birth of a salesman

Monday, June 10, 2013

During all my years as a wine writer, I have met hundreds of wine salespeople. Many have become more than casual acquaintances, and a few have become long time friends. In this group are distributors, importers, and those who work the street, showing wines to retail accounts, both on and off-premise.

And of course I’ve known hundreds and hundreds of winemakers, who accompany the salesfolk on their endless rounds, working the market. I’ve often wondered at the ability to do this day in and day out. It has often struck me as a Willy Loman sort of enterprise, fraught with the frustrations and fantasies implied by the association with Arthur Miller’s famous protagonist.

I never thought I’d be playing Willy in my own production.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I spent four days showing my own wines in wine shops and grocery outlets, meeting the owners and buyers and hoping they would add Waitsburg Cellars to their crowded shelves. Accompanied by veterans of the wine-selling wars, armed with a hat and a smile, I greeted these potential partners in wine, and thanked them sincerely for carving out a few minutes to taste through the five wines in my portfolio.

Though each encounter was unique, there were some consistent themes. Everyone was busy. I mean BUSY. Taking even 10 minutes out of their day was a gift, and I knew it and respected that by being prepared, concise, and letting the wines speak for themselves. Rarely among the many stops did the ordinary setting of a wine tasting show itself. Paper cups, plastic cups, tiny little thick glass goblets were the standard in many places. Hoping for a room with no distracting aromas? Forget it. Uninterrupted time to thoughtfully taste and assess the wines? Not gonna happen. If a customer wandered in, or the phone rang, that pre-empted my presentation. As it should.

These are not criticisms. These are realities. They may seem obvious to those who work these channels regularly, but it brought a whole level of reality to my experience. Having spent all my wine years as a member of the wine press, my experiences are that winemakers and wine sellers are usually found in nice restaurants, at long lunches or dinners, or at special tasting events organized to present the wines in the most attractive way possible. The real world is a tougher arena.

As often as we are criticized, scores and reviews from the wine press are still ubiquitous in wine shops everywhere. Scores sell wine for one simple reason – there are eight gazillion wines out there! Walk into many of the wine shops and wine departments today and there are vast displays of wines – and often liquor. Even the smaller wine shops carry a huge number of unfamiliar labels to anyone who is not purchasing wines at retail on a regular basis. I know Washington and Oregon wines pretty well. But after that? I'm Mr. Consumer, like the rest of you. That's why a good review or score counts for a lot.

I have no idea if my wines will ever get those scores or reviews. They will not be reviewed in any publication for which I write, in order to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest. If reviews appear, they will be as objective as any reviews can possibly be.

My days on the road were particularly intense because it was my own wines I was showing, not just a nice selection of wines from a catalog I happened to represent. These were wines that I've sweated blood and bullets over for the past year and a half. At each stop along the way, my companions and I poured the four Aromatic white wines – all single varietal, single vineyard, old vine offerings – in order from dry to sweet. Then we poured the Three red, a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Mourvèdre. I explained (briefly!) the concepts behind all the wines, and then I shut up and let the tasters taste.

Rarely did anyone we met show any emotion until the tasting was over. Wordlessly wines were poured, sniffed, sipped and spit. Aromas of food, kitchen spices, street traffic and more competed with the wines. They had to show well in spite of the difficulties. And I was pleased to see that they did. All five were in the best shape of their brief lives, having come through their recent bottling in fine condition. Comments were generous and positive. Retailers liked the diversity, the uniqueness, the packaging. And as each brief tasting was wrapping up, the question of pricing was raised. I could almost feel the buyers bracing for the blow... "here it comes... a well known wine writer shows us his first wines. It's a nice looking package. Production is very small. Ouch – it's gonna be spendy."

But they are not. Full retail on the Pinot Gris and Riesling is $15; on the two Chenins it's $17. Full retail on the Three Red is $25. More than a few buyers said they were pleasantly surprised. As noted previously, these wines have been crafted with three goals in mind:

1) Showcase strengths of Washington grapes
2) Look for neglected niches among the sea of Chardonnay, Cabernet and Syrah
3) Keep the prices as low as possible

From the dozens and dozens of comments, offered by both buyers and consumers (who attended several of the public pourings) I am confident that those goals have been met. And I’m looking forward to a summer spent visiting vineyards, blending the next vintage, and planning for more performances as a happier Willy. My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to my premier, and especially to those who opened their doors, listened to my spiel, and generously found time to give Waitsburg Cellars a shot at stardom. It's been a great experience so far, and we're just getting started.


