Who writes those shelf-talkers anyway? Advice for consumers and retailers

Shelf-talkers are an omnipresent part of the retail wine business. These cards underneath wine bottles provide information about the winery, tasting notes, and sometimes ratings. Often hand written, they can give a personal touch in the absence of interaction with the store staff and are, obviously, intended to influence purchasing decisions. Most people assume that the retail store staff writes these shelf-talkers. Much of the time, this is not the case.

In many stores, the distributors who provide the wines and stock the shelves write these shelf-talkers. I first realized this a number of years ago after seeing the same verbiage and handwriting describing a wine in numerous wine shops around town.

Having shelf-talkers written by distributors isn’t necessarily a problem. These people often have a better sense of a wine and winery than retail store staff. Of course, they also have a strong interest in selling the wine but so does the retail store. However, because few stores check these shelf-talkers, some people at both the retailer and distributor level take advantage and provide false or misleading information.

My favorite example of this is a shelf-talker that described a high score from a local newspaper. As I looked into this, I found that 1) the score was not given by the newspaper but was written by a blogger on the newspaper’s site 2) the score referred to a vintage wine rather than the non-vintage wine being sold and 3) the blogger had done work for the winery in question! The retailer, who may have had no awareness of any of this but obviously should have, proceeded to reference this review and score in a months-long e-mail and newsletter campaign.

This is shelf-talkers at their worst. At best, it is incompetence on the part of the distributor and retailer. At worst, it is deliberate deception.

What does this mean to you? While this may be the case of a few bad apples ruining the whole bunch, some of those apples can be quite bad. Here is advice for both consumers and retailers/distributors about shelf-talkers.

Advice for Consumers

1. If a shelf-talker gives a point score, make sure the vintage is listed and that the vintage is the same as the bottle on the shelf.

Scores on shelf-talkers often refer to the previous vintage of the wine. As the shelves are being restocked, many times the vintage changes and the shelf-talker does not.

2. If the shelf-talker gives a point score, make sure it is from a reputable source.

For me, the most reliable sources are, principally, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast. Less referred to but equally reliable is Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar. There are a number of other reputable publications. However, if you see a score quoted from a source you have never heard of, check into the source before buying the wine.

3. If the shelf-talker gives a point score from a reputable source and it is handwritten, check the score before buying the wine.

Many publications provide printable shelf-talkers for retailers to use. If you see a handwritten shelf-talker that refers to a publication, it’s possible the score or source may be incorrect. While many handwritten shelf-talkers legitimately refer to publication scores, some do not, misrepresenting scores, publications, or both. Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate are easily accessible on-line, although they require a subscription. Wine Enthusiast’s on-line database is free. Also, it is worth checking a winery’s website to see if the score is referred to. Of course many are out of date.

4. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

If a wine has a glowing description, a high score, and an exceedingly inexpensive price, be somewhat suspicious, especially if the wine is many years old or does not have a vintage designation. While some areas, such as Australia, France, and Argentina, pump out large volumes of high quality, inexpensive wine (in addition to low quality, inexpensive plonk!), Washington generally does not. There are, of course, exceptions from large producers who can take advantage of economies of scale. Additionally, there are numerous high quality, low-priced wines made in Washington, just few that seem ‘to good to be true.’ I should add the caveat that I expect a larger amount of reasonably high quality, low cost Washington wine to hit the shelves in the coming years due to the poor economy.

5. Make relationships with retail store staff.

Get to know the staff at the stores you frequent, and let them get to know you. This allows them to direct you toward wines you will like and away from wines you will not. Additionally, it’s easier to ask questions and trust the responses.

6. If you see a shelf-talker that is incorrect or misleading, bring it to the attention of the store staff.

It is entirely possible that the staff is unaware that a shelf-talker is incorrect or misleading. It’s worth letting them know. If the information is not corrected or if you see it happening repeatedly, take your business elsewhere.

Advice for Retailers and Distributors

1. Information on shelf-talkers must be accurate and up-to-date.

It is critical that the information in shelf-talkers is accurate. If a publication is referred to, the publication and score must be correct, and it must refer to the correct vintage. If it does not, fix it!

2. Regardless of who writes the shelf-talker, it is the retailer’s responsibility to make sure that the information is correct.

The perception is that the retailer has written the shelf-talker. The retailer is therefore risking their credibility if the information is incorrect or misleading. Retailers should pay attention to shelf-talkers in their store and look for inaccuracies. Additionally, distributors who abuse this system are risking their credibility and relationship with the retailer and do so at their own peril.

3. Do not deliberately use shelf-talkers with inaccurate or misleading information.

This would seem to be obvious. While apparently some haven’t noticed, hand held devices make it exceeding easy to check information. If you think people are not noticing if you are providing incorrect or misleading information be it scores, publications, or prices, think again.

4. Get to know your customers.

Shelf-talkers serve a purpose and always will, but they are no substitute for good, old-fashioned customer service. Wine is, unfortunately, intimidating to many consumers but part of the job of a retailer is to assist people with getting beyond this. Take the time to establish relationships with customers and let them establish relationships with you. This will help you develop long-term customers who are advocates for your brand.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. Kevin, thanks for the comment - and for being a stickler about this stuff when you were in the retail business (and beyond). While the way you did your shelf-talkers was no doubt a bit more difficult and time consuming, it ensured accuracy for consumers. While some might say "What's the big deal?" if people didn't think it was a big deal, they wouldn't monkey with it in the first place!

  2. If you bought wine due to the influence of a shelf-talker, you get what you deserve: an underperforming wine at high-profit for the distributor. And, you probably got ripped off by Rhonda Breard or Michael Mastro.

    All shelf talkers should be illegal and replaced with a "Discuss with Wine Steward." Then again, certain wine bloggers who hype every wine they encounter should also be included in that ban.

  3. I was set up!
    Criminy, I need to change my shtick...all cuz of you.
    Nah, I like being crusty old me.

  4. Bean, I also don't buy a whole lot of wine unless I have tasted it. Your comment though reminds me of how Infinity sold all of those cars way back when without anyone having even seen it. Advertising works, even for very high end items. Just don't expect them to be telling you the truth! Thanks for the comment.

  5. because we have so much access to data, even on the go, the best shelf-talkers, for me personally, are the "staff picks" at wine shops i trust. k&l wines in san francisco has staff picks and when i find a pick from one of the staff who's palate is close to mine, that's a heavy influence on my purchase behavior. generic shelf-talkers don't do much for me, so i guess i never gave their accuracy much thought. now that you've brought it to my attention, i'm actually completely appalled by how misleading they can be. thanks for the information.

  6. RJ, I agree that staff picks can be particularly helpful if you know the specific person who is making the recommendation and their palate. Part of why I think establishing relationships is so important. I should add, however, that 'staff picks' are not immune from abuse.

  7. Right on WWM, Aunt Lillys Quilting bee wine Club gave it a double gold That was on wild vines blackberry merlot!

  8. While a lot of times the distributor representative is responsible for hand-writing a shelf talker, they are most likely taking the information from what the producer has provided them. Out of date winery websites and/or producer indifference is largely to blame here. Future shelf-talker verbiage that we provide for this purpose (for upcoming vintages) focuses on pairing and SIMPLE descriptors (meaning the adjectives will be the ones that can be found in the inner-most areas of a flavor wheel).
    - WA Winery

  9. WA Winery, very good point about the out of date websites - the scourge of the wine loving world! I really like the idea of including food pairing along with simple descriptors. I think this would be helpful for all. Thanks for the comment!