Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hand-selling an Italian

Last year, I started to help out with Sunday cellar door work at Eden Road Wines, who bought the old Doonkoona vineyard and winery at Murrumbateman. It is a good spot on the Barton Highway and on the granite that runs through the two Clonakilla vineyards.

I have not worked directly in wine retail since a stint between 1991 and 1994 when I lived in Sydney. In those days, working as a wine waiter, I shifted bottles from a list split between Australia (Rosemount chardonnay, semillon chardonnay, TR2) and Italy. Many a bottle of cheap Chianti, raffia fiasco and all, did I flog, not to mention Frascati and verdicchio from the 'genuine' fish-shaped bottle.

On-premise to cellar door is a difference, but some of the performance is shared. Both are based on conversation as much as labels or price. I may have an unhealthy sense of the fun of retail, but it can be among the most social, and sociable, acts of commerce. Having a good list, with good values, certainly helps the conversation, and the Eden Road range makes for easy selling.

Within that range, there is a 2009 vintage blend of barbera (90%) and cabernet sauvignon (10%). The barbera fruit comes from the Grove Estate vineyard at Hilltops (around Young, in NSW) and the cabernet from a Murrumbateman vineyard. It's a wine I enjoy drinking, which makes selling it easier, but I've also found the cellar door sales experience with this wine to be an excellent test of what this blog is all about: the fit between Australia and Italian vines.

Only a very small percentage of cellar door visitors have any familiarity with barbera. More have some experience with Italian wines or varieties in general, but that number is still quite small. I have the barbera blend in the tasting lineup after the shiraz-based wines and the contrast in fruit profiles seems to serve the barbera well. The mix of ripe cherry and blueberry fruits (perhaps some of the blueberry is Hilltops as much as the variety?) with bright acid seems to be immediately appealing to most visitors.

The conversation that seems to work best with this wine at cellar door involves talking about food as much, if not more, than the wine itself. Sometimes we talk about Italian foods in general, other times about how the high natural acid in barbera fits with high-acid food (like a fresh tomato sauce for a simple pizza, or a vinegar/oil dressed grilled vegetable dish). Another line of conversation involves situations: how the barbera fits with circumstances such as going around to a friend's house or out to a BYO when the cooking, menu or group ordering is not known. Only occasionally is there much conversation about the details of the wine itself, such as what the 10% cabernet does to extend the wine and give it structure.

As good as the wine is, as settled into itself, barbera is still a hand-selling proposition at cellar door. But that hand-selling seems to be effective, and mainly so through a conversation where food is at least as important as the bottle. Maybe my own interest, or effort, pushes through here as well, but this wine sells, even to people coming to barbera cold. I wonder if that would be the case with a more tannic variety such as sagrantino or even sangiovese? Maybe a different kind of conversation, a different set of foods?

But I also find a distinct satisfaction in introducing people to something unfamiliar and seeing that introduction jump past doubt, over indecision and novelty, and into real pleasure.


  1. Good summary of the difficulty selling barbera, a 'friendly' variety that is not so easy to sell, even from Piedmont. Its compatibility with food is my selling point of the grape too. I'll look out for the wine

  2. Thanks Matt. Was interesting to try and write about sales without ending up 'selling' the subject bottle here. Quite keen to keep the blog to its bounds, so won't be reviewing anything I have an involvement with, but think there are still ways to write about parts of that stuff honestly and clearly.

  3. Great post Paul, one that reminds me yet again that I really must buy more Barbera - it's one variety that I too gain a lot of pleasure with as a 'drinking wine' as opposed to a 'contemplation wine'.

  4. Interesting post Paul! Ciao from Piedmont, Italy!