Shh Listen! I hear wine sales...


I struggle at listening.  When you are bursting to tell stories it’s so hard to remember to pause and question.  If I do it at all, it’s because I’ve realized that if you don’t know your audience then you don’t know what story to tell.  Still a bit selfish, but a step in the right direction. 

I bumped into Bill outside the Catholic church the other day. One of those Calistoga moments where you are thinking about someone you haven’t seen in ages and then he appears on the sidewalk. Bill worked a bit in a tasting room I represented.  He never said too much but he was a rigorous listener and an A+ seller of wine.  He didn’t need the work as he was already successful in an unrelated industry.  I suspect we were part of some winethropological curiosity on his part.  What I had been thinking about before I bumped into him, was his ability to generate trust.  One day, years past, I was walking by a seated tasting he was conducting when I heard the lead guest of the party looking at the order form and saying, “Bill, what would you do?”  It floored me. It’s sobering to think back on all my years of selling wine and wondering how many times I was asked by a guest, “Colin, what would you do?”  Not so many I’m ashamed to say.  I’ve made an impression, entertained, made experiences memorable and provided useful insight. But there can be few greater compliments to your craft than someone asking you to give them a trusted opinion on how to best consummate the relationship.

Some of us thrive on creating energy and momentum and that’s better than the alternative.  This works very well for larger groups.  In smaller more intimate tastings, I have noticed that good listeners with a calmer and more measured pace are particularly successful.

My brother Paul is a partner in a great local restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is a natural master of the small personal touch and creative gesture.  When I was last there, I watched him attending to his various tables and realized how good he was at it.  We discussed it later and he told me that after years of multitasking in a busy restaurant setting, he had become a “three table listener.”  He is so familiar with his world that he can take an order at a table for six but at the same time be listening to the conversations at the two other tables behind him.  One might be a table of four thinking about dessert, undecided, but discussing that they “have time before the play starts.”  The other is a young couple returning on their anniversary and wondering intimately if they should “…splurge on the West Coast Lobster again...”

Once he hands in the first order to the kitchen he swings by the table of four and says “If you have a little more time why not stay a while and relax together with some chocolate cake?”  (Sold!)  Then to the couple, “Now last year you came here and had the lobster together, and loved it, why not celebrate being back and share it again?” (Sold, amazed, and flattered!)

The power of listening isn’t always about demonstrating how diligent we have been.  There is a place for that, and guests appreciate it.  You can also go one step beyond and quietly act on your listened insight.

I’ve occasionally managed to do this. One time I passed a couple who had just sat down on the patio while I was on my way to host another group.  I heard the couple talking about the expensive exercise equipment they had just bought for the basement in their house.  They were discussing which of them was going to use it when. Later on, in their tasting I described how some Cabernet Sauvignons were rather ponderous and overly extracted, like they were “flabby and overweight.”  However, our wines tended to be “leaner and a little firmer with more muscle” which was true.  I could see the sparkle this description brought to their eyes and was rewarded with a generous purchase.  I’m not necessarily proud of this instance of using my listening skills, but the wine sale that followed appeared to validate it.  

VINFABULA – “Improve your world with a fresh perspective story audit of your business. Then profit from telling the right stories, powerfully.