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Dispatches from Behind the Counter: Dear Wine Shop Owner
By Christy Frank
Mar 15, 2023
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Time for another installment of "Dear Wine Shop Owner," my semi-regular attempt to answer the burning questions I get from fellow cavistes across the country.  (I was in Paris last month, so I’m feeling fancy; why use three American words [wine shop owner] when there’s one perfectly good French word that means the same thing?)

The first installment answered the question “How should I decide what to stock?” with a mind dump about how to write a wine shop business plan.  This installment gets into the weeds and whys of a return policy.  As an aside, the columns in this series also happen to address matters of interest to almost everyone who visits Wine Review Online, as virtually everyone within that set spends time and money in wine retail shops—including every winemaker worth her or his salt.  

Happy reading – and if you have any burning questions of your own, send them to me at [email protected].  Anonymity guaranteed!

Dear Wine Shop Owner,

A customer bought a bottle of wine and apparently left it in their car on one of the hottest days of the summer.  The cork had popped out and they’re requesting a refund.  Obviously, it’s not our fault. Would you give them a refund?

Let me start by saying that when it comes to returns, I am a bit of a softy.

This is not because I buy into the notion that “the customer is always right.”  I do not.  I’ve been on too many phone calls explaining why, when asked “do you need this wine delivered for dinner tonight” and the caller said “no,” it is perfectly logical to assume that you meant the customer didn’t need the wine for dinner tonight.  I’ve also spent more time than I’d like explaining how the laws of physics conspire to prevent a wine ordered at 7.50 p.m. from being delivered by 8 p.m. when the address in question is 30 minutes from the shop (which also happens to shut down at 8 p.m.).

So no, the customer is not always right, at least when it comes to understanding logistics and distance and how time works on this planet we call home.  (Maybe it’s different on other planets?  I’m looking forward to conversations with intergalactic cavistes about this.)

But when it comes to the specific bottles they’re buying and what to expect when those bottles leave the shop, the customer isn’t so much wrong—as confused.  And I have a soft spot for helping them work through the confusion.  Actually, it’s more than a soft spot – it’s my job as a retailer who insists on selling a wildly diverse range of wines from all the corners and styles and grapes of the world.  And part of that job is having a return policy that doesn’t make them feel silly for their confusion.

Because mistakes happen.  Or rather, let’s say misunderstandings happen.  This is not surprising in a wine world with a descriptive language that’s almost entirely subjective.  Customers often leave with a bottle they think they’ll love, but don’t.  A wine sounds fabulous when described by the friendly person at the shop, but when the cork is popped at home, not so much.  Is it that they don’t like it?  Or maybe…there’s something really wrong with it?  Because who would ever want to drink something that taste like that??

This is especially true once a customer wanders beyond the garden of popular, well-known styles like “rich red blends” or “buttery Chardonnay” or “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” or “Sancerre.”  Pair a customer who’s just starting to step out of the safety zone of those styles with a shop eager to give them a big push … and misunderstandings are to be expected.

So I like to think of a return policy as a way to resolve those misunderstandings.

On paper (or really, on my web site) the policy is pretty cut and dried: We’ll accept returns if a bottle is defective, giving you a replacement bottle, a full refund, or store credit.

But the question is: What’s a defect?  And who gets to decide?  Given the many memes and twitter wars involving “what constitutes a flaw,” I don’t think it’s clear cut.  If the customer was hoping to try something a step or two removed from their usual buttery Chardonnay and I sell them an oxidative wine from the Jura, I can easily understand that they might think something is off with the bottle. To the winemaker, it’s perfect.  To this customer?  Nope.

So, if the customer cares enough to bring the bottle back and ask if it’s defective, I’ll take that as a sign to continue the conversation.  Economically speaking, it’s a one bottle investment in what’s hopefully a long, happy stream of future purchases.  Assuming the wine isn’t actually flawed, I’ll go into education mode and explain that yes, it’s supposed to taste like that, but I’ll happily replace it with another bottle that’s not quite so far out on the “wacky” axis of the Chardonnay grid.  (Yes, there’s a Chardonnay grid – but that’s a subject for another time.)

The best way to avoid returns like these is to not let the bottle get out of the shop in the first place!  Through years of experience, I know that there are certain styles, flavors, and structural elements that are especially likely to cause misunderstandings.  Oxidative wines.  Wines aged under flor.  Low octane red wines from places that are known for uber-ripe bottlings.  Oak-aged white wines from places known for easy, un-oaked styles.  Reduction.  Brett.  A touch (or more) of high-toned volatile acidity.

I carry wines that check all of the above boxes – but they all come with mental warning labels.  Before one of them crosses the cash register threshold, I’ll try to make sure the customer knows exactly what they’re getting to avoid any at-home disappointments.  For example, describing a reductive wine as “pooey” makes it very clear what the customer should expect.  Some will back away fast.  And some will take the plunge.

Now that customer who willingly took home the pooey bottle?  Let’s say they opened it…and hated it, even though they had been warned.  If they come back to the shop and tell me about it, if the experience seemed like anything less than a fun adventure, there’s a good chance I’ll give them a bottle of another wine that’s not quite so far down the pooey axis (yes, another grid – I’m very big on grids).  For free.  Even if they don’t ask for it.  Does that make me a softy?  Or am I just making a solid investment in a customer engaged enough to remember what they’re thinking about what they’re drinking and tell me about it?  (The answer: Both.)

That’s great, you say, but what about the bottle in the car with the popped out cork?

Even than I would probably make a refund.  This is because I feel very strongly that mindreading is a skill every good retailer needs to develop.  If you’re selling wine in a location where customers drive around in cars, your crystal ball should tell you there’s a good chance they will continue to run errands with that bottle in their car.  This is especially true in vacation-oriented areas, such as where my shop is, where those “errands” may involve hiking or biking and city-fleeing customers often aren’t schooled in the ways that car interiors work.  In which case, a subtle reminder that wine, like pets and children, isn’t well suited for long times in empty cars is never a bad idea.

But let’s say your crystal ball is cracked, or your customer doesn’t take your advice.

When the call comes, I would go into education mode: jJust like milk or juice or any agricultural product, wine doesn’t do well in a hot car.

And then detective mode: Is the cork still in the bottle, just popped up a bit? There’s a good chance it still tastes just fine. (This is true, even if what goes unsaid is: You’ve wrecked your chances at selling it to Sotheby’s, but given that you left it in a hot car, that probably wasn’t part of the plan anyway.)  Open it and see how it is.

And then finally, softy mode: But if it doesn’t taste right, let me know…and I’ll give you a refund.