Getting Out of Your Own Way

So, I was at IPNC this past weekend and ran into a bunch of awesome industry friends I hadn’t seen in ages because, obviously, I haven’t been traveling for work. One of the things that kept popping up in conversation was how I’ve not kept up on my blog, and that I should post something new. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it, because I have, but I have been busy f#cking around doing house projects (please remind me to tell you about them some day—I have an INSANE story about my relatively recent experience buying a home in foreclosure), hanging out with my friends and family and getting utterly addicted to Burncycle. Essentially I just haven’t made the time.

This is the view from one of my many "projects." If you could see the kitchen you would vomit/your eyes would be bleeding.

This is the view from one of my many “projects.” If you could see the kitchen you would vomit/your eyes would be bleeding.

This was taken at Blackberry Farm, the greatest resort ever. Disneyland for foodies. I will write about it soon!

Taken recently at Blackberry Farm, the greatest place ever and a place I did NOT blog from–I was too busy playing with their Truffle puppies and eating gravy. It’s Disneyland for foodies./winos  & I will write about it soon!

There has been something I have been ruminating on a lot lately because I’ve recently been asked for informational interviews with young people who want to talk about getting into sales. I often think that wine salespeople are their own worst enemy. Every day I hear another one of them saying something that has me shaking my head and asking if I am “living in opposite world.”

So here’s a story about one such occasion, and how I think reps can learn to get out of their own way.

The other day, I was waiting in line to taste with a buyer who was looking for a new wine to pour by the glass. The salesperson in front of me pulled out a bottle of a well-known, well-made and well-priced wine and began describing it. I thought for sure that he’d close the deal—the buyer was totally into it. But then, just as she was about to commit to the glass pour, the guy started going on about how, “I know this wine is in a ton of grocery stores and a lot of people don’t want to use it because it’s everywhere. But it’s everywhere for a reason! Because it’s a great wine!” I cringed as I saw the buyer basically go from a solid “yes” in her mind to a pretty wobbly “let me think about it.” (Actually, I think it could be best described as fontrum) He continued on at length about how most people at restaurants do not want to pour this particular wine because of it’s strong retail presence, and possibly listed a few other reasons why people object to carrying it before essentially digging himself a hole he couldn’t get out of. I checked back a couple weeks later and sure enough, the wine was