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 More talk about "talkers" Readers talk back about, well, you know ...
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More talk about "talkers"

Shelf talker Monday's dissertation (and Voting Booth) about wine shop "shelf 'talkers'" proved to be one of those topics that inspired an unusual outpouring of comments, prompting quite a few of you to post comments in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group or to contact me by E-mail.

Many of you raised issues worth repeating that added substance to my brief report, so let's stick with this subject for one more day as I summarize the points you made.

In case I wasn't absolutely clear, there's certainly nothing wrong with the practice of posting descriptive notes or critical reviews on wine-shop shelves. Many of you hailed them as helpful in trying to select a specific wine, particularly if you're in a hurry or just not in the mood to get into a conversation with the wine-shop guy.

Many wine-shop owners and employees argued that it would be difficult not to use "talkers" because many customers expect them and read them avidly. "The vast majority of people love to read shelf talkers and many base their purchases on them," said the owner of a quality Southern California wine store. "The average customer who comes into a wine store is not a wine 'geek' and needs something or somebody to guide them. We try to talk to customers individually but there are many who don't like a sales person 'bugging them' and prefer the 'wine speculator etc.' to make their choices."

Still, others in the business demurred. Said one frequent correspondent whose thoughtful comments make clear that she runs a top-quality store, "My preference is to use shelf talkers judiciously - I think too many of them can look messy and confusing. I also believe it takes away from the look of the bottles, and that people would prefer to talk to a live person about a particular wine anyway. At least, this has been our experience - we are in a small town, and I think the expectation is that the personal service is important to have instead of having people wander helplessly around."

A number of you pointed out that a simple, descriptive note card written by the merchant or staff often strikes you as more persuasive than a critical rave from Wine Spectator, Robert M. Parker Jr. or other published review. "The most effective ones are those generated by store personnel," said one thoughtful respondent. "They are personal, heartfelt, and normally well-maintained, so that inventory and review match the same product. They build store credibility and increase customer rapport. Unfortunately for the consumer, few store clerks or owners are passionate enough about wine and attentive enough to their customers to produce them."

A reader in Japan mentioned that Japanese shops often shelve wines with a small graph from which you can interpret the "nature" of the wine - dry, sweet, light or full, I assume. "I don't take the time to decipher the text of the "talker", but I do use the small graph to get a general idea about the wine," he added. "I have learned from experience which areas of the graph are 'no go areas' for my family." I'd love to see a picture of one of these graphics ... anyone out there have one?

If any one practice earns universal scorn, it is the occasional abuse of "talkers" to misrepresent a wine. Placing a glowing report of an upscale "reserve" or single-vineyard wine on a stack of the same producer's less noteworthy regular bottling, for example, or using a tasting report on a great vintage to sell wine from a different, less successful year may work on the unwary, but wine enthusiasts in the know say these practices, whether careless or deliberately intended to mislead, are sufficient to drive their business elsewhere.

Quite a few of you agreed with my observation about interpreting a famous critic's review as a warning rather than a recommendation. As one reader said, "If I am looking for a non-oak wine - my usual preference - and the shelf talker says 'aged in new French oak' then it means I won't buy that wine. If it uses words like 'big' or 'bold' (yuck) or 'massive' then, again, I won't buy it."

It's clear that this topic offers a lot to think about, and early responses to this Voting Booth topic make it clear that wine lovers, too, bring a variety of opinions to this subject. If you haven't cast your "ballot" yet, you're still welcome to do so, as this topic will remain online for another couple of weeks. You'll find the Voting Booth topic, "do shelf 'talkers' influence your wine purchase?" online at

If you want to discuss this topic in more detail, you're welcome as always to join in an online conversation in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. You'll find the round-table online discussion on shelf talkers here:

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at I'll respond personally to the extent that time and volume permit.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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