Today, while on a visit to my local Whole Foods store for a few things, I decided it was time to buy another bottle of wine. We bought some stuff to grill out tomorrow, since it is Labor Day and all, and a nice bottle of red wine would pair nicely with it, or so I’ve read. Since I’m a relative newbie to the wine world, I really don’t know what pairs with what. I can’t say I’ve ever drank a wine with a food and thought, “Hey, this doesn’t go nicely with this.” I just don’t know enough about it, and my tastebuds aren’t in tune with the wine and food pairings, yet.
I didn’t drink wine for the longest time because I’d had wine years ago, and didn’t care for it. Looking back, it was probably just a crappy wine, and I didn’t really give wine a fair shot. I’d let one bad glass of wine put an impression in my head of what all wine was, and decided I just didn’t like it. That was until last year. A friend, local social media maven Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe came over to a cookout we hosted last Memorial Day. We grilled some foods, and she brought a bottle of wine. It was a Sangiovese, and she expounded on the flavors of said wine, and why it was good with the meal we were having. So, we popped the cork, and several of us in the group enjoyed a glass.
And you know what? It was actually good. I actually liked it. So much so, that I search engined where to find it, and found out that particular wine was available at Trader Joe’s. So, I went the next week and picked up a bottle. $2.50 a bottle. Yep. And I’ve bought several bottles of it since then. But, I’ve also tried to venture out. To see that if I spend $15-$20 for a bottle of wine, would I notice a huge difference. Would I even notice at all. Today, I noting my current financial state, and budget, I gave myself $14 for a bottle of wine. So, to the wine aisles of Whole Foods I went. Wow, they’ve got a lot of wine aisles at Whole Foods.
They’ve got all their wines categorized by things like “American Reds,” “Argentina,” “California Whites,” “Merlots,” “Cabernet Savignons,” “Sparkling Wines,” and on and on. They probably carry several thousand wines, from a thousand winemakers from around the world. So, of course, after I’d narrowed it down to a style I’ve had and liked, I started looking at labels and their personal reviews of said wines. I chose a Malbec, since the last one I had was really tasty, and I read, again, it would pair nicely with what I’d be cooking. But, as I wandered through the aisles, again, I connected to where we’re at with coffee. And it makes me think. We’ve got “Direct Trade”, “Relationship Coffee”, “Fair Trade”, “African”, “Natural-Processed,” “Honey Processed”, on and on. Racks and racks of specialty coffee from thousands of different roasters with tons of different names, certifications, processing methods, etc.
And because I’ve actually demoed at Whole Foods, and have some coming up, I’ve seen consumer behavior/purchasing habits in the coffee aisle. I’ve watched as some folks simply look at the prices, settling for the least expensive bag, and I’ve watched as some took the time to read the bag. But, I’ll say this, those people are in the very small minority. Most people buy coffee the same way I buy wine. They look for a pretty bag, with the “right info” on the front, and a descriptor that matches what we like. In the Malbec’s label, it was described at “Sweet, dark plum and stawberry notes, with a nice cinnamon aroma.” How many times have I bought a bag of coffee because the descriptor of the bag said, “Notes of peaches, honey, and sweet sugar.” (Subsequently, how many times have those descriptors been ones I didn’t relate to in the cup?)
So, we’ve got customers that buy coffee based on cost of the bag, we’ve got customers who buy based on how well the design of the bag or logo and label are, and we’ve got customers who check out the bag, read the label, and buy based on values or descriptors that are important to them. Since I’ve established through experience, that the number who are in the last group are the very small minority, what is our hope in specialty coffee? What is our hope in converting folks from the first two groups, into the third? If we don’t, the many choices (like the aisles and choices in wine), will make no sense, and customers will simply buy on cost, which as we know, isn’t sustainable to specialty coffee, and is more than likely going to result in an inferior quality coffee, one that certainly doesn’t keep specialty coffee sustainable.
So, how do we convert those folks? I recently tweeted, and it was actually one of the Tweets Of The Day by Atlanta Magazine, that “I tend to put people into two camps: Pre-Specialty Coffee conversion and Post-Specialty Coffee conversion.” And we do this through education, and getting it out to them in the most accessible way possible. That is done through a multitude of ways: Classes, samplings, cuppings, featured brewings in our shops, Roastery tours, on and on. I often think, instead of waiting for consumers to come to me for that conversion opportunity, how can I go to them? And so it is. I have long said that for specialty coffee to be sustainable it has to be accessible. Make good coffee accessible, and you build longterm fans and believers in the mission of specialty coffee.
(On a side note, Verve’s recent Label Guide is amazing, and certainly achieves the goal of making puchasing their specialty coffee easier.)