Friday, May 29, 2015

The People Behind the Paycheck


When I cut myself out of the warm, comfortable womb of Air Conditioning Marketing nearly 3 1/2 years ago, I burst into the full-time world of wine distribution naked, cold, and naive.  I had bright eyes, big ideas, and a vision to turn the wine world on its ear.

Today- a grizzled, jaded, still-occasionally naked (and often naive) veteran of the Chardonnay-soaked trenches of "the business"- I've let my my evangelism dry up like a dream deferred.  It's a little depressing, realizing that one must eventually make the luxury-segment-sales equivalent of Sophie's Choice to survive:

1.  Embrace evangelism and jockey the hip little producers, the esoteric finds, the neglected-but-delicious grape varieties, the obscurely exotic Eastern Bloc gems, and the "natural wine" screwballs.  Align with the people who are farmers and the cellar rats; folks who are toiling to turn grapes into wine, and doing so without swollen marketing budgets, PR firms, teams of consumer analysts, and healthy distribution networks.  By doing this, an individual experiences much of the mystery and intrigue of wine; transcending into a vision quest of myriad grape varieties and endless expressions of terroir...

...Also, said individual declines into abject poverty.  People don't want to buy that weird crap.  Go 'merica.


2.  Sell out and pay the bills.  Shill overpriced "big time" grapes from "big time" regions onto status-sensitive wine drinkers with money to burn.  Wines with backstories like, "after Kensington Penniesworth III sold his grandfather's monocle business for billions, his supermodel wife and he visited wine country, where they fell in love with wine.  They bought 8,000 acres from poor apple farmers to make expressive, world-class wines."  Wines that are all pomp & circumstance.  Wines with big ratings.  Wines that stroke egos.  Why?  Because even though this bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is $90 more than that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a heavier bottle, a deeper punt, and an edgier label.  It got 95 points from the Dubuque State Fair.  Also, my boss bought it at that steakhouse in Vegas with the F-you-money he won at the blackjack table when we attended the Tupperware convention in 2004, and he said it was the best, so it's the best wine ever.  My boss said.  And he has lots of money and a flawless portfolio.  He does Crossfit.  And the Europeans make terrorist wine.  Go 'merica.


Hmm.  Wasn't really going for jaded.  Came across a bit jaded.  Maybe I was, but only for hyperbolic emphasis.

It's not so bad out there.  But I did decide that I needed to make a living.  I needed plump American kids.  I needed to splurge on that occasional date night at Long John Silvers with the wife.  A pampered spouse is a happy spouse.  "Extra side of tarter sauce, hon?  No sweat.  Thank 100% New French and American Oak for 22 months."

The wine consuming public is incredibly diverse, opinionated, and stubborn.  There are the natural zealots who only want to buy wine based on the biodynamic calendar.  Conversely, there are suburban white-collar businessmen who are too stubborn to look beyond their Silver Oak-branded blinders.  And there are the retailers and restaurants who cater specifically to these- and other segments- almost exclusively.  Rarely, if ever, will one yield to the other.  They probably don't even know each other exist.  And they should probably never attend the same wine tasting together.  This dichotomy represents the polar-opposites of the wine consumer spectrum.  And I've decided I'm happy to sell to both camps.

But one does not survive in wine sales by selling a few bottles of unfiltered Poulsard here and blockbuster Mt. Veeder there.  There are dozens of splinter groups within the subculture of wine consumers.  To name a few:

Old people who selectively ignore the laws of inflation as they pertain to beverage alcohol.  I know a jug of wine cost two-bits back in the day, but a quarter-sawbuck is not an outrageous price for a bottle these days.  I mean, it's not as if the cost of the land to grow the grapes has increased in the past 50 years.  Or fuel prices, crucial to transport said wine from vineyard to (ironically) your local gas station.  Or glass.  Or corks.  Or taxes, tariffs, and duties. But please, take the case of $3.99 red.  I know its expensive, but my kids need new shoes, and you need the high percentage of formaldehyde in that bottle to preserve your liver.

Benevolent Burgundy Collectors.  Generally men of highborn stock, who went on to become doctors, lawyers, CEOs.  They were raised by families with large cellars, so they know about the good stuff, and never-once balked at the cost.  Fine Burgundies are the ultimate in rare prizes for these types, and they track down DRCs and Rousseaus as the ultimate rush... like Zaroff hunting "The Most Dangerous Game."  Yet, the Benevolent Burgundy Collectors can be generous.  They often shares their kill with the unwashed masses at wine tastings and dinners.  It's a way to give back to society.  They know you'll never be able to afford these wines.  They've already spotted your Kirkland-brand slacks.

