Shelf Talkers

(Originally published May 2000)

One of the things Hanes has pondered since time immemorial is the phenomenon referred to in the wine trade as "shelf talkers." These are the little descriptor cards that accompany many wines on the shelves, either taped below the bottles or affixed around the bottle's neck. They extol the virtues of a particular wine and sometimes offer advice on things such as pairings with food. Many questions are raised by the presence -- and absence -- of these seemingly innocuous bits of prose and Hanes will now ruminate on what they could possibly mean.

These cards often say something brief about the wine's characteristics, it's fruit profile or earthiness, sweetness, dryness, etc. They obviously attempt to make the wine sound appealing and worth buying. If such information is available, they often will make reference to the rating score given the wine by professional wine reviews such as The Wine Spectator, Robert Parker (The Wine Advocate) or Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar). Sometimes they will quote verbiage straight from these sources as well. Now, if they do not borrow such professional, semi-objective review text, where do the words of praise come from?

This raises the question of who it is that writes these shelf talkers. Normally, they will either be written by (a) store management or (b) the distributor representative responsible for that particular wine. Both of these potential sources have a financial interest in the sale of these wines which in turn raises the main question with which Hanes always contends: Given that the shelf talker is there to attract attention to a particular wine and increase sales of it, why does Wine A have a shelf talker and Wine B not? That is, are shelf talkers an indication of a special wine that is just so good it demands extra attention brought to it above and beyond its simply sitting on the shelf? Or are shelf talkers an indication of a crappy wine that has been sitting there so long that drastic measures are required to get it moving?

So, it is a matter of the very presence or absence of shelf talkers that raises concerns. Now, if all wines had shelf talkers there would be no imbalance and there would be little mystery involved as to what the very existence of the shelf talker said about the wine's quality. But this never happens. The situation remains more like you are looking at five comparable wines from Saint-Julien and two will have shelf talkers. Are these the best ones of the lot? Or the worst?

Hanes wishes there was a clear answer but, alas, this is not the case. The truth of the matter appears to be that either outcome is equally likely -- the wine being described can be great or it can blow. Or it could simply be a particular wine the store has purchased in a very large amount and needs to sell pronto. It pains Hanes to admit that bringing to bear his superhuman powers of rational analysis cannot resolve this conundrum, but them's the facts. Shelf talkers speak directly to human nature -- most people would rather buy a wine they know a little about than one they know nothing about (also one of the reasons even subpar wines sell during free in-store tastings). A couple of sentences and perhaps a review score provides many wine purchasers with something to grab onto in a sea of choices. "The card said it was light and fruity!" "Spectator gave it an 88!" We all know how messy these damn humans are, with their natures and all, and their quest for comfort creates a space for things like shelf talkers to appear and attempt sweet succor.

Hanes himself has written many shelf talkers. Sometimes they have been created to defend a good wine's honor or to draw attention to a wine that is relatively unknown and merits a spotlight. Other times they have been created to entice someone to make a purchase of a bottle of lesser quality that has become woefully tiresome to look at time and again. Hanes has witnessed similar divergent behavior in many other shelf talker authors as well. There is no rhyme nor reason. Some great wines sell themselves without the need for shelf talkers and some great wines need a push. Some swill has a great demand despite lesser quality (cf. Coppola wines) while some swill needs to be foisted somehow on somebody.

So, what are you, the savvy consumer, to do? What advice may Hanes grant on this topic? Well, try to break the information down into components. If you know what characteristics you enjoy in a wine try to see if the shelf talker provides this information. If you believe in listening to the palates of seasoned pros like Parker or Tanzer, look for a score rating. If you want a wine for a particular meal, see if the description includes such recommendations. On a more "meta" level, you can ask yourself if this particular wine comes from an unknown region or a new producer and thus may be good but need promotion to attract customers. If you shop at the same store repeatedly you can develop a history of whether shelf talkers offer good or bad advice. Also, look at the script! As many different people may write these things, they offer many different opinions and/or motivations. For instance, if all the Spanish or Italian wines have shelf talkers with the same script there may be a good chance the writer has a deeper experience in that area. Also, the absence of information may be a sign of whether the wine is of greater or lesser quality -- if the description is vague or fluffy chances are the wine may offer little in the way of specific personality, not the best of signs.

Or one may simply ignore shelf talkers entirely! Many wines worth buying remain kind of "hidden" in that the employees do not bring attention to their presence unless asked for a recommendation. Then, they can usher the customer to the "best kept secret in the store." This increases the prestige of the salesperson and makes their advice seem more essential. A shelf talker would thus prove too democratic, eliminating the thrill of "insider" information and letting just any run-of-the-mill customer purchase the cream of the crop. And we can't have that, can we?