Wine Tribes

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The first time I became aware of tribes was on my very first day at elementary school on the West Coast of Scotland.  Finlay Galbraith, Jean Brailsford and Donald McEachern approached me in the dirt playground.  Jean was a girl with bright orange hair, pale freckled skin and easily the toughest kid in the school.  They cornered me up against the stone playground wall and in low threatening voices demanded to know if I was “Catholic or Protestant?”  I had hippie parents and we ate salad. My Swedish mother would abandon a meal and rush outside every time the sun came out, so we might have been pagan sun worshippers for all I knew.  It was clear that fitting into this small school tribe would be crucial.  I told them I didn’t know, and they said, “You’d better find out.”  My parents were both foreign and artists in their late 20s.  On this as on many other occasions, they did not grasp the gravity of the local culture and their children’s’ need to fit in.  At home that night I asked if we were Catholic or Protestant.  They discussed it languorously over dinner and said we weren’t really either.  Even at 5 years old I knew this vague answer would not satisfy my inquisitors. Some more definitive choice was going to have to be made.  Eventually they talked about how they had been married in a Unitarian Church just off Lothian Road in the City of Edinburgh where they had met.  It had been a quick wedding because they did not have enough money to get the heating turned on. “Just tell them you’re a Unitarian,” said my mother innocently.  The deep sectarian divides of the West Coast of Scotland were lost to them.

The next day I went back to the Achahoish School playground armed with my category.  My trio of inquisitors pounced upon arrival and demanded, “So, are ye a Catholic or a Protestant?”  I told them that according to my parents I was a Unitarian.  They didn’t even hesitate, “Are ye a Protestant Unitarian or a Catholic Unitarian?”  I had the good sense to ask, “Well what’s everyone else?”  Finlay said, “We’re all Protestants!”  I then became the only declared Protestant Unitarian in the school, and as far as I know, possibly in the whole of Scotland.

It’s no coincidence that rookie wine hosts are taught to ask where else a customer has tasted on their trip so far.  The answer immediately speaks volumes.  Do they have money, do they have access, are they searching out the cool and cultish, are they wine focused, or are they ‘wine tourists’ wandering aimlessly around Wine Country?  Who is their wine tribe?  We are trying to place them in our own landscape with an awareness of how they might behave in our environment.  Ideally this doesn’t affect how the guest is treated it just lets you understand the audience.  Sadly, in many cases it does mean that the guest has a greatly diminished interaction.  This is a shame because some of my most interesting and rewarding exchanges over the years were with people who I knew would be lucky to buy a bottle.  To do this you have to relish people and have faith that it all comes back somehow.

One of my favorites were a couple who wandered in off the street on their way to the coast and were from Northern Ireland.  They had never been in a winery before.  He was a ‘squaddie’ in the army, and she was a nurse.  They were fish out of water in our tasting room, but great fun, and wine tribe innocents.  They said they would taste one wine, so I poured them a sample from a $50+ Cabernet.  In their drainpipe and all vowel Northern Irish accents they immediately decided they liked the wine and would buy it.  They hadn’t asked anything about it or the price.  I asked them what the most expensive wine was that they ever bought back home in Belfast.  She said nervously, “Is it expensive like?  You mean like $12 or $15 or something…”  I told them it was indeed $15.  They huddled and then proudly said, “We’ll take it!  We’ll carry it back home in our luggage.  None of the family will believe we bought such an expensive wine all the way from California.”

When I worked a spell in wine retail 15 or so years ago, we had mostly small under the radar producers on the shelves and a healthy smattering of ‘in-the-know’ international producers.  There were a few bigger California brands carried also.  You spent a lot of time reading wine tribe cues so as to know what to present. For some reason I got very good at spotting the Silver Oak buyers.  They just looked different from other wine buyers.  Usually men, sometimes in a group, and they were prosperous in appearance but with a mercantile aura.  Maybe a Tommy Bahama shirt, fat gold watch and hairy arms.  There were times I pulled Silver Oak bottles from below racks and discreetly placed them near the register and would then be rewarded bed by a gasp of recognition and a nice sale.

Through our lives we all wear our tribal allegiances around us, draped over our shoulders waiting to be identified by those who care to read the patterns.  Some are cultural and reflect where we lived and from who we were born, but in the American melting pot there are many sub-tribes of taste and lifestyle.  We communicate these subtler, but no less important to us, associations through nuances in our appearances, clothing, music choices and of course… wine.  As a result, I suspect our wine choices about what we “like” are more directed, than we might think, by which wine tribe we want to belong to.

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