Friday, September 28, 2012

What it feels like to switch teams

Almost inevitably, as time passes, our resumes build and competition notices, we eventually are asked to consider representing a new portfolio of wines. This could be at the supplier level or at the distributor level. For some, this doesn't matter, it's the same as selling Brand "X" vs Brand "Y". For me, personally, and most of you that bother to read a wine sales blog, it may feel as traumatic as giving your dog away and replacing him with a different, less loveable dog.

In every career, finding purpose is important. If you are a wine geek, you love wine and wineries. Your "book" is your sports team. Rooting for that team and singing it's praises is a natural inclination. It's that collection of players that complement each other and that you know so well. You probably build personal relationships with the wineries through workwiths, social media and maybe even a visit to the winery. Eventually, for any number of factors, but usually it's either financial or personal, you may consider jumping to another book. This choice is a deeply complicated decision. It's personal, and sometimes it works out great and sometimes, it's a soul crushing disaster. I've personally had one of each.

When it's positive, you look ahead at the new book and spend the bulk of your time excitedly learning about this new and exciting range of producers. When you see the old producers in the market, you have much love for them and have nothing but great things to say, and you mean it. When it's wrong, and believe me, you know right away, you realize that the marketplace perception of the distributor and the internal reality are pretty far apart. You may find you have a hard time loving the wines, and you find yourself longing for the old producers.

 Further complicating the situation is the very strange dynamic of: " I know I used to tell you these wines are the best, but now, maybe you'll believe me when I say I've found an entire set of wines that are better." That isn't really a viable approach, but damn if it doesn't feel that way. The best approach is to acknowledge that there is a whole world of great wines in the first place. My personal take has always been that each book has an assortment of great producers, but most sales reps for the big companies are a little too dim, or have had all critical thinking beaten out of them, to recognize this fact.

Jumping companies, particularly laterally,  is a tough choice. If the book you sell is important to you, that can be one of the most important considerations while making a jump. You have to balance that with the personal and the financial, but don't underestimate how hard it can be to forget about that first team.

Friday, August 31, 2012

So, where are the guys from "High Fidelity?"

I was listening to a podcast yesterday, specifically: The Nerdist interview of JJ Abrams. In the interview, JJ implied that we miss the days of bookstores and record shops, and have tried to replace those with other things, like restaurants. I never thought about it in those terms. There is no doubt we have seen a surge in "foodie-ism" over the last decade or so, and we have also seen the disappearance of record shops and bookstores. Is this possible? Have we taken the vacuum that was created by amazon and itunes  and filled it with bacon and pinot?

It's certainly possible.

There was something about the feeling of community, being in the record shops or bookstores all those years ago. They offered a personal, yet shared tactile experience. Now that the tactility of media has practically vanished (save a movie or concert experience), apparently, we need that sense of a shared tangible experience. Since food and wine is an experience that begins visually, we can share amazing photos of our foodie journeys throughout the inter-tubes. Some people don't get this and think that it's about gloating or showing off. Maybe that's a hidden part of it, but people that are into great wine and food love to share experiences both ways.

Not only do you have the shared e-meal (I like this term!), you also, probably, physically go to restaurants to share the experience with patrons around you. It's almost like an unspoken common energy, so reminiscent of the Saturday morning visits to the record stores with coffee in hand.

As I'm sorting all of this out, I also realize that something else has changed: restaurants look and act more like those record and book stores from back in the day.  The wait staffs wear "chucks" and are tatted up, something that would have only been seen in the aforementioned shops 15 years ago. The music is hip, and the best food doesn't necessarily come served on a tablecloth. Picnic tables and rolls of paper towels are just as likely. Convention has been broken by the needs of the people to have this progressing conversation about the art and love of food and wine. One that has outgrown the boundaries and expectation of the privileged and has found itself squarely in the lap of the literate, art loving, thoughtful bohemians.

While I'm sad that record stores and bookstores have largely gone the way of the dodo, music and books haven't disappeared, they've just jumped mediums. Next time you wax nostalgic about the disappearance of these places, celebrate the restaurants and food culture that have risen from their ashes, subconsciously replacing that need.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Wines of the The Uncanny Valley

For those of you uninitiated in general geekdom, the uncanny valley is (wikipedia): when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot's human likeness.

In other words, it's so close, but you know something's not right. You may even be able to analyze the robot or humanoid (or rinoplasty patient), and decide that everything individually looks right, but there's something off.  For more on this ability, check out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, pretty great read.

