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Editor Lettie Teague returns to her first job, in a wine store, and learns that computers are trickier than cash registers and Merlot and Chardonnay sell themselves.

Two weeks after graduating from college, I got a job in a wine shop. Six months later, I was still working retail. My parents began to worry. All of my friends were in graduate school or law school or training to become titans on Wall Street, while I was selling half pints of Smirnoff and bottles of Beaujolais. "You're working in a liquor store?" my father asked, bewildered (doubtless considering the cost of my education). "No," I replied, "I'm learning the wine business."

Of course, Morrell & Company, the store where I worked some 17 years ago, was a lot more than just a liquor store. It was (and is) one of Manhattan's top wine shops. I'd taken a job there on the recommendation of a wine importer, who told me, "If you want to understand the business, you gotta work retail." The fact that this piece of advice was delivered to me over a 50-cent hot dog and a tropical-fruit punch at Papaya King on East 86th Street should have been a warning that this would not prove a particularly lucrative career.

But never mind. At Morrell's, I was in the middle of it all. Critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., had only recently made his historic pronouncement about the greatness of the 1982 Bordeaux (none of which I could afford), and Americans had begun to think seriously about wine. The 53rd Street store was crowded with converts. And yet, as I look back from the distance of nearly two decades, I realize now how small the wine world was in those days—and how much it has changed.

Back then only a few regions really mattered (Burgundy, Bordeaux), while now, notable wines are made all over the world (Mendoza, Priorato). Where once good French wine (and that's all anyone wanted) could be found for $15 a bottle, now three-figure prices are regularly paid for American wines. And, of course, today wine drinkers can buy bottles at auction houses, Internet sites and retailers specializing in the wines of a single country or region—Italy, South Africa or even New York State.

I've actually witnessed most of these developments as a journalist, having left a life in retail long ago. But I've wondered if this meant selling has gotten harder (with so much more competition) or easier (with so much more good wine around)? Do customers know more? Can they recite all the names of the great "garagiste" winemakers? Do they speak knowledgeably about Pinot Noirs from Central Otago? Or do they still ask for a "nice white wine, not too dry" and insist that their bottles be double-bagged? (All wine shops back then used the same flimsy black plastic bags.) I decided to find out; so I called up Roberta Morrell and asked for my old job back.

"I remember you used to wear Laura Ashley dresses and boots to work," Ruth Morrell, Roberta's daughter, said as the two of us stood in the new Morrell & Company store in Rockefeller Center. I didn't recall the boots. (Had I looked like a hayseed?) But I believed her—after all, Ruth had been a pretty fashionable 15-year-old. Now she is the stylish head of the store's catalog division.

I worked for two days as a regular salesperson, although thanks to a complicated computer system, I couldn't ring up my own sales. (In the old days, I used a cash register.) I did, however, "work the floor" like the other sales staff, three men and one woman. Each had a similar story—lives interrupted or altered on account of a love for wine. Chris, the sales manager, had moved to New York from Texas; Larry and Rich had both quit secure jobs (engineer, computer programmer); 24-year-old Liz was trying to put her sommelier's diploma to practical use—something that I, a former English-major-turned- writer, could certainly identify with.

I spent the first morning (a slow time in retail) learning where the wines were. Bordeaux and Champagne were (as always) allotted prime spots near the front door, while the bargains were all relegated to a back wall. I was just getting a handle on California when my first customer—and biggest sale—walked through the door. He was looking to buy a case of assorted California Chardonnays. I asked for an example of wines that he liked. He answered, "Kistler." We didn't have Kistler (Who does? Kistler Chardonnays are some of the most sought-after wines in the world), but I suggested a few of my favorites from those that we did have—Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch, Landmark Overlook and Rudd Carneros. Chris joined me and made a few suggestions of his own. The sale came to over $800. Chris rang it up on the computer. Looking over Chris's shoulder, I said to Mr. Chardonnay, in mock-admonishment, "Why, you haven't been here since February!" He looked sheepish and soon hurried away. I wondered if the old unknowing, unrecording cash register might not have been better for both of us.

I spent the next few hours standing around. I'd forgotten how much standing around there is in retail. By one o'clock my feet felt like concrete. I made a few sales, mostly to women, mostly Merlot. (While wine writers claim "nobody" drinks Chardonnay and Merlot, there was no evidence of their demise at Morrell's.) The women were, by and large, as I remembered them—awkward and shy when it came to purchasing wine. "My husband usually does the buying," one confided, while another just nodded gratefully as I selected a few bottles. One woman, however, had a quite definite request: Swiss Pinot Gris. When I informed her we had only three wines from Switzerland—none Pinot Gris—she simply brushed me aside. I was tempted to tell her she'd be better off with a Pinot Gris from Oregon or Alsace, but because she was Swiss, I held my tongue. Rich took over and made a quick sale. I started to wonder if I'd lost my touch.

I was saved from such thoughts by the arrival of Nikos Antonakeas, Roberta Morrell's husband and the managing director of Morrell's. Nikos and I coincidentally had started working at the store the very same year. As I dolefully described my encounter with the Swiss Lady, Nikos seemed oddly cheered by my tale. "Customers know grapes and regions now," he said, nodding enthusiastically, adding, "Where once they used to ask for a wine that was 'soft' or 'dry,' now, even if they don't know a winery's name, they'll ask for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It's made selling wine easier."

Maybe selling wine had gotten easier for Nikos, but it sure seemed harder to me. (I'm not even counting the pain of standing on my feet for eight hours straight.) With so many more wines to choose from, I found myself wondering each time if I was making the best recommendation. The minute I suggested one wine, I immediately thought of another, equally good one or two—never a problem in the days when "a wide selection" meant you had wines from most regions of France. Now, it didn't seem so much about making a sale as it was about a search for the Platonic ideal. My husband, by the way, says this is how I give directions. I can always think of several routes to any destination and feel obliged to describe each one in detail. Unfortunately, most drivers want someone to just make the choice for them.

That's the way, I discovered, most people still feel about buying wine. Oh sure, there are probably a few more who can pick out their own Swiss Pinot Gris, a few more with deep pockets, and many more with an interest in Italian wines—but in truth, most of the buyers I met were like those of 17 years ago. They just wanted someone to give them advice they could trust, to tell them what to do. Like the woman who came in looking for a bottle of Beringer Cabernet. When I told her, "We only have Beringer Merlot, which is quite nice," she responded, "I'll take it." Never mind that it wasn't even the same grape she had originally wanted.

I did, however, find one thing that has dramatically changed since the old days: the shopping bags. The black plastic sack has been banished from Morrell's, replaced by a very fashionable, very sturdy tan-and-green paper shopping bag with natty green-yarn handles and packed with monogrammed tissue paper, no less. It comforted me to think that even if my wine recommendations fell short of that Platonic ideal, every single bottle would be carried out in one of those bags.

Published September 2001
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