College Guy with Overbearing Girlfriend.  He doesn't want to be at the wine tasting.  Wine is for sissies.  But all it takes is one afternoon at the frat house sucking down a few too many Natty Light, which leads to the eventual hookup with the bartender at Wet Willie's ("OMG.  She's such a skank!").  Now, he's got a joint Facebook account.  And he's going to get some culture.  Because Oprah was talking about how a man who drinks a half glass of wine a week is proven by an Oprah Show poll to be better husband material.  And she is NOT going back to that creep Bobby Masterson again.  So- buddy- at least act interested, and don't spill that Pinot you're trying to swirl onto her new Vineyard Vines loafers.  Remember:  one bottle of wine = 8.4 Natural Lights.  See you at Wet Willie's later.

Yep, I've accepted that I will happily sell to every segment.  And I will appreciate the likes and dislikes of every segment.  Because, although some of us "wine folk" internally fight every instinct to tell you what to drink, what not to drink, what you're missing, why you're wrong, et cetera, the truth is that everyone is different.  And people like different things.  I think the first major step in a life of wine appreciation is knowing when to challenge people, and knowing when to just give them what they want.  Truthfully, if I really desire for a person to like wine more, I'd rather him have something I perceive as awful in a glass than nothing at all.  He will either hate it (and decide he hates wine in general forever), like it and drink that same wine forever, or- most hopefully- use this experience as a first toe dipped into the infinity pool.

I'll take those odds.   And the money.  My Kirkland slacks have a hole in them.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sports for the Under-Coordinated

In a recent ransack of the parents' attic (I was looking for old Battle Beasts to sell play with), I came across my war-chest of athletic accolades and trophies from childhood.  Locked away for years, these triumphant physical endeavors unfolded like a long-awaited Hall of Fame speech:

  • My "2nd Place:  Roswell Rec Dribble & Shoot Contest" trophy, the proverbial Lombardi Trophy of the lot.
  • An entire shoebox of obscurely-colored Mountain Creek Swim Team (go Dolphins!) ribbons.  Purple meant 5th place.  There were lots of those.  And- ah- glorious Green.  4th place.  Not as many, but they were hard-earned, still stinking of sweat and chlorine.  I didn't see any Blue (1st place) or Red (2nd place) ribbons.  Primary colors are for idiots anyway.
  • There were several Tritt Elementary (go Tigers!) Field Day "Participation" ribbons.  Some may say that everyone gets those ribbons.  But that one kid with head lice didn't participate, per the school nurse's decree.  No ribbon for that poor little bastard.  But, seriously, he was lousy with parasites.
  • The Presidential Fitness "Merit" Award, signed by the Governator himself.  It was the certificate given to kids who were a step-down from the star athletes.  I can still imagine Arnie yelling at me to this day... "IF ONLY YOU COULD HAVE DONE ONE PULL-UP, YOU WOULD HAVE GOTTEN THE 'ACHIEVEMENT' AWARD, YOU FLABBY, GIRLIE-ARMED SISSY!  HAVE ANOTHER STREUDEL, OR WHATEVER IT IS YOU FAT AMERICAN KINDER EAT!  KROM LAUGHS AT YOUR FOUR WINDS!"  
Okay, so I basically sucked at athletics.  Can't help it.  While others were out playing soccer, I was reading cookbooks.  And the one time I made ten free-throws in a row in the driveway?  It took 8 hours, and I only did it because my mom promised I could get whatever junky sugar cereal at the grocery store if I succeeded.  Guess she just really wanted me out of the kitchen, reading all her cookbooks.

And what kind of neighborhood kids were playing soccer anyway?  This ain't Paraguay.

The point is, like any red-blooded kid, I had a desire to compete, but had to find alternatives that didn't require athletic prowess.  To this day, you probably don't want me on your church basketball team, but if your church organizes a horseshoes league, beer pong tournament, or rib cook-off, I'm first pick.  And I want to join your devil-may-care church community.

I think my affinity- and success- with leisure sport is part of the reason why I've become so enamored with blind tasting wines lately.  On the surface, blind tasting probably appears to many as a stupid parlor trick with very little practical application.  And, if you are using it primarily to pick up chicks, it really is.  Unless it works.  Which it doesn't.  Trust me.

