Day 18.2: The Business of Saying No

Jill Bernheimer is the owner of Domaine LA in, well, LA.

No, I am not a natural wine merchant.

And no, I am also not not a natural wine merchant.

So what exactly is my store, Domaine LA? This is a tricky question that I try to answer here.
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A couple of months back, I participated in the first annual Los Angeles Natural Wine Week, spearheaded by Lou Amdur of Lou Wine Bar. At that time, I took some heat from a few folks around the Internet who felt I might have been merely capitalizing on a trend and didn’t see me as a true natural wine merchant.

The thing is, I’ve never claimed to be a natural wine merchant. When I started my business online a few years ago, I stated plainly that I wanted to sell wines I loved. I was an enthusiast with a fairly receptive, wide-ranging palate, and I considered learning about wine a journey I would be going on alongside my customers. While I’ve since expanded my business to include a brick and mortar space, my self-conception and mission statement haven’t really changed. But my palate has.

To be absolutely blunt about it, I used to love wines that I simply can’t stomach anymore. There are blog posts archived on my website that in retrospect make me cringe, paragraphs singing the praises of some of the most blatantly manipulated wines in the world. I once criticized a wine bar for not having any Southern Hemisphere selections; it’s now my favorite spot in Los Angeles. And today I carry barely a dozen Southern Hemisphere SKUs myself.

By and large, my palate-shift is reflected in what I bring into the store. Chris Ringland and Mollydooker have been replaced by Eric Texier and Thierry Puzelat; the California fruit- and alcohol-bombs, for the most part, have given way to wines from La Clarine Farm, Donkey and Goat and LIOCO.

As a result of my largely obscure inventory, almost every day I’m faced with customers asking for items that I don’t stock. On a regular basis, I hear:

“Do you have Rombauer Chardonnay?”

No, I answer.

“Do you have Caymus?”

Afraid not, I reply.

“What about Blackstone Merlot?”

So sorry, but no.

“Where’s the Veuve Clicquot? This is a gift. I need the recipient to know it’s nice!”

Sigh.

Saying no to people sets up a potentially risky relationship that may start and end with that one exchange—many customers want what they want and aren’t open to alternative suggestions. In other cases, however, that simple “no” can be the beginning of something beautiful, a dialogue that winds up with a customer who came in looking for the Prisoner instead going home with something like Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock Heirloom Red, a wine which, while perhaps not 100% natural, is a more honest “made in the vineyard” (yes, I know this is also a cliché) version of what the Prisoner purports to be.

Of course, sometimes that customer really just wants the Prisoner. Which leads me to my major confession here: despite more than a bit of ambivalence, I continue to sell the Prisoner, along with other wines that are by no means natural, wines that are quite frankly manufactured. The Prisoner sits on the shelf right next to the Bedrock Heirloom Red, and for the time being, it will stay there. At least twice a week people come in asking specifically for this wine, and, for several reasons, it’s a request I’m not—yet—willing to deny.

Even though I no longer drink the Prisoner, there was a time–not too long ago–when I did so happily. When I first started getting interested in wine, it was a bottle that captured my imagination and helped launch me on the journey I remain committed to today. So maybe I keep the Prisoner around out of a sense of nostalgia. Or maybe I keep it around to remind me how far I’ve come. Maybe I keep it around hoping that for those who ask for it, it will simply be their starting place just as it was mine.

Or, more cynically, maybe I keep it around because people buy it. Maybe it’s a crutch to lean on when I’m too tired to hand-sell the less familiar items on my shelves. Seeing something recognizable is comforting to consumers, and that comfort somehow lends me credibility; credibility is a precedent to trust. Trust is what enables me to recommend something different to a customer who normally drinks the Prisoner.

In this sense, the Prisoner is of great value to me, not just as an easy sell, but even more so as a gateway to all the other wines I have available. I don’t know that I’d be able to move as much of the Bedrock, an unknown wine with a tiny case production, without the Prisoner right next to it.
______

Saying no is extremely hard. Right now, I’m willing to do so 90% of the time, maybe even 95%. Call me a coward or a fake if you want. But I know where I started out, and it’s been a logical evolution. And while I’m headed in a particular direction, guided by my palate, it’s safe to assume I won’t ever be a 100% “natural wine merchant.”

I like to think there’s room for somebody like me—somebody with confidence in her tastes, who also takes into account modes of production in buying decisions; someone who has a particular point of view, yet retains an inclusive attitude. I am strong in my opinions, and enthusiastic in my passions. I never judge my customers, and hope that they’ll be as open-minded and respectful of my offerings as I am of their preferences.

So far, it seems to be working out. In recent months, I’ve brought in only one case of the Prisoner (less than a thousandth of a percent of its total production) for every three cases of the Bedrock (1.3% of its total production).

So, what am I?

I’m not a natural wine merchant. And I’m not not a natural wine merchant.

I’m a work in progress. And I’m okay with that.

Follow day by day here: https://saignee.wordpress.com/32-days-of-natural-wine-links/

Note: There are two posts today. Please check out https://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/day-18-1-long-live-natural-wine/

Also these posts were posted over the holiday weekend and didn’t get the readers they deserved:

Whitney Adams at Dettori in Sardinia: https://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/day-15-dettori-perfectly-imperfect%E2%80%8F/

And David McDuff with the sui generis wines of Cappellano: https://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/day-14-true-wine/

Up next: Lopez de Heredia and Jo Pithon, or; Those are two separate posts.

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 6, 2010.

10 Responses to “Day 18.2: The Business of Saying No”

  1. […] 2008 Saignee RSSDay 18.2: The Business of Saying NoDay 18.1: Long live natural wineDay 17: the dirty south wine video […]

  2. Great post, Jill. Really helps people to understand the realities of running a business and the evolution of a palate. Now I will go contemplate the metaphor of ‘the prisoner’ , as it relates to wine….
    Keep fighting the good fight.
    Cheers, Amy

  3. great post. the idea of ‘credibility’ as a precedent to trust cannot be overstated, and you’ve hit the proverbial nail on its head in this case. there’s something to be said about how fanatics can disenfranchise moderates (or novices), and when someone can strike a balance of educating without alienating, all parties win. so i guess, keep those gateway bottles around, you’ll get folks to expand (i know you helped me to).

  4. awesome!

  5. I love the honesty and willingness to constantly try new things. It is refreshing.

    http://www.blog.onxwine.com

  6. I am so damned sick of the faith-based bullshit surrounding “natural wine” that I welcome the sane approach you describe here, Jill. Sane and realistic.

    The greatest thing about wine is the seemingly endless variety and the fact that there’s always something new to learn. I think you express this from your POV quite effectively.

    Let’s hear it for DomaineLA!

  7. Well written. Love the style. Very sensible mentality that appeals to me. Not sure I believe that you don’t judge your customers. I believe you understand them, but how can you not judge those Rombauer-lovers!

    • Gary, when you work in wine retail (I did off and on for a total of 5 years), you do your absolute best to not judge. During my last time in retail (2004 at Beltramo’s), the joke among the wine staff was that the secret ingredient in Rombauer Chard was heroin. The way folks would get the shakes when the store was out of it almost made you believe.

  8. So this is what you were working on! I’ll just say “ditto.” This is the post I’m too strung out to write.

  9. Great post. Tracey wrote her “no” manifesto a year ago and this reminded me of her thoughts.

    There are many wines that I love to drink since they were meaningful to me years ago. I would never order them now as my palate and preferences have changed but each time I taste them, I still enjoy it.

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