Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Creativity as a commodity-Do you understand what it takes?

We find ourselves surrounded by people that create for a living. For those of us on the business side of the wine industry, this is something we may never fully understand. Imagine how difficult it is to create something, then do that on spec, then do that through a series of challenges, and then imagine trying to find that inspiration on a daily basis. Couple that with constant failures, frustration & self doubt. This is the life of an artist. It holds true through all mediums. Think of all of the tortured artists, musicians, actors, etc. Now, think of a winemaker or chef in the same light. If they are good, they are somewhat tortured. They struggle to find inspiration. They struggle on a daily basis with what they create.

Now take yourself, in a tie, driving around all day selling wine. Sometimes you have a winemaker as a passenger, sometimes you don't get along. Sometimes they beat you up. This is a sign that you don't understand what it takes to do what they do. You call on chefs, sometimes they seem erratic. You don't understand why their standards are different than yours. You can't seem to relate to their approach. It is not for you to question why. When working with creative types, you need to maximize their potential for success. You don't need to set the parameters. Your standard and their standard are probably different. That's ok, because it's their name on the bottle or on the menu, not yours.

Your job is easy, you can leave it at the office. People that create never punch in or out. That doesn't mean they work harder, it's just impossible for them to separate their brain functions. Sounds like you don't want to deal with them? Well, you do. They are the pinnacle of our industry. The people that create are the reasons you have a job. If you take the easy road, you'll never end up on top. If you can align yourselves with the needs of the creative people, you'll always be on top.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The wine knowledge chasm that no one sees

Wine education. I constantly harp on our inability, as a business, and as a niche, to bring people into our fold. We continue the path of exclusivity rather than inclusiveness, yet, despite our snobbery, our sales and growth continues.
The big gap seems to be from novice, to a general comfort level in a wine environment. Part of the problem is human nature. We are biologically programmed to analyze the problem (no wine knowledge) assign a few key terms and rules, and be on our way. Wine just doesn't work that way, and is therefore uncooperative. As a result, we find a wine we (think we) like, and cling to it like gollum. Then, we think we've beaten the system, and try to find validation for our beliefs. This is when wine merchants get frustrated, but it's difficult to remember a time when we were in the exact same situation. We aren't born with wine knowledge. Why do we vilify those that haven't "seen the light". It is within the wine novice on up that opportunity lies. We'd all love to have collectors lined up out our doors, but those were the 70's and 80's, time to adapt.
Here are some guidelines when dealing with the novice crowd:
  • Don't show off and get geeky. You're the one servicing them, it's implied you know your stuff. Make them comfortable!
  • Explain that their tastes are always developing and changing. Hold their hand and don't let them be surprised. Don't sell them Whole-cluster Grenache if they like a soft fruity red. They don't need to validate your tastes either.
  • Encourage in store tastings, designate these as the place for them to learn and expand their palate. This will save them money and frustrating purchases. It also helps the dialogue.
  • Encourage discovery and broadening their comfort zone, sometimes just inches at a time.
  • Don't want people buying on points? Stop relying on them. Let them know the only thing that matters is what they like. You've spent countless hours selecting your set, that's the endorsement.
  • Shelftalkers are salespeople's way of marginalizing you. If there aren't any of those, you will stand a fighting chance.
  • You know how doctors have something called "bedside manner"? Well, you ain't House, work on yours.
The world would be a better place if everyone was a wine geek, I know. But let's face reality, your job is to sell wine. Buying and tasting is secondary, even if it's the best part of your job. Be kind and gracious, it's takes courage for someone to say they don't know and need help. Understand that they probably won't, so you need to be there to offer it sincerely anyways.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Latitudes are all relative

I can't believe how often I hear people using the latitude of a winery to sell their wines. "Oh, it's the same latitude as (fill in the blank). That reasoning is an easy, lazy and completely misleading way to compare 2 wineries that are continents apart.
I know, it sounds easy to use this not only to explain, but to help understand. Wine grape growing is a complicated matter that depends on many factors for success. Latitude is unfortunately, usually not the most important factor. Cleveland, Chicago and NYC all lie along the same Latitude as Burgundy, Napa is considerably further south than Bordeaux, and actually, Willamette Valley is the same Latitude as Bordeaux.
Factors we don't discuss often enough are the Trades (or Tradewinds) which save Dijon from Midwest-type Winters, even though it is further North than Minnesota. Diurnal temperature swings, which have more to do with relative average humidity than global position, unless you factor in marine influence. Then there is alkali vs. acid soil types, which is a completely different set of micro-factors.
It's tempting to try to oversimplify something as complex as grape growing, but as consumers dig deeper to try to figure out why their Pinot Noir from Winnipeg tastes more like something you'd find in a salad than what you might expect to find in Burgundy, you'd better come up with a better explanation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are "showy" wines also great? or "Why can't you form your own opinion?"