As humans, we are trained our entire lives to notice this weird quirk in other humanoids, because we spend our entire lives looking at millions of other specimens making silent, involuntary notes about behaviors, expressions, movements, etc.

I propose that there is now an uncanny valley of wine. This is a theory that I've vetted amongst a handful of wine theoreticians (is there such a thing?). The consensus seems to be that, after you really refine your palate, you begin to notice, not necessarily flaws, but seams in wine. Having never made or aspired to make wine, I can't tell you what the tricks may be to cover shortcomings of wine. I know you can add a ton of ingredients to wine to fix color, acid, etc. I've seen wines I know have been watered back that have this weird quality. Sometimes, and seemingly more often as of late, I'll taste a wine, and it almost creeps me out. It's not flawed, nor does it possess anything out of whack, it just doesn't seem right. The closer it gets to being like actual wine (made from generally natural processes), the stranger it feels.

It would seem that this is not readily identifiable to the vast majority of the population. I would also suggest that I see this most often with larger producers from the U.S..This sensitivity, at least in my world, probably stems from 2 things-a) I have tended to gravitate towards Old world wines produced somewhat naturally as well as the domestic wines in the similar style b) my seeming addiction from ages 8-14 to Ferrara Pan Candy, which calibrated my palate to artificial flavors, and am now hyper sensitive to.

So, now we live in an age where even bad wine is still pretty drinkable for most, but for me, that is an uncanny valley red flag. Better drinking through chemistry? Maybe. It's not for me to say whether this is a good thing or not, but I definitely get the heebie-jeebies from these concoctions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The wine road less traveled

There is a soothing and predictable hum to the machinations of wine sales. We are all trained to approach the task with a certain autonomy, and with very little deviation from the scripted dance. This forms our wine business sensibility that affect everything from our routes to the events we organize. "5 Course wine dinners" or "pour behind a table" seem to be the only approaches that are used. Once in a great while, we see someone try something new, and it may strike a chord. What we don't see is the inability of many of the people in this business, to adapt and support creativity. Those intoxicated by the dull rhythm resist anything unique at all costs. Their resistance to change can be demoralizing for everyone, and thereby, contagious. Wine people on the whole are striving for that predictability, perhaps born out of the aversion to risk.

Remember the Apple campaign called "Think different"? Different isn't automatically better, but different changes the world. Approaching events and this business differently, can change this part of the world. I have been involved in a few things that have broken convention, and in the end, enjoyed tremendous success from these projects. Success, in this case, not necessarily acutely monetarily. Instead, along with partners and evangelists, we created a couple of events that were among the most memorable wine events in our region's history. Nobody got rich off of the endeavors, but what we did was to create the elusive "I had this wine on vacation phenomenon"1. Wine dinners can blur together. Once you create a unique event, you have the ability to forever connect the thing you are marketing to a very specific memory (hopefully it is a great memory).

The other challenge I have recently encountered has been my counterparts' desire to keep wine programs  simple and predictable. As I often do, I thrown down the wine education gauntlet. I'm not an MS by any stretch, but I believe that we can raise the general education of the population by challenging them to select and sample wines outside of their comfort zone. Seemingly naively, I also subscribe to the belief that actually pairing food and wine together can create an elevated experience. Some reps would much rather work in the Cab/ Chard world and believe that the success of this corner of a wine program is your path to business success, as if they have never heard the term "self-fulfilling prophesy".

What separates us from our competition may not be as simple as how many hours we work or how passionate we are, instead it may be about breaking convention, rewriting rules and forging the path yet to be traveled. If we are constantly working on new approaches, not only to our sales, but more importantly to the way we promote our clients while challenging convention, the better we differentiate ourselves from the guy who makes the donuts.

 1 This is phenomenon that occurs whenever a person travels and has a bottle of wine while on vacation. It will always be the best wine ever. This is observed to be more a function of the moment than the actual quality of the wine. See "Hot dog in a ballpark syndrome"

