By Joseph Hernandez

Chicago Tribune

When I was starting my wine career, I worked at and eventually managed a wine shop in Brooklyn.

There, I learned first and foremost how to communicate with customers of all levels of wine knowledge, in spite of my own tendency toward know-it-all-ism. Even though I knew my way around reds and whites, I found that my geekiness was a roadblock for getting to know a customer’s needs. They became intimidated or flustered, and often apologetic, for not knowing how to talk to me.

Hoping to shift my approach, I started encouraging people to “drink what you like.” While it helped put people at ease, I quickly learned that this did not improve things much.

“Drink what you like” is a popular axiom in the wine biz, but what if customers don’t know what they like? I soon learned that when it comes to wine, knowing what you don’t like is as important as what you do.

Instead of asking novices and advanced wine buffs what they liked — especially as I transitioned into writing about wine rather than selling it — I started each conversation by asking what they didn’t. I found that most people had a laundry list of flavors, aromas and textures they avoided, impressively rattled off with aplomb. And then they’d stop, apologize and say, “but I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about wine. Can you help?”

The apology always baffled me. They already knew a lot about wine, as it pertained to their tastes.

In all my years in the wine industry, this is the only 100 percent truth I took away (aside from wine being wonderful): No one wants to sell you a bottle you’re going to hate.

You’re likely to have a visceral reaction to the things you dislike. Maybe you scrunch your nose when you smell a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but can’t describe what aroma set you off. Or perhaps sipping oaky chardonnay sends you searching for some water. Knowing this, you are likely to avoid these things, and you’re armed with knowledge about your preferences.

This is powerful stuff. Communicating your preferences to sommeliers or wine shop clerks helps them avoid pouring those bottles. Remember, these are the folks who have likely tasted the merchandise. They’re the ones making the wine list or drafting the tasting notes on the shelf, and they want to earn your trust. They can (and should) steer you away from qualities that turn you off.

When I started my love affair with wine, it was a struggle to describe the ephemeral, fleeting, intangible qualities of certain bottles. I could tell I was drinking liquid poetry, but I didn’t know how to understand or communicate it.

My tip? Don’t be afraid to start with the negatives. To flip the script on a popular fairy tale, it takes kissing a lot of frogs to find your prince, or in this case, your preferred style and type of wine.

“I know I don’t like funky, I don’t like pinot noir, and I don’t want to spend more than $20.” While this sounds terribly dismissive or critical, it does help the wine clerk eliminate a percentage of her inventory. Her job is, actually, made easier: She will mentally block these picks as she helps narrow your focus. In the process, she may even find you bottles you didn’t know you wanted.

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