I have been spending quite a bit of time recently considering the 2007 vintage in the Southern Rhone. Even if you haven't had the pleasure of tasting these wines extensively, stay with me here, I've got a larger point to make.
Many have hailed this vintage as the vintage of a lifetime. In my humble opinion, this might not only not be the best vintage of my lifetime, but in my estimation, it's maybe the 4th best of the decade. Now, I'm not going to lay out my case vintage by vintage. I will say this, I get why this got HUGE press. It's a very flashy and showy vintage. The entry level wines are great, and this is the best crop of Cotes du Rhone I have ever seen, that I will grant you. Parker goes on to say that Gigondas and Vacqueyras have never been better. This I disagree with, vehemently. These 2 appellations, in particular, show a ton of up front fruit, but that's not really what these wines are supposed to be, nor is it what makes them so appealing. I prefer these wines to be full of butcher shop, sage and leather, and only after some time in the glass or bottle, do they reveal a little mysterious fruit that emerges more with aging. The Rhone is supposed to be Robert Altman, not Jerry Bruckheimer!
Then there's Chateauneuf du Pape. 10 100-point Parker wines from this crop is crap. Granted, I haven't tasted these 100-point wines, but I have sampled a great cross section of many of the 95+ wines. They are delicious, no doubt. But that much up front fruit always dies a young death. Secondly, and certainly most importantly, Chateauneuf is a blended wine. Not just of grapes (albeit most famously), but of terroirs. These ridiculous amounts of variables make one of the most compelling and complex wines year in and year out. it's that complexity and subtlety that is noticeably absent from the 2007's. It is however, in spades in the 2006's. The most overlooked vintage of the decade. This is a nearly perfect vintage for the top appellations. With an extra year in bottle and tasted alongside the 2005 and 2007, 2006 is the vintage to beat. it's better now, it will be better in a year,and will outlast both of the most recent vintages of a lifetime.
Obviously, that's just my take on it, but doesn't that bring up a continued issue with vintage reviews? That the critics give the proverbial thumbs up or thumbs down, when we really only see maybe 1 vintage a decade that isn't good (Burgundy aside). Every vintage brings something different. What makes a great vintage? Overachieving cheap wines? Fruit bombs at the high end? Easy to drink young wines? Longevity? Complexity? For me 2006 is the best of the decade, and with good 2008's being poo poo'd awaiting the arrival of the next vintage of a lifetime, 2009, aren't we trying to be a little too savvy? If I only read the reviews, I'd agree, 2007 sounds awesome. Would it hurt to decide for yourself? If you are able to establish your own take, you might even become a better resource for your customers rather than just being another Myna bird, repeating what you read and hear.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dining in your accounts

If you are worth your salt in the wine business, you are very likely a big foodie. And if so, you have many great business relationships with chefs. You also dine out in these restaurants constantly. While it's always good form to be seen dropping some coin in your clients' restaurants, it's also a good idea to remain professional and the penultimate diner.

I can't begin to tell you how annoying wine sales people can be as a diner. I witnessed it firsthand as a buyer for many years, and I still see it today. It's easy to forget that you need to hold yourself a little differently than the rest of the population. Here is how to act as a diner (in case you don't know)
  • Bringing in wine? Ask first,and be sure to buy wine off the list as well. This is a show of respect, and common courtesy. Always, always, always offer a taste to the Somm/buyer/chef.
  • Don't order off menu. This is hard to resist. you know the chef, you how good they are, and you really want to impress your friends with special treatment. Don't ask. The flip side of course is, if they offer, then you are obligated to accept.
  • Don't get messy drunk. If this is such a no-brainer, how come I see this all the time?
  • No selling! This is also hard to resist. There's a reason you make your sales calls during off hours, get your business done during that time. Although, it's a good move to leave wine for the staff or chef to enjoy after you leave.
  • Don't make the chef leave the kitchen during shift They are busy, leave them alone.
  • Leave a business card Be subtle and gracious. If you behaved well, you should be sure to let them know who you are.
  • Be very careful about critiquing. Often a chef/ restaurateur will ask you for your input. Tread VERY lightly. There's a fine line between good feedback and hurt feelings.
  • Be the leader of your group. The way the group you are with behaves will reflect upon you. Be accountable.
  • Tip. Don't just tip, make it memorable for the service staff. Every single buyer was once a server,and many will judge you based on how you treat non-buyers in the restaurant.

Don't forget, just because you think you are off the clock, the chef/ buyer doesn't see that distinction. act appropriately.