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fête d’ Été

Anne Amie Vineyards, a small, family owned winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon, will be visiting our region for their annual sales call. This year, will offer a twist on the traditional winemaker dinners. Instead of 5 courses in 1 restaurant, they will host a series of progressive bicycle winemaker dinners. In each city, Anne Amie will travel between 4 or 5 restaurants in general proximity, atop bicycles, with the entire group in tow. This should offer not only a unique and incredibly joyful experience, but a fresh look at the fabric of each city. Kimberly McLeod (National Sales Manager) and Thomas Houseman (Winemaker) wanted to bring an element of Portland, Oregon, to the Great Lakes. This event has been embraced by each of the restaurant communities, and everyone has worked together to bring a youth and energy to a format that can often seem stuffy or intimidating. Each dinner is $75 all inclusive and comes with a t-shirt with the Fête d’ Été-logo for the event and the “tour dates”. Fête d’ Été (literally means summer party)-so named, as we are on the cusp of Summer here in the Great Lakes, and there is a sort of magic in the air this time of year, and a hunger to be outside. Each ride, very casual in nature, will encompass no more than 7 total miles round trip. Guests are expected to provide their own bicycle. The event details are as follows, each event begins at 6pm: Monday May 14th-Ann Arbor, MI-Stops include: Vinology, Sava’s, The Earle and Palio- a beautiful ride through campus and downtown Tuesday May 15th-Toledo, OH-Stops include: Toledo Museum of Art, Mancy’s House, Real Steak Seafood Company, Rockwell’s at the Oliver House and Registry Bistro. This is a ride through the largest contiguous Victorian Neighborhood and over the Maumee River. Wednesday May 16th-Cleveland, OH-Stops include: Flying Fig, Fat Cat’s, Ginko, Noodlecat and SoFo. This ride will give a great look at 3 of Ohio best restaurant neighborhoods: Downtown, Tremont and Ohio City Thursday May 17th-Columbus, OH-Stops include Barrel and Bottle, Alana’s, Till and Rigsby’s Kitchen. The Olentangy river trail is one of the most beautiful rides in Ohio and we will include several miles of this trail on our ride. Reservations can be made at No more than 30 slots are available on any date, so early reservations are encouraged.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It's Hard out Here for a Pimp

I was watching the Oscars on Sunday, cheering wildly for "Man or a Muppet". I was considering how Jason Segel made a great Muppet movie, in large part, because of his enthusiasm and passion for the Muppets. You may laugh, but that film is brilliant. I think so, my kids think so, the critics think so, and even thinks so. There are a thousand reasons why he shouldn't have even tried to make this movie, among them, The Muppets haven't been relevant for 20 years, nostalgia rarely hits the right tone, no CGI, and many more. Segel persisted, and made this successful largely because he was so passionate, sincere and enthusiastic. In fact, that was the only way he could have made this successful.

Then, I remembered the rap song in the title of this post, and while the song is ok, and the film from which it came was pretty good (Hustle and Flow), the 2 songs made me think about wine. Huh? Well, they made me think of how we approach our job of sales in the wine industry, or more to the point, the 2 contrasting approaches to sales.

How many of you are slogging through your day, waiting to be done, turn your phone off, put your feather duster away and escape? You hustle through your day, working your ass off, sitting in meetings, waiting in line, opening boxes, begging for placements to hit your quota, getting yelled at by accounts, picking up a case of wine and delivering it to the other side of town all while trying to transmit your orders. Wine and your love for wine rarely enter into the equation. You are pimpin' and hustlin', and it's a damn hard way to make living.

Your life should actually be like this:

Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. spending a day talking to your friends about something you love, wine, is a great job. If you bring enthusiasm and passion into your day, life's a piece of cake. Seriously, if you love wine, then you need to remind yourself that your are TALKING ABOUT WINE ALL DAY LONG, that's how you get paid! If you're really good, you get paid well. If the company you work for has sapped all of the joy out of your day, then you need to either fix your situation or update your resume. There isn't any room for the joyless in this business, because the people with passion and enthusiasm will flatten you and your feather duster. Like I always say, you may as well be selling widgets.

