I have been working for some time now on a new project, that of wine sales on line. Formerly I tended to deal face to face with a customer, now they can be 200 miles away as they peruse a virtual cellar full of often baffling wine styles. When advising in the on-trade (wine which is purchased and consumed  on-site as opposed to the off-trade where the wine is removed and drunk off the premises) one tended to meet lots of potential customers. Discussion and tasting one to one was the order of the day. I suppose such sales were the wine equivalent of a test drive. Prior knowledge of selection is of course true, but for many advice may well be a necessary part of the contract.

So how does the wine profession assist and how does the customer question?

That bastion of the expensive restaurant was the fabled Sommelier. He or she can be your foe or your ally, your friend or your professional mugger. I have observed both styles of approach from warm friendly folk who will hold your hand and lead you gently from ignorance to illumination in the blink of an eye to superciliousness beyond A level grade. Going to a restaurant should be a combination of education and enjoyment, after all you are paying up to four times the going rate of any supermarket for what you are about to consume. The one thing it must not become is hand to hand fighting over the contents of a wine list. Communication is the key for all parties involved,

Trusting your wine waiter is one part of the bargain, expressing your own preferences is the other. Many customers can easily be led to the slaughter if their own outlook is limited to a brand promoted in supermarkets by marketing teams as opposed to winemakers. A competent and passionate sommelier will know his chosen wine suppliers and even some of the wine makers and has at his disposal a wealth of knowledge for you to draw upon.

Unfortunately this expensive breed is often consigned to the metropolis, not your charming local restaurant or rural gastro-pub. There are however some pointers, a restaurant or food orientated pub worth their salt will have access to a number of independent wine merchants. These merchants often act as an off-site sommelier, offering advice and guidance to a busy restaurant owner. This noble breed will often provide staff training of the house wine list, seek them out, you will know them when you come across them. Unfortunately you may often suffer the untutored as well. Therefore your own ability to describe a preference is important, simply saying not too dry for example exposes the evening to untold risk. Do not be phased by expressing a preference for full bodied, oaked whites as opposed to delicate aromatic styles. Offer your own view of the desired refreshing quality you seek, explain in simple terms whether a red should be light or full bodied, elegant or fruity, spicy or richly warming. Many wine merchants will have taken considerable trouble to write up a wine list for their clients and these brief notes can be a Godsend. When accurately described, wines which may have been a mystery to many, may be brought sharply into focus and can help to remove the intimidation all us have felt at some time or another.

Price is never a guarantee of quality alone, mark-ups in the on-trade are, not surprisingly, all too often linked to overheads and staff costs rather than the wine’s inherent worth. Nevertheless many outlets will work on a sliding scale offering more expensive wines at lower margins, some friendly pubs and bistros simply add a fiver or a tenner to the cost price of the bottle thereby increasing the value and quality, pound for pound, at the higher end of the list.

However my desire to assist when one’s customer floats in the ether, increases the responsibility of communication. Terms such as sweet, medium or dry lose their punch quickly as do the quirky one to ten style definitions. Trust forms a very large part of this mutual transmission as the chance to pull a cork and discuss the contents of a bottle becomes geographically impossible. So what does a wine supplier tell a customer and what does the customer tell his or her supplier?

The story behind the wine is often engaging and helpful in equal measure. Transmitting the passion of a wine maker or co-operative, can remove early intimidation of a new wine experience and in turn allow the consumer to comprehend the reasoning behind the wine, whether the taste profile fits immediately or not. Trust in the winemaker is rewarded by their own desire to find rewarding middle ground. Wine makers, like actors or artists after all, want to be seen, understood and admired. In my experience they do not set out to steal or baffle. Our own honest and considered response to a wine is as valuable an asset to the maker as his cellar master or his barrel maker. Make your opinions known as there will be many out there who will wish to know.