Blind evaluation of wine is one of the three components of the Court of Master Sommeliers examination structure, and perhaps the most harrowing to the general public; as it was portrayed and popularized in the recent cult-documentary, SOMM.  Observing a bunch of guys taking six glasses of unmarked wine and- with nothing other than their superior senses- pegging them down to the variety, region, and freaking vintage can seem almost super-human.

However, as impressive a feat as it may seem (and not to discount... it IS impressive), these top sommeliers were not necessarily born with magical noses or freakish taste buds.  Sure, scientific research has discovered that certain individuals may have greater sensitivity of taste, but the methodology (and there most certainly is a method) is one that is LEARNED.  Acquired with a great deal of practice?  Sure.  But it can be learned, if you are psycho enough to pursue it.  And, by "psycho", I really just mean willing to taste a lot of wine.  And study a bit.  That's not so bad.

Take me.  It's my blog, so I'm gonna bloviate about myself.  Deal with it.  Five years ago, I couldn't tell you if I had Merlot or Pinot Noir in my glass.  Now, not only can I tell you it's Merlot, but can probably tell you generally where it's from, and roughly how old it is.  I'm not saying this to boast, but mentioning it to encourage those who have zealous interest in wine.  I don't have a great nose (in fact, I can barely breathe through it), nor a hyper-sensitive tongue.  But I have invested time (and perhaps a bit too much money) in learning about the classic wines of the world, and that studying has done wonders for discerning what's in my glass.  How does thin skin affect the color of a wine vs. thick skin?  What does age do to a wine's color, aroma, and taste?  Where do they predominantly use French Oak, and what are its flavors?  What about American Oak?  How does climate affect levels of acid, sugar, and alcohol?

So, circling back to the practicality of blind tasting, we come to find that "getting the wine right" is only a minor component in a much grander scheme.  Practicing blind tasting requires that one learn about grapes, regions, aging requirements, climates, soils.  It dictates we come to better understand the esoteric concept of flavor.  How sweet, sour, and bitter come into- or fall out of- balance on the palate.  For a fat kid reading cookbooks as a kid, this is straight Jedi stuff.  And all this homework not only helps with tasting, it improves one's general understanding of wine.  If you truly are a student of the fermented grape, this is a good thing.

And, admittedly, being able to work through the components of a wine using all the knowledge and practice one's amassedto ultimately "get the wine right", well... that's rewarding.  And a bit sporting.  Hell, some of us may have never had the moves.  But we all have competitive spirit.

So, how does one navigate through a wine?  Come back next year, and I'll write about it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Attack of the 50-Foot Chianti Bottle

So, I'm cruising the streets of Miami- or Biloxi, or maybe Kitty Hawk- you know, somewhere near a beach.  Regardless of location, the scene is hot.  My boys are in the car with me... something badass like a Pontiac Fiero, and I'm behind the wheel.  The mood is raucous; festive.  I can only imagine Kenny Loggins' "Playing With the Boys" is blaring on the radio.  Somewhere, Pitbull has his hand in the air on a stage, saying something about doing something that involves partying.  Hell, Pitbull may be in the car with us.  This deal is just that good.

I'm loaded.  Like, "I definitely shouldn't be driving right now, but somebody has to handle keeping this mobile fiesta intact."  I think of myself as a modern-day Styles, and the Wolf is catching waves up on the roof.  No matter how bad the creeping reality of me-behind-the-wheel seems, I'm entrusted with a greater duty to my bros.  In this scenario, I'm forced to use the term "bros".

As we approach a T-intersection in the road, I see the beach in front of me.  I turn left, but due to lack of motor skills (in all senses of the term), I fumble into the oncoming lane.  It's as if I've suddenly lost all ability, experience, and knowledge of how to drive.  As I collect myself and complete the errant turn, shock and terror fill my every fiber of being.  Blocking my passage are dozens of squad cars, bright lights flashing in the black night.

The crushing weight of reality floods every sense, as I slam on the brakes, jump out of the driver's side, and lay on the ground with my hands behind my head.  In my current condition, there is no reasonable defense.  As I feel the cold steel of handcuffs clasp around my wrists- muffled echos of conversation and Miranda Rights distantly echoing at the edges of my silent introspection- I keep thinking to myself, "this has got to be a dream, right?  No.  No, this is definitely not a dream.  This is absolutely real.  I've really, really messed up."


Suddenly, I find myself in a particularly notorious customer's office.  There is nary a distant memory of DUI, Miami nights, or Pitbull.

The mood is tense, but I am confident.  We are in the midst of serious negotiation.  "I really need to get some shelf space for [product x] and [product y].  Proper exposure next to comparable competitive products is crucial for brand awareness and customer conversion."

