It’s not just you: building a successful wine program comes with a certain intimidation factor. The holiday season can amplify the pressure, and your co-op members probably feel it, too. “People who don’t purchase wine as often might want to buy wine for Thanksgiving, and not know where to start,” says Samuel Vandegrift, an industry veteran with two decades of experience.
Vandegrift is a wine maven with a diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, among other expertise. Here are a few of his strategies for winning at wine — a successful holiday wine set that’s fun and accessible for both you and your customers. Turns out, your store’s wine strategy should mirror most other festive planning: make a checklist, be organized, and include a healthy dose of merriment.
Plan of action
First and foremost, “Be intentional with your wine set,” Vandegrift says. Stick to a buying budget, pay attention to what your customers like, and set guidelines for your mix. “You want to have a wine set that has some touchstones in it.” That means aiming for a “balance between bottles that are cool and interesting and varietals somebody can just pick up without having to have a conversation about it.” Think about your produce department: you stock specialty, local harvests alongside conventional organic standbys. Do the same with your wine.
While this balance is nuanced and store-dependent, one good place to start at this time of year is with “wines that are easy for people to bring to a party or a holiday dinner,” Vandegrift says. American varietals are perfect: California Chardonnay and Cabernet, Oregon Pinot Noir, Washington Merlot.
“One of the few things I have a hard rule about is Beaujolais Nouveau.” Despite what you might know about the much-celebrated young French Gamay, “the category is not as strong as it used to be,” Vandegrift promises. He recommends picking one – only one – Beaujolais Nouveau to sell, and buy it with caution. Three cases are likely plenty. “You can always buy more of it!”
Intentionality extends to your merchandising, too. In winter’s busy rush, don’t forget the simple details that matter. “Make sure you have signs on your product,” Vandegrift says. That means all of your product, not only your featured bottles. “Make sure you have prices. Make sure your bottles are dusted off and look fresh.”
Include a brief few sentences about what the wines taste like and might pair well with. If you feel pressed for time, don’t overthink it and feel free to have a little fun. “Use a picture of a turkey and say, ‘Great with turkey!’” Vandegrift recommends. It’s simple and it works. Plus, taking the pressure off of yourself is contagious. “Don’t be snooty about what you’re selling your customers,” Vandegrift says. “This is a time of year for celebration and feasting. Allow people to take what they enjoy home with them.”
Add some sparkle
More is more with bubbles! “Something like 60 percent of sparkling wine is consumed in November and December, so it’s important to have that on the floor,” Vandegrift says. “Make sure you have a range of styles that are dry to sweet. For dry, try crémant or Cava, and sweet wine would be something like extra dry Prosecco or Moscato d’Asti.”
“Cross-marketing and cross-merchandising is important this time of year,” Vandegrift advises. Again, this can be an opportunity to have creative (and strategic) fun. Near fresh heritage turkeys, “why not have a really good display of wines that go well with turkey?” Or, put together a display in the produce department with all of the ingredients for mulled wine plus an ingredient card. “You’ll sell things out of bulk, things out of produce. … I really like 3-liter boxes of wine for this, so it lets you sell inexpensive wine.”
Take it up a notch and use your own recipe card to make mulled wine for sampling. This is a delightful surprise anytime, or an excellent excuse for a workshop or in-store tasting. “If you have a crockpot with mulled wine in it, the whole store smells great.” Also include spiced apple cider, “a nice way to have an alternative for people who don’t consume alcohol. And because not everyone wants to drink wine the entire meal.”
Meet and greet
In-store tastings are a good idea beyond mulled wine. These are opportunities to connect with your members and to the meaning behind the sales. “It can be really stressful to pick out the right wine,” Vandegrift reminds us. Tasting options helps, as does talking with another person rather than simply reading a label. And you don’t have to be an expert, either. “Wine pairing is a little bit of a myth,” Vandegrift proclaims. “I think there’s too much emphasis on it. … Here is the simplest wine and food pairing: If you like the wine and you like the food, then it’s a good match.”
Above all, “Remember, you’re helping your owners have the experience they want to have with their friends and family, without adding a layer of stress.”
In a similar spirit, Vandegrift is your resource at Columinate to help you remove a layer of stress when planning your holiday beverage selection. (We didn’t even talk about beer or cider!) These shared strategies will take you far, but nothing beats the personal touch of a custom consultation with a “Provocateur of Vinous Joy.” Cheers!
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