And knowing which wines you like to buy through the year isn't going to help her/him choose a special gift bottle for someone s/he has never encountered. And this person has still bought clunkers throughout the year which need to be moved. It's like that anywhere and probably no different in many respects in anyone else's own industry. There's no reason why a retailer is going to be able to hit the bulls-eye for someone s/he's never met nor why s/he would use her/his highly allocated case of a rare, highly desired wine as corporate gifts - particularly when regular customers are begging for even one bottle.

So, really, unless you have some kind of strange fetish for silver Mylar and red ribbon it may be best to leave wine gifting well enough alone. But if you don't at least now you know where 1998 Opus One goes to die…