My customer- a shrewd and seasoned liquor store owner- pauses.  I'm expecting another lecture about brand building.  He leans forward and speaks.

"Hell, of course we'll make space for you.  In fact, let's take a walk down to the floor and see where we'll put you."

As we exit the upstairs office and head down to the retail space, I sense the ominous presence of many henchmen-types in our wake.  This is a big-time shop owner, so I guess he needs his protection.  Hand on my shoulder in a fatherly manner, he begins in on me.  "You know, we could use a smart young lad like you to work the floor... you know, sell wine and such.  All my sales associates are the best in the business.  They are the ultimate professionals... all eunuchs are."

"Eunuchs??"  It's the only response my flabbergasted lips can muster.  We are now standing on the retail floor, which seems to be an odd combination of a liquor store and an old Circuit City.  Very uneasy feelings rise within me, as I see sales associates scurrying about to assist the crowds of customers.  They all have laser-focus on their work.  They all seem like robots.

I can imagine they all have their balls in jars somewhere.

"Of course," the store owner replies, as if I shouldn't be surprised.  "Eunuchs are never distracted by sinful and deviant thoughts.  They are always on-task," he exclaims with pride.

"So, are you ready to join our team?"

Sensing I'm being made an offer I cannot refuse without consequence, I politely ask if we can look at the shelves first.  Somehow, I manage to duck away while they entourage proceeds to the shelf space, and find my family (why is my family on a sales call with me?).  I see the shop owner looking around as I duck behind a stack of Peach Chocolate Moscato.  He whispers to one of his minions.  Suddenly, I'm grabbed by the crotch by one gloved hand, razor-sharp blade in the other...

I twist away in uncharacteristically-athletic fashion, corral my family, and we run out the door.  We keep running.

Suddenly, my wife, daughter, and I are eating exotic food in a shack, somewhere far from home.  I hear an amalgam of several foreign languages chattering away at other tables, mixed with the sounds of plates clanking and rum drinks being poured.  We've gone on the lam, and- for now- we are safe and distant from the castrating liquor store owner.  But, in the back of my mind, I know he knows where my family and I are, and we needn't get too comfortable...


This is the best documentation of two of the most vivid dreams I have had in a while.  I experienced both of them last night.  Needless to say, I was unusually relieved and comforted by the buzzing of an alarm clock at six in the morning.

I'm thinking the daily stresses of life in wine and spirits distribution are starting to manifest themselves a little too close for comfort.  But then again, perhaps I'll be drinking Hermitage with Ronnie James Dio in tonight's dream sequence.

Or maybe I just watched too much "Game of Thrones".  They're pretty liberal with the eunuch references.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sales 101

I used this image in place of the descriptors on a presentation sheet for a very important tasting tomorrow (well, at this point, today):

I'm pretty confident it will pay dividends.  While I don't necessarily always like to "dumb down" wines that deserve some respect, I really think the people tasting know what they're doing, and there's no benefit to saying that the wine has, "whispers of ripe-to-underripe Israeli persimmon, with masculine undertones of femininity carrying through the tart lychee-blossomed finish."

Of course, that's exactly what I smelled and tasted on the wine, and then visions of this creature materialized.  So, it's pretty much a slam dunk.

That's how you do it.  That's how you sell wine.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Stuff I Missed...

'Twasn't the most verbose year in Suburban Wino history.  Those who know what I've been up to the past year understand why I wasn't left with gobs of time to sit in front of the computer and painstakingly craft (mostly) coherent posts.  However, that doesn't mean that this year was devoid of exciting and interesting happenings in the world of wine.  More accurately, in MY world of wine.  Sure, it's less relevant to the general wine-drinking public, but I've got an ego that needs to be stroked, so we're gonna talk about me.  Okay, we're not gonna talk about me, per se, but about stuff that I experienced in 2012.  Not sure what else to write about.  I don't care about what James Suckling or Emilio Estevez experienced, and you shouldn't either.  Maybe there's something relevant here after all:

The Wine Business is...

