What wine retail taught me about copywriting

(May 10, 2020)

After finishing the last day of my final practicum for my English degree, I rode my bike to a quaint bottle shop tucked away in suburban Perth. My friend worked there. And I wanted a nice bottle of wine to celebrate.

In the shop, he introduced me to the owners, a husband-and-wife team. Then he said he was leaving for Melbourne.


“You should take my job,” he went on. He was standing before the husband and wife, too, which was off. But they looked me up and down and nodded, seemingly agreeing.

“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t have any experience with wine.”

“That’s a good thing,” the husband said:

And so I worked there for two years, understanding the world of wine and selling things as well as many copywriting techniques I still use when working with brands at Brew Copy—this unorthodox brand storytelling studio. Here are the four big ones:

Connect before you sell

When I first started working at the wine store and people asked me about what wine I’d recommend, I’d pick a few bottles off the shelves and give a lengthy spiel on each.

I chose the bottles based on what I thought was new and exciting and tremendous value. And I’d indulge in a spiel, believing the customer would trust my expertise and, in turn, be persuaded to buy at least one of the bottles.

To my dismay, though, customers never bought a bottle.

But the more experienced I got with interacting with customers and the more my knowledge grew, I intuitively changed my tactics. 

The major shift was that I began to ask more questions. And not just to do with wine, either.

The idea was to spark conversation, to demonstrate that the customer is not just a vehicle for shifting wine out the door but an individual with a story. And by genuinely engaging with that story, I could build rapport.

And finally, only after having a meaningful conversation, I would ask them what bottle of wine they were after. And then would come the follow-up questions. For example:

Me: What’s the bottle for?

Customer: Tonight. I’m having girlfriends over for dinner.

Me: What are you having for dinner?

Customer: Thai food.

Me: What do you normally like in a wine?

Customer: Reisling.

Me: And how much do you want to spend?

Customer: $30-$40

Selling a bottle of wine becomes very easy after that. The bottle you choose will be more on-point for starters. And you can position the spiel to the customer’s needs and desires.

Sounds obvious, I know. 

But more to the point, the customer feels as if she has been listened to and will trust your suggestions accordingly.

This is not about being conniving. This is about being a nice person who cares primarily about connecting with people and knowing that selling stuff is a bi-product of that emotional labour.

That’s why before I put pen to paper for a client, I carry out extensive customer research on their behalf.

And not just demographic research.

I purposefully engage with individual customers.

Only once you’ve connected with customers can you create a strategic brand voice that will be both meaningful and effective across your website, email marketing, socials and packaging. That’s what I’ve found anyway.

Understand your customer’s level of awareness

By the way, when the husband who owned the store said that it was a good thing I had no experience with wine, this is the conversation that followed.

Good? I said.

“Yes,” he said. “We refuse to hire wine experts. They tend to alienate. The wines sell themselves. So you don’t need to know about the details.  You just need the right vibe.”

I quickly found out what he meant when I did start learning more about the technicalities and nuances of wine and believed that such information would be of interest to customers.

Maybe I was trying to show-off.

But there was a time there when a customer would come in and ask for affordable red wine and I’d launch into a monologue about obscure tasting notes and carbonic maceration, or whatever.

And about halfway through the monologue, I’d find the customer looked a lot like I must have in my physics classes at school: head slightly titled, falling asleep.

So I rid my wine-pitches of wank and went back to basics. By the end of my stint at the wine store, I’d hardly speak about the details at all. 

Instead, I’d hand a young lady a bottle who was, say, about to day-drink in the sun and say something like, “You want a red for around thirty dollars? Well, here’s a slightly chilled,  juicy red from a young-gun winemaker down south.  It was made to smash (drink fast) on a summer’s afternoon long-table with a charcuterie board. All the trendy wine bars are selling it for triple the price. But you can have it for twenty.”

Nine times out of then, the customer would buy two.

Of course, if the customer knew a lot about wine, I’d be happy to get wanky, too.

But the biggest thing I learnt is that 98%  of people aren’t experts on your subject. So you need to keep that in mind by using language they understand.

That’s why some business owners shouldn’t write their own copy. When someone has his head in the sand, he can’t get the proper perspective.

Field research is more powerful than spreadsheets

At the wine store, there was a book known to be the world’s authority on wine. The guide was so heavy, if dropped from a two-storey building,  you could knock-out a rhino. The writing was also very scientific, very dense.

The book was kept on a top shelf ensconced in the shop’s back corner and  collected a lot of dust.

But one day I opened the guide because a well-known winemaker in the Great Southern of Western Australia sent up a sample of a new wine he had made.

The wine was a blend of five varieties, three of which I had never heard of before. And I wanted to know more about them.

So I opened the book and it told me many things, like the varietals’ geographical origins and the growing conditions which they liked the best as well as some typical tasting notes—information, in other words, that sent customers to sleep.

The limitation of such a reference is that the information is too factual and general. That’s helpful on quiz night. But limiting when you’re trying to sell the value of a specific wine.

So I drove down to the Great Southern where the winemaker lived and asked if I could check out his winery. He said yes and sent me an address. Turns out, the address was his home’s.

I ended up opening eight bottles with him on his porch. And as we drank, he told me about his story and why the wines were the way they were.

He explained how he quit a big winery despite having a young family to start making non-commercial wine—wine that excited him.

He told me about what he values in wine and viticulture.

Plus, he went on to describe how his story and values shaped the wines, detailing the theory behind blending certain obscure varietals (which had never been done before) and the microclimates and wine processes and, ultimately, the perfect settings in which to drink the wines.

And then I went to one of the vineyards where I discovered further how incredibly unique the wines were.

So by the time I went back home and began selling his wines, I had a repository of knowledge that went far beyond the guide.

Instead of describing the wines, I could take people there (figuratively, of course), describing the sensual experience of touching the soil, observing the terrain, tasting the grapes, as well as the timber shack in which the winemaker lived with his family.

That brings up another point.

Tell stories, not facts

By going down and meeting the winemaker, I was able to tell not just facts but a story. People don’t remember facts because they’re not captivating.

People, on the other hand, do remember stories.

With stories, I was not only selling a shiraz or a cabernet. I was selling a taste of the Great Southern, a taste of a master-winemaker experimenting with varieties and blends and techniques that have never been done before.

This made selling the wine quite easy. But more than that, I was giving people a story which they too could tell at the dinner table when opening the wines for their friends and family.

This facilitated word-of-mouth marketing for the wines because, as I said, people don’t remember facts. They remember stories.

So I had many people I’d never seen in the store before come up to me and say, “I had a wine at my friend’s house the other night and we tried a bottle she got from here. I can’t remember the name. But it’s by a winemaker down south, I think. He makes really interesting blends. Spanish blends, or something. Apparently, my friend was saying, the winemaker looks a bit like a pirate, too.”

“Yep, I know the one,” I’d say. And then I would reinforce the same story to them. And so word spread and we sold cases upon cases of his wine.

Keep in mind, the wine store stocked his wine before and we didn’t sell much at all. This shows, of course, that you’re never actually selling a product. You’re selling a story.

And by connecting with customers and telling a story, I was able to tell one that helped the wine store and the winemaker sell a lot of wine and create brand loyalty at the same time.

Virtual elbow bumps, 


. . .

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Brew Copy, a storytelling studio that helps you build your brand—with words. Contact me at jayden@brewcopy.com. Stay in touch on Instagram. Or on Linkedin.