If there's a more openly avid group of consumers than wine lovers, I'm hard-pressed to think of it. After all, a new vintage arrives like the proverbial clockwork every year.
Viewed from a certain perspective, this vintage business is a no-loser for producers: If the latest vintage is the greatest yet, then "you gotta have it"; if it's undeniably a lesser year, then prices and demand rise for previous vintages, in turn increasing the luster and asking price of next year's vintage. Even the likes of Apple can only envy this dynamic.
That aside, every buyer and seller of wine knows that it takes a certain salesmanship to get someone to reach for his or her wallet. Of course, the easiest leveraging device is discounting. But I don't really think that "50 percent off" is so much a magic phrase as it is the sales version of brute-force hacking. The idea of the "magic phrase" is, instead, the concatenation of words that somehow magically makes you reach for your wallet with nary a discount in sight.
I'll give you an example. Whenever I'm talking with a wine salesperson, if he or she says about a particular bottle under discussion, "This isn't the usual …,” I'm already halfway to my wallet.
Why is this such a magical phrase? First, it signals that the salesperson acknowledges an awareness of a certain existing (often low) standard of performance for the category of wine in question. That alone is reassuring.
Secondly, it signals that you might be on the inside track, getting something rare or special or even unique. Gotta love that.
Finally, it pretty much nails what I, anyway, am really looking for as a wine lover, a buyer and a drinker. Now, if you're new to wine you're not going to know what the "usual" of something is. But if you've been around the block a few times, you do. And you're consequently ripe for the plucking by this magic phrase.
But what if indeed you are new, if not to wine in general then to one or another category of it, with which you have absolutely no experience, no benchmarks, no active knowledge?
Let's try it on for size. The salesperson says, "This isn't the usual Soave." Now, Soave has become very nearly a commodity item. It's a geographical district name in northern Italy just east of the city of Verona. The district has both hills and flat valley land, which point is critical. The informing grape is a local white variety called Garganega, which name gratifyingly rolls off the tongue once you're told how it's pronounced: gar-gah-neh-gah.
So far, so educational. Here's the problem: Most Soave is as bland and characterless as a new suburban development—which is pretty much what most of its vineyards now effectively are. The good stuff (designated Classico) always came from the hillsides above and around the town of Soave itself. But that area is small. As demand increased in the 1970s and later, vines were planted on the less desirable valley floor, i.e., Soave suburbia.
You know what happened next, of course. Soave (which can translate to "suave,” among other things) soon came to mean “insipid.” The valley-floor vineyards of Soave suburbia gushed high yields, and you know what that means. A wine that once delivered a remarkably fine delicacy and a distinctive mineral note that reminds more than a few tasters of a good Chablis (and which can age similarly well) was pimped for easy profits.
Now, back to the magic phrase. If our retail salesperson (or restaurant sommelier) says, "This isn't the usual Soave,” well alrighty then, now we're talking. Of course, it could just be hot air. But let's assume it's not. The magic phrase invites the obvious question from you and me: What makes it different?
Really, if you as a salesperson, never mind the venue, can't put it across after an opening like that, then you'd better start looking for work elsewhere, i.e., somewhere you aren't required to interact with anything sentient.
Are there yet other "magic phrases"? Surely there are. "Limited supply" comes immediately to mind, although that has a bit of obvious snake oil attached to it, like "Reserve.”
"Pre-arrival" has a certain irresistible appeal, especially if it's attached to the word "Burgundy." It's the wine version of phone sex: They're selling something they don't actually have, to someone who is paying up-front for something he's not actually getting. (Once, in a long-ago column, I defined “pre-arrival offering” as "the technique by which the wine impotent seduce the wine lustful.")
One thing is for sure: In the magic realism of wine buying, the right phrase really is everything. Each of us has a button that can be pushed, an "Open Sesame" that makes us reach for our wallet. Share yours if you dare!