...not at all less glamorous than I expected.  I'm not surprised it's tough, because I know the climate and have known the people in it for a while.  Now, a grizzled veteran at one year's experience, I have to say that it is (if I may paraphrase Denny Green) "what I thought it was":  work.  Not a lot of sitting around, drinking wine, visiting exciting locales around the world.  More accurately, the wine business is- at least initially- hard, HARD work for very little pay, involving long hours, intense competition, aggression, a parade of disinterested and jaded buyers, and even further disinterested consumers who buy on scores, cute labels, and low prices (the latter, I suspect, perpetuated by the laziness of retailers, distributors, and the consumers themselves).  Brushing with a broad stroke here, of course, but wine is held in a much lower regard by so many than one gets swept into believing when dug into the blogging world.  In fact, I've had two rather sobering realizations during my short time in the trenches:
  1. 90% of the wine-consuming public DOES NOT GIVE A DAMN about wine as anything more than a means to get drunk.
  2. Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar is extraordinarily prevalent in the consumer world of wine-buying, and the comfort of a consistent experience drives buying behavior heavily.
When we are so passionate about something, we tend to not understand why others don't share that passion.  We so badly want others to have the epiphany we once did; that "aha" moment when we took a sip of the wine that changed our view of the world forever.  But many (most) will never experience that, because they don't have enough desire to allow the experience to occur.  Rather than lament those who will never have interest, I've enjoyed the zeal of the other 10%.  Those who love wine the way I do, eager novices, seasoned collectors, evangelical buyers, beverage managers, and total nerds... teaching them, learning from them, sharing incredible bottles with them... all of that has been completely satisfying.  I can't say I'd have been able to meet those precious few without taking the leap into this endeavor.

I think I could live in Oregon...

...based on summertime visits, at least.  They say it's a cold, rainy, miserable place, but I've only experienced Portland and the Willamette Valley twice:  June of 2010 and August of 2012.  Beautiful, warm, and gloriously unspoiled (the suburbs of Portland don't just seem to bleed and bleed into the country like they do in the massive sprawl of Atlanta).  Okay, the beach was cold, but I'm super-pale by nature anyway, and terrified of sharks, so I don't need a hot beach.  There is good wine, great beer, lots of fresh produce, seafood, meats, and cheeses.  Houses in wine country are cheap.  The restaurant options in Portlandia are magical.  I got a fried pie filled with macaroni & cheese and bacon from a food truck.

There's and ideal vibe:  city living, but small-city living, with wine country and plenty of access to wholesome ingredients for cooking.  It just seems right.

Downsides:  no NFL team.  But I could watch the Falcons at 10 AM and consistent get out of going to church.  Perhaps the schools are crappy.  Taxes might be bad.  Oh, and my wife grew up in Phoenix.  That'll be a tough sell...

Former (and current) Atlantans make some wine...

Great to see pals Hardy (former Atlantan) and Matt (aka "Rowdy", current Atlantan) release their first wines.  Good stuff will silly labels, and I wish them much success.  These two have showered extraordinary generosity upon me in many ways over the past few years, so I am eternally in their corner as they grow a business that is damn stinkin' hard to make thrive.

Also excited for buddy Ed Thralls (former Atlantan) to release his first Pinot Noir from his new label, Thralls Family Cellars.  I tasted an early bottling (admittedly, while my palate was not its sharpest), and I expect big things.  Likewise, the Thralls have been wonderful and generous to me.

Not necessarily making wine (that I know of), but proud to see another friend- Matt Mauldin (former Atlantan)- working with Joe Davis over at Arcadian in Santa Barbara County.  Maybe the seemingly even-keeled Matt can keep Joe in line a bit, but it could be tough.

Happiest Place on Earth?

The EPCOT Food & Wine Festival took the proud tradition of the World Showcase Pub Crawl to new levels.  Kiosks are set up in the park, featuring food and drink from not only the 13 countries with permanent outposts, but probably 30 others interspersed.  I expected clichéd dishes like "shrimp on the barbie" from the Australian kiosk, but was pleasantly surprised with EPCOT going out on a limb a bit:  France, for example, was serving escargots.  Can't beat snails-to-go.

Beer was represented heavily, and the wine flowed freely (but not "free" as in the sense that it didn't cost a pretty penny).  Many of the wines were the widely-distributed, usual suspects, but gems could be found (Selbach-Oster Spätlese Riesling found deep behind German lines).

The festival runs every November.  If you need to erase the haunting jingle of "It's a Small World" from your mind, $200 and 40 drinks can do so quickly.  Bring in-laws as a quick fix for babysitting the little one(s).

What about 2013?

No idea what to expect.  But I feel the path down which life is taking me is starting to clear, and I think- for the first time in a while- I'm getting my feet beneath me.  No matter what happens, to all those who have supported and encouraged me to take an easily ill-advised leap of faith, I sincerely thank you.

Now excuse me while I go stalk Emilio Estevez on Twitter.