Why does someone go into a wine shop looking for a particular wine? That's the question I put to 10 wine merchants in the Sacramento region in recent days. Their answers surprised me. Not a single one volunteered that social media had played a role in prompting a customer to ask about a specific wine. Facebook and Twitter? They essentially don't exist as a force that drives people into grocery stores and wine shops, at least according to the merchants with whom I talked, and they are the ones on the front line every day, helping shoppers through the maze of shelves and bins. "No one has said they've just seen it (a specific wine) on Twitter," says Don Ashton, a wine specialist at the Nugget Market along Covell Avenue in Davis.
OK, so why does someone saunter into wine department or wine shop in search of a particular wine? The single most popular reason is rather old-fashioned - they'd had the wine in a restaurant and they want to buy a bottle to have at home. "One of the best places for wine to be recognized is in a restaurant setting, especially if the diner has had a good time. They remember the wine, either taking a photo of the label, asking for the label, or writing it down," says Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, the dean of the region's wine merchants. Richard Ebert, the resident wine authority of Taylor's Market in Sacramento's Curtis Park, agrees, saying, "Being on premise is the way to build a brand. When people are out dining they're having fun and are more receptive (to unfamiliar wines)." John Booher, who with his brother Richard owns Valley Wine Company in Davis, concurs that restaurant exposure to a particular wine is "the first or second" reason why people venture into their shop in search of a particular wine. Similarly, say merchants, customers also are likely to be looking for a wine to which they had been introduced at a dinner party or while visiting winery tasting rooms.
While exposure to a wine they'd like to savor again is the main reason potential buyers visit a wine shop, customers also still get inspiration to go on a search from what they've read of a wine in newspaper and magazine columns and articles, say merchants. Nevertheless, the influence of some traditional sources of wine information, in particular the Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr.'s The Wine Advocate, while still fairly persuasive, look to be waning, they note. A gold- or silver-medal wine from a competition also brings in customers, though they also seem to be losing clout, say merchants.
While social media doesn't look to be having much impact on initial wine-buying decisions, the wealth of wine-related online information and tools is helping traffic and sales, concur merchants. Favorable reviews of a shop on Yelp stimulates visits. Electronic newsletters, email blasts and website carts are playing a positive role in delivering information and product to customers. Foot traffic in some wine shops isn't what it was a decade or two ago, but online-savvy merchants like Eric Stumpf of The Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights and and Gary Moffat of Carpe Vino in Auburn credit their Internet tools for soaring sales, up 20 percent or more over the past year. Stumpf's website includes a "virtual tasting bar" that lists wines to be tasted whenever he stages an open house. His website also includes an extensive drop-down menu of his inventory. In addition to a website that includes their frequently updated inventory, Moffat and his son Drew take advantage of a wide range of electronic tools to keep in touch with customers, including a Kindle-based wine list for the restaurant in their shop and a weekly email to alert the hundreds of people in their database to new arrivals and to the hottest-selling wines at their store.
For local wine merchants, Twitter basically doesn't exist, and Facebook has been largely a letdown. Stumpf maintains a page on Facebook, and believes it has helped drive traffic to his tastings, but he's seen no correlation between "likes" and purchases. "It's getting interest," says Stumpf of his Facebook page, "but I don't know that they (people looking at the site) are spending money."
By and large, the merchants surveyed have been in the trade at least a decade. They entered the business when wine merchants customarily were relied on for advice and guidance; customers who ventured into their businesses might occasonally be seeking a wine they'd read or heard about, but for the most part they looked to merchants for seasoned insight and cordial assistance, and that still characterizes much of their business. Richard Ebert of Taylor's Market says he loves to hear customers tell him, "You've never steered me wrong." In a similar vein, Gary Moffat of Carpe Vino says, "People ask us what they should buy. Since day one they've wanted our advice."
Several merchants also noted that they cater largely to an older clientele that maybe isn't as tuned in to online buzz as younger wine enthusiasts. It could be that younger wine shoppers who take advantage of social media for buying tips know where to go for their purchases - big-box retailers? online sources? - and eschew the kind of grocery store and wine shop that has cultivated a personal relationship with its customers. Still, it is surprising when a veteran wine merchant like Marcus Graziano of Capitol Cellars in Granite Bay says that he's never had a customer ask for a wine based on a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. It makes you wonder about the future not only of the wine shop that prides itself on personal service and a selective inventory but of the role of social media in the wine culture.