As it happens, my dad is the chairman of the Sommelier Society of America.
A sommelier is a wine educator — it’s that person in a good restaurant who knows anything and everything about wine. The sommelier can guide you on the best choices based on what you’ll be eating tonight.
A sommelier is also, almost by definition, a wine marketer.
It’s the sommelier’s job to create a fantastic experience for the customer, so that the customer buys more wine.
In that sense, they’re true content marketers, using their depth of knowledge to make customers happy and to do more business.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a Sommelier Society class for their certification program the other day. I took a couple of notes about wine … but a lot more about marketing.
(What can I say, my marketing dork side reveals itself once again.)
I want to share a few insights with you that came out of that class … and talk about how you can apply them to your business, even if wine is the furthest thing imaginable from what you sell.
1. The first step is to shape the customer experience
The work of a sommelier starts with building the wine list — sitting down among the universe of wines your restaurant or shop could stock … and figuring out which wines will make the cut and which ones won’t.
It’s not a simple matter of “only stock good wine.” Yes, it has to be good, but there are endless definitions of that.
Just as important as quality, the wine has to be the right fit — for your clientele, your neighborhood, the food you serve, the price point you’re working within.
A traditional French restaurant needs a very different list from a funky Asian fusion place. A neighborhood joint needs a different list from the kind of place stockbrokers go to spend stacks of their hard-earned cash.
As a marketer, your first task is to choose what you’re going to market — and to make sure that’s the perfect fit for what your customers are looking for.
2. Your personality matters, too
Maybe some day there will be an animatronic “virtual sommelier” that can develop an excellent, appropriate wine list just by plugging in a few variables.
But in the world we live in now, thank goodness, the personality and passion of the sommelier are important.
A sommelier whose wine list is at the intersection of her own passions and the desires of her customer is a sommelier who’s going to sell a lot of wine.
And as someone who has thought deeply about (and tasted a lot of) wine, the sommelier should bring her knowledge to the table.
If she can tell a great story — about the wine or the winemaker — so much the better.
As a content marketer, normally you’re going to know a lot more about your topic than your customers do. Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge, your passion — even to geek out a little. That’s infectious.
3. It’s not your job to tell people what they want
Our instructor told us about a wine bar whose staff have been instructed to say to a customer asking for an after-work glass of Chardonnay, “I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for today.” They don’t think customers should drink Chardonnay, so they don’t carry it.
Any customer with an ounce of self respect, faced with that kind of condescension, will turn around and leave.
You don’t have to serve the desires of every customer — and the truth is, you can’t. You need to shape your offers based on a well-defined picture of who the right customer is.
But never tell people “what they want.”
You can educate, you can build a bridge between what they want and something they might like even better. But leave the condescension at home. It’s bad manners and bad for business.
Good sommeliers know they’re not in the wine business … they’re in the entertainment business. It’s their job to create diversion and pleasure, not to inflate their own egos or intimidate customers into worrying about whether they like the “wrong” kind of wine.
4. Know how the customer’s going to drink this wine
Californian and other “New World” wines are often drunk for their own sakes. They tend to be “bigger” wines with lots of flavor (and alcohol) and not much acidity. As our instructor mentioned, connoisseurs of this type of wine may knock back some stellar bottles … then have mineral water with dinner. These big wines are often just too overwhelming to serve with food.
European “Old World” wines are normally crafted to be drunk with food. They’re more acidic and less alcoholic. They often have a subtler flavor profile.
One style isn’t “right” … but one can be the better choice for a given situation.
Know how your customer wants to drink the bottle. Quite often, even leaving price aside, the “greater” wine isn’t the right wine for that customer’s needs.
Develop as clear an understanding as you can of how your customer will consume your product or service, and make sure you’re offering something that really works for what they need.
5. Make the most of your terroir
This was one of my favorite points from the class.
One of the characteristics common to many “Old World” wines is the concept of terroir. Terroir is the soil the grapes are grown in, the elevation, the water source, the orientation of the vineyard to the sun … all of those highly agricultural elements that go into growing wine grapes with differing characteristics.
Great European wines are very much about making the absolute best wine possible given of the terroir they come from.
Over time, winemakers learn the intricacies of their own terroir. They learn the characteristics of wine that only they can make.
Every business needs to understand this … the “raw ingredients” you have to work with.
If you’re wise, this will become the foundation of your winning difference or unique selling proposition — the unmistakable thumbprint that distinguishes your business from everyone else’s.