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On Wine

Dan Berger on Wine: A primer on shelf-talkers

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: August 28, 2020 series
  • Updated

"Shelf-talker" is a term used to describe a small sign that conveys information about a product someone wants to sell you.

They’re not found on shoe-store racks, department store shelves or even in gourmet deli cases. But they’re commonplace in wine stores, especially in supermarkets, ostensibly to draw consumers’ attention to this Chardonnay and away from that one.

Supermarkets are a prime location for any assistance managers can get to help sell wine, since almost no one in most markets is skilled enough to be able to answer even the simplest of wine questions.

Stock clerks probably aren’t even old enough to consume the product. And especially with more esoteric brands, varietals, and regional locations, most supermarkets are not exactly repositories of accurate vinous information.

Decades ago, when shelf-talkers were in their infancy, many were hand-written with grease pencils on butcher paper and attached to shelves with cellophane tape. In time the things became so popular that wholesale companies and wineries began to turn them out in multitudes.

Many were professionally printed and occasionally laminated.

But to make them look hand-made by the store manager, many were hand-scrawled, some using more than one color of ink. Often the shelf card is designed to looked as if it were hand-written with a felt-nibbed pen. Occasionally the shelf-talker carries a praiseworthy word or phrase or a numerical score.

Several years ago, I saw one such shelf-talker quoting Jerry Mead, a wine columnist who was a good friend. Jerry had died two years earlier -- before the wine mentioned on the card had been released!

However, the subject of fraudulent shelf-talkers rarely is discussed. That’s because lying about wine is an innocent little misdemeanor punishable by no penalty.

Accuracy on shelf-talkers is difficult to discuss, because one that says “delightfully refreshing” (a phrase the winery might come up with) might strike me as clownishly execrable.

I can cite dozens of examples of misleading and downright fraudulent material on shelf talkers, not the least of which is the case of a then-current-vintage of White Zinfandel.

The shelf-talker stated that the bottle just above it had won a gold medal at particular wine judging. However, that particular competition had not yet been staged! (A prior vintage of the wine had won a gold medal, not the wine being advertised.)

Shelf-talkers are an art form that few savvy wine lovers think about when buying a bottle of wine. The more discerning a buyer, the less likely it is that he or she will be taken in by one of these devices that appear to be little more than deliverers of information.

Still, they warrant a look.

Who’s the source?

Often a shelf-talker gives a tasting note, such as “rich and complex.” Such a comment occasionally fails to tell you who made such a pronouncement.

Many signs used to frame case-stacked wines also use quotation marks around a glowing phrase to make it appear that the wine was being spoken about by someone who is famous and an expert. Was that person’s name included? If not, how valid is the description?

Did a named source really say that?

Often, I see a shelf-talker that quotes a person who is known to be an authority, but the quote is taken out of context. Beyond the question of whether the authority is reputable is the next question: is the quote accurate?

Once, years ago, I was quoted as saying a wine was the “best wine of the year.” In fact, I had listed the wine as one of the top “under-$10” wines I had tasted the prior year. Which obviously is not the same thing.

Is the numerical score accurately portrayed?

More than once, I’ve seen scores misrepresented. For example, one early assessment by a reputable wine critic of a particular red Bordeaux was that the wine deserved a provisional a score of “86-90.”

Several weeks later, in a retail wine shop’s newsletter, I saw this same wine being advertised with a line that said the wine had been scored “90” by that same wine critic. It’s no wonder that those who use scores often are upset at their misuse.

Is the vintage correct?

This is one of the worst offenses. In some cases, the shelf -talker refers to a wine other than what’s on the shelf.

One year, a Central Valley producer used a shelf-talker to speak of his wine’s a gold medal. That medal was for an earlier vintage of the wine. It got that gold two years earlier for a prior vintage.

Who wrote the shelf-talker?

Most shelf-talkers are not produced by the store, but by the winery or wholesaler. Moreover, it’s usually hard to tell if a shelf-talker was sent to the store with the current wine or if it had been attached to the same shelf years earlier. It may well be that the store never changed its shelf-talker from years earlier.

The shelf-talkers that consumers should trust are signed by the owner or wine buyer of the shop.

It’s difficult to determine if the little cards attached to wine shop shelves are truthful, accurate, and properly attributed. But one fact certainly has been verified: shelf-talker cards do work to help sell wine.

Back in 1984, under the old California Wine Commission (CWC), a study was done to test the effectiveness of shelf-talkers. One of the tests that conducted by the CWC called for the same wine to be double-placed on a shelf, the same wine, a Chardonnay, in two widely separated eye-level places.

One of the Chardonnays was placed on a shelf about five feet off the floor with a shelf-talker card that simply said, “Good wine,” nothing else.

The second bottle, at the same shelf height, had no shelf talker. Without any other incentives to sell, the shelf-space with the shelf-talker sold about 10% more wine during the trial period than the no-shelf-talker wine.

Wine of the Week: 2019 Toad Hollow Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($14): The delightful aroma of fresh red cherries and hints of watermelon mark the first whiffs, but there are subtle other elements here such as a trace of citrus and the weight here is perfect (11.5% alcohol) for patio sipping or serving with appetizers on a patio. Often seen under $12.

Watch now: ACME Fine Wines named one of Wine Enthusiasts 50 Best Wine Retailers in America

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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