Trey said...

Welcome to our world, Paul! Congrats on the successful launch as well.

PaulG said...

Thanks Trey! I saw a lot of your wines well represented in most of the places I visited. I can only aspire to the same level of success.

JJ Williams said...

This is fantastic; truly captures where/how wine is really sold. At least you visited accounts where the buyer is able to taste! I think people would be surprised at the number of wine stewards/professionals who are forbidden (often by their corporate bosses) to even taste what they're selling.

Verona Blogs said...

As a producer you enjoy the luxury of having to present only a handful of your wines in 10 minutes with the support of a sales rep and the relative attention of the buyer. Imagine the salesman who needs to make 20 or more customer visits a day, represent a large portfolio with hundreds of wines, recommend products, and promotions which will generate sales for the customer and satisfy the demands for quality and value of his customers (the consumer). The sales rep must help his employer meet sales and distribution goals established with producers and importers.

Tim said...

Hi Paul, as always a very nice written article, about your experience with different buyers, styles, etc. It is a fun phase to enjoy and get to know people and enjoy their feedback, etc. Congrats! Again, and hope to see you out and about in the Trade.

Unknown said...

nice. one of the more real commentaries of the wine world that i've read on the internet. as for the pricing, i've always thought there were two main price strategies for wineries: either charge as much as possible, or charge as little as possible. glad to see that you're doing the latter

Unknown said...

Hey Paul, it's a jungle out there, dog-eat-dog world, fishing for Moby Dick in a rowboat, school of hard knocks, you've gotta be made of Teflon...OK, I'll stop. Welcome to it and congrats on the brand launch - and despite the sometimes sadly comic twists of it all, imagine selling copy machines or logo'd rulers or something for a living. I'd rather paint fences.

I once sat with a sage guy on his porch tasting wines from former Soviet Georgia - and he said that one of the coolest parts of it all was that here we were, a couple of cynical old wine guys, talking about these offbeat, story-driven wines like kids in a candy store. So always be THAT guy, and the dirty plastic cups and requests for shelf talkers with meaningless 90's are just background noise.


PaulG said...

Thanks JJ. You make a good point - a number of folks said they were making an exception to the general 'no taste' rule. Verona, I cannot imagine how the real reps with huge catalogs manage. My hat is off to them! Tim and Gabriel, thanks for the praise. As for pricing, I see a LOT of brand new wineries starting out high. The usual reasoning is that it costs XX dollars and so they have to charge XX+. What this forgets about is a little thing called competition. Your customer doesn't care what your cost of goods is. S/He is looking at shelves stuffed with options, to find the best bottle for the least dollars.

PaulG said...

Keith - fishing for Moby Dick in a rowboat you say?!? That's a new one, but I get the drift. At least I had a decent harpoon – five of them actually. Thanks for hooking me back up with you know who. Looks like that's gonna work out nicely.

Unknown said...

The full version of the Moby Dick line is actually that the optimist salesman goes out to get him in the rowboat, and brings his tarter sauce....nice.

alison said...

It's a humbling experience, isn't it? Having a few minutes to put yourself--and your wines--out there; knowing there's a parade of people that came before and will come after you, doing just the same thing. Even though these retailers and restaurants are extremely busy, I am always pleasantly surprised at the amount of courtesy and respect that the majority of them have for their "reps." A testament to the industry that wine is still a social endeavor--not just a business.

Man About Wine said...

What, you had money to throw away so instead of buying a sailboat, you started a wine brand? Are you doing the actual winemaking?

I wonder what it is like when you call on Jon "I write til the ink runs out"
Rimmermann, a.k.a. the garagister in the rain.

Dubs said...

What a wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing. It's informed from all sides of the trade so everyone has a way to relate, and I think it paints a pretty darn great picture. Cheers to your new brand! Hope the wines are showing well.

Unknown said...

It's a bit different on the sales side of business as you note... be careful with your price point, your new brand needs your strong support! Kudos!

PaulG said...

I think the prices are right - I gave it a LOT of thought. During the sales presentations there were many unsolicited comments from buyers who said they were pleasantly surprised. But even if everything is right, it takes a lot of work to build an audience, as you said.

PaulG said...

Here is a link to a good overview of the wines, written by Paul Zitarelli for Seattle magazine.

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