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Drinking Out Loud

The Magic Phrase

What really moves you to reach for your wallet?
Matt Kramer can't resist an opportunity to discover new rare or unique wines.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer can't resist an opportunity to discover new rare or unique wines.

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 3, 2015

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!

Michael Brill
San Francisco, CA —  February 3, 2015 11:20am ET
What's interesting is that the vast majority of these "magic phrases" have nothing to do with the sensory characteristics of the wine. There are a ton related to scarcity, quality (points), value, discounts, winery/region popularity (which is a positive or negative depending who you are), wine style, vintage characteristics, and probably 20-30 other things that a great salesperson/somm could pull out of their pocket to sell wine.

Everyone responds differently to terms. However, just look at the success online retailers and one formula is pretty clear: "94 points WS: Napa Cab, $29.99, normally $60 (50% discount)"

Quality, region/type, list price, actual price, discount. If you have 5 seconds to communicate to more experienced wine buyers then these seem to be the attributes to focus on.

John Shuey
Dallas TX —  February 3, 2015 11:34am ET
"90(+) rated, for under $10" always gets my attention.
Jeffrey J Sattler
Phoeniz, Arizona USA —  February 3, 2015 12:08pm ET
I too am intrigued by the "unusual" descriptor. I also like "grower-producer" as those folks are involved from start to finish in their "labor of love".

One reference that amuses me is the "...only 100 (or so) cases made!..." claim along with an exorbitant price. As if the fact that there's not much of it (regardless of quality) makes it incredibly valuable. I realize it still might be good, but it does bring to mind another phrase..."buyer beware".
Stewart Lancaster
beaver, pa —  February 3, 2015 3:58pm ET
If you have had his previous vintages, this is his best yet. That will get me
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  February 4, 2015 11:15am ET
The real question here is whether there is real 'truth' in the phrases used. A salesperson - heck, even a winery website - can oftentimes have 'misleading' information making you 'believe' that things are 'unique' or 'unusual' until you dig a bit deeper . . .

So instead of being 'taken in' by these phrases, I think it's important to know the source and truly do your research.

William Smith
St. Helena —  February 4, 2015 1:25pm ET
Good read Matt. To your point, I always thought, “Ive only got two cases of this left….” was a good leed into whatever came next.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  February 4, 2015 1:28pm ET
My experience with buying wine in stores is that the employees are there to sell wine. I would guess that 95% or more do not know as much as you do about the interested wine. If you read the wine magazines and other bloggers, you will most likely be able to form an opinion by yourself and get home more quickly to hopefully enjoy your choice.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  February 5, 2015 11:22am ET
I am a big on-line buyer in that 75% of my wine is procured on the web. I agree with Michael Brill above, give me WS high points and discounted cost from a great region and you have my attention. Other than that, the words, "This is a new, second run from .................." perks my interest.
Homer Cox
Virginia —  February 5, 2015 8:59pm ET
WS 90 for $11 or under is the magic phrase. I don't listen to the silly wine store talking heads for their opinions.
Reggie Mcconnell
Terre Haute, IN —  February 6, 2015 4:32pm ET
My all-time fave: "To use a boxing analogy, when it comes to quality and price, this wine punches well above its weight class.”
Lisa Feltis-german
Bozeman, Mt., USA —  February 6, 2015 10:50pm ET
Great article and being in wine retail, a fun read. From the sales point; if the wines on your shelves represent due diligence re (pre-purchase) tasting/research and priced fairly, you're ahead of many competitors before the first sale. Add in-house training/tastings regardless of position (some staff may be under age or prefer beer; regardless, foster a path for on-the-job education), and respect for the wines/producers vs promoting a commodity. If it's the same as selling widgets, your customers are on to you in the first encounter. Passion is infectious, as is indifference. That said, favorite pitch; 'If you like (xyz) wine, this will make your head explode!', (and obviously, back it up with why or you look like a used car salesman :)

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