Corkscrew - Look over here!

Shelf talkers: Are they screaming at us or for us?

My friend used to produce obnoxious car commercials, the ones with hyper, macho music and the screeching guy who sounds constipated. Although it pained this budding artist to squander his creativity on annoying 30-second radio spots, the commercials apparently sold cars. Just like the little annoying "shelf talkers" at wine shops - those tags that hang off the display shelves that scream ratings, descriptions and other tidbits of often useless info. They apparently sell wine, too.

I spoke with several consumers who confessed their weakness for shelf talkers. When asked if these marketing tags ever influenced a purchase, replies like, "Yes, I'm a sucker for those," and "Absofuckinlutely, I rely on them to expand my horizons. Tags have caused me to spend money I would not have otherwise. ... I do not always agree with what the tags said after tasting the wine, but mostly I feel it was a good decision to buy."

Another consumer, one of the more skeptical ones, said, "Yes, they have [influenced me]. This was especially the case when I was first developing a taste for wine. My feelings might be more mixed in this regard now. After seeing Mondovino [a controversial wine biz movie out in indie theaters now], I'm somewhat suspect of wine critics."

The most ubiquitous shelf talkers come from the national magazines, like Wine Spectator and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, and list ratings on a scale of 1-100. But one really cool option is stores that create their own shelf talkers or staff picks. Ansley Wine Merchants in Atlanta has been using those for years, and, unlike the stuffy wine mags, its talkers are comedians.

Comments like "Staff Favorite ... means we drank a lot of it" engage customers rather than confuse them. Debbie Fraker at Ansley says, "Shelf talkers are there for when we're not. ... They work well for shy or busy people" who don't want to be bothered with sales staff. Gina Cook at Sherlock's in Atlanta agrees. Their staff picks create a relationship with the customer, allowing that person to identify a local staffer with similar taste buds. "It's all about the relationship," she says. "Wine has to be the right fit."

Forty percent of Sherlock's wines have shelf talker help, but at B-21 in Tampa Bay, 65 percent to 75 percent of its inventory has a descriptor tag. Rhett Beiletti, wine consultant at B-21, considers it the store's duty to provide enough information for a customer to decide on a wine in order to create a comfort level with the buying process.

And the tags provide a qualified outside source to back up a salesperson's opinion. In addition to monthly staff picks, the staff scours the Internet to find several informational sources even from esoteric publications such as Beverage Dynamics (a trade mag I don't even read). The effort creates a veritable encyclopedia of wine-buying info.

Still, most wine drinkers agree that nothing replaces the face-to-face experience at a shop. Shelf talkers do their job at a grocery store or large wine retailer where you may not get enough attention, but consumers still prefer the intimate contact with a friendly, knowledgeable salesperson. Gina Cook remembers being asked, "I haven't met Robert Parker, how do I know I'm going to like this wine?"

Enough said.

corkscrew@creativeloafing.comMy Picks
Jest White California. SW = 3. $10.

Image Image Image Image 1/2 Produced by people with a great sense of humor, this white blend (I'm also a fan of the Jest Pink and Jest Red) can be enjoyed with abandon. It's cheap, it's good and full of fragrant peaches and honey. Little acidity present and slightly sweet, so gulp at will.Stoneleigh 2003 Chardonnay Marlborough. SW = 2. $16.

Image Image Image Image 1/2A fruity explosion with juicy, lemony apricots and a sweet white grape juice finish. Smells like ripe red apples tossed with savory walnuts.