Richard Hemming: passion vs practicality

One of the biggest challenges in wine retail is the right mix between wines of passion and wines of practicality.

The former are those wines that you stock because you love them. There might be a sentimental connection, you might admire the winemaker – or you might simply adore the wine without knowing much else about it. These are all valid reasons, so long as you believe they genuinely deserve the shelf space and you can use what you know to sell them.

Wines of practicality are stocked because they sell themselves. These are a reality of all retail – most bookshop owners don’t read Dan Brown novels; most record retailers aren’t into One Direction. But no sensible business should refuse to sell them.

Similarly, off-licences shouldn’t snub populist wine styles or brands, but neither should their range solely consist of such products.

Why not? Because wine then becomes like any other commodity, and that undermines everything that makes it beautiful.

As an aside, perhaps it is a blessing that, because it is extremely difficult to make big bucks from mainstream wine retail, it remains distinctly unattractive for quick profit-hunters, meaning that it instead is left for committed, determined and passionate wine sellers to get on with.

That means you, dear OLN reader – or at least, i hope it does.

The difference between passion and practicality was recently made clear to me by two particular wines. First, during a visit to the northern Rhône, I was impressed by the high standards of St-Joseph. As an appellation, it struck me as under-priced in comparison with its neighbours, more reliable in quality than many Crozes-Hermitages and with exactly the qualities the trade loves: moderate alcohol, flavoursome and complex, drinkable young but ageworthy too.

Does that mean I’d stock it at Hemming’s Imaginary Wine Emporium? I’m not so sure. As a £15 red with a relatively obscure origin made in a non-mainstream style it would be a tough sell, and I can see it gathering dust, passed over in favour of safer bets, despite my most charming sales patter.

The other wine was Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel, a new South Australian red aged in whisky casks.

My gut reaction when I saw the glossy ad for this product was snobbishly negative, but I tempered myself almost straight away. After all, wine is often accused of lacking innovation, yet here’s a product trying to broaden wine’s appeal – and, at a retail price of around £15, is costed to return value to a squeezed sector.

The question is not which of these is the “correct” wine to stock, it is about having the right reason. A balance needs to be struck between introducing some customers to the new, exciting wines that you love, while providing others with what they already want.

The best wine shops offer a bit of both.

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