by The Secret Wine Merchant

Is the customer always right?

Relationships can be difficult, even at the best of times. It seems strange that we would select a partner of our own volition, and then proceed to argue and fight with them as though it is hate that binds us together, rather than all of the good stuff. We know exactly what we are getting ourselves into – but that doesn’t stop the slanging matches while shopping, or threats of “this time it’s really over” after a few too many drinks.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that a wine merchant’s relationship with its customers can often reflect the ebb and flow of a marriage. It’s a relationship of mutual dependence, that was entered into with eyes wide open, but that doesn’t prevent it from swinging between blissful happiness one minute and visceral hatred the next.

Many of us will have suffered a boyfriend or girlfriend who constantly feels they are being slighted. According to them, everything you say or do has an ulterior motive or is an attempt to undermine them; an unfortunate character trait that is commonly found in customers. Most transactions during the day pass without incident and many of them blossom into enjoyable exchanges – but there’s always one, and one is all it takes to turn the mood sour.

Not long ago, I took a phone call from an incandescent gentlemen that had ordered a case of rosé via our website. On arrival he had inspected the goods and was now declaring them – with no irony whatsoever – to be fake. Fake Provence rosé under a tenner! No words could sooth his rage, despite the fact that his evidence for this monstrous crime amounted to a wonky label and a couple of tartrate crystals. He demanded that we collect the offending bottles immediately, which we did, although we stopped short of my knee-jerk request to have them replaced with a nail bomb.

One of a relationship’s most frustrating experiences is dealing with a partner’s lack of knowledge (or outright stupidity) when it is presented as fact, replete with patronising sneer. I’ve lost track of the number of ‘corked’ bottles I have been presented with that are anything but, including a recent example of a bottle that hadn’t even been opened. Apparently the mould on the top of the closure was irrefutable evidence that the wine was corked, as opposed to the fact that it was a thirty year old claret that had been stored correctly. I managed to restrain myself from resorting to violence and gave the snooty cow a refund.

Another key duty of someone in a relationship is to provide a sympathetic ear to their partner’s whingeing. In the marriage between merchant and customer, it is prices that seem to elicit the most whining and, just like complaints about the toilet seat being left up, it doesn’t take long for my blood to boil on the subject. There are plenty of consumers that seem happy to pay ever-increasing sums for a pint of beer or glass of wine when out at the pub, yet refuse to shift their wine bottle budget from the same £5 they have been paying for the past decade.

Just as annoying are customers that struggle to understand the concept of a quality hierarchy in a given wine style – the incredulous twerp that picks up a bottle of Dauvissat Chablis and snorts “How much are you charging for Chablis? How much?!”, while simultaneously forgetting that the BMW they pulled up in is justifiably more expensive than the Nissan Micra they parked it next to.

And haven’t we all had the experience of meeting a partner’s friend and thinking to ourselves “what a pompous arse”. Some people just exude arrogance and treat life as little more than an opportunity to get one-up on the next guy. Dealing with this particular type of idiot on the shop floor or over the phone is one thing – at least in that situation the skilled merchant can contain the problem to their private, if excruciating, conversation.

Tasting events is where the itchy rash of a wine bore can develop into a bubonic plague of embarrassment. We have had to place an outright ban on one such individual, who originally came as the +1 of a far more polite customer. This bloke seemed to think it was his moral obligation to interrupt, patronise and level accusations at some of the most venerable names in the world of wine. At the third event in a row where he had dominated proceedings to such an extent that people were literally getting up and walking out, I was forced to tell our customer that his friend was persona non grata. It was either him or me.

Sometimes even the strongest marriages have to deal with the spectre of infidelity and the wine merchant and customer relationship is no different. We work hard all year to provide a stable and loving environment for our partner to blossom in, nurturing and supporting them one bottle at a time as their enjoyment of wine grows. Then Christmas comes around and what do they do? Run into the arms of the first cheap supermarket wine deal they can find, refusing to answer our calls for weeks before they come crawling back in the New Year, full of regret.

But just as you’re seriously considering filing for divorce, they go and do something that reminds you why you fell in love in the first place. A bunch of flowers here, a doe-eyed look there, or a £10,000 order on a long margin usually does the trick, bringing the magic back until the next almighty row.

Perhaps most infuriatingly of all, there are those partners that only ever consider their side of the story, ignoring the role they play in the arguments and conflicts that arise throughout the year. Not that we merchants would ever be guilty of that…

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