Friday, February 3, 2012

a new approach to competition

At our most Darwinian, we are competitive. It's natural, we can't escape it, and it's always there deep down. We are often at our ugliest when we are competitive. We aren't great neighbors, we're not great advocates, and we're certainly not a trustworthy resource.
There are sales managers that approach this business with a Cobra Kai mentality. they want nothing less than domination. They want to write the wine list, print the wine list and then walk into the restaurant like they own the wine list. Then, they become territorial when the buyer even considers buying from another distributor. I've even seen them get angry when the buyer (the customer for god's sake!) wants to replace the item that is important to the distributor with a different item from the same distributor, but of less importance. That's getting off track though, apologies.
The point is, distributors, top to bottom, often forget who their customer is, and as a result, turn themselves into untrustworthy resources for their customers. The approach that blocking your competitors will generate greater sales is a flawed concept. While you may dominate market share in certain accounts, you will fail in areas where you could succeed if you were credible and trustworthy.
Good wine programs buy from a number of sources. while they may prefer to deal with a small group, it will always be in the buyer's best interest to buy from multiple outlets. Assuming, as a rep, that you are getting a piece of the pie, don't you want to be the one that the buyer leans on for candid and trustworthy experience and advice? If you can demonstrate that the customer's best interests are your best interests, you can build a reciprocal relationship. Going against nature, you may need to compliment, or even show professionalism to your competition. You may need to work with them to help find the best combination of selections to make your client the most money. your disparaging remarks, maneuvering and jealousy won't help you sell more wine.
It really comes down to some sage philosophy that's been floating around for some time "You only need to worry about you, the rest will take care of itself". So true, your competitors are out of your control, but if you are better than them, smarter than them, work harder than them, and are nicer than them, guess what you have mastered? The crane kick.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Time to Think about Pink

This is the time of year when importers, distributors and ultimately retailers forecast and commit to their Rosé purchases for the warm months of 2012. We have seen a steady increase in the sales of rosé for as long as I can remember, and we are now at a point where every fine wine shop and restaurant in the country is doing something with this category. The mantra is: Rosé is brought in right after the wine is finished and sold out before it hits 1 year old. Rosé is seemingly held in the same regard as Beaujolais Nouveau, if you don't drink it, it will be dead wine in 2 years. This is absolutely absurd. Rosé lives longer than many similarly priced white wines, and unlike it's white counterparts, actually could use a bit of time to develop. I'm not talking about cellaring these wines, but I certainly would think that a 2 year old Rosé isn't the kiss of death we have come to believe in this industry.
I not sure how we got this way. The demand for early arrival dry pink is so great that many producers have prioritized it's bottling and release before that of many white wines. Who decided that was a good idea? And who decreed that 2 year old rosé is the kiss of death? My theory is it is the mentality of the people taking the risks of buying and selling the wines. If they place some sort of hard and fast parameters and metrics on these items, they are held less accountable for taking risks. Unfortunately, they are setting themselves up for some degree of disaster. Purchasing agents groan when confronted with having to buy in on rosé, and many feel like they get burned every year because it isn't all sold out by August 1. Then they need to discount it, sometimes at a great loss, and then the cycle starts all over again, because the market does demand rosé. Admittedly, rosé has become closely associated with Summertime, and rightfully so. We all know that rosé does quite well year round though especially at Thanksgiving and Easter. It's a breakable cycle if we as a wine community can teach and learn just two thing about rosé: it improves in year 2, and we can and should drink it year round.
Not too many generalizations work in wine. I am pretty confident about this one. I would estimate that 95% of dry rosés out there will peak in the 18 month- 24 month window, 6 months after many have been closed out. I'm not suggesting buying these and sitting on them for 2 years as that's pretty bad business. What to do, and now is a great time to do it as rosé continues to gain popularity, is to educate the wine community, starting with consumers, sommeliers and retailers as to the durability and year round drink-ability of rosé.
Perhaps if we band together, we can help out those poor purchasing agents staring at their rosé offerings with dread right now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who's the Boss?

The customer is always right. Duh. That's like rule number one of business. For some reason, the beverage business blurs this line a little bit (or a lot). Theoretically, each lower tier of the distribution model becomes a customer for the tier directly above it. The distributor is the customer for the supplier, the retailer is the customer for the distributor. These are both true, but the lines can go both ways. The distributor, since they are the single outlet for the supplier, often receives pressure from the supplier. The supplier always has an option to find another customer. That just sounds weird. The supplier can fire their customer and find one that will buy more of their product. Does this happen anywhere else? The dynamics of this possibility make this relationship strange. In many instances, the distributor and the supplier are on the same page and partnered up. If not, the supplier needs to gingerly apply pressure on the distributor to buy and sell more product. When push comes to shove, who wins out? Well, no one. It's sort of a dance to see if each others abilities, pocketbook and priorities are even in the same ballpark. If not, lawyers step in, then everyone loses in the short term.

Ordinarily I'd try to insert some nugget of wisdom or perspective into the proceedings, but today, I have none. It's a strange dance, built around strange laws and everyone I know has battle scars to show for it. I'm lucky to be with like-minded distributors who are largely on the same page. I have no illusions that it will stay this way, but today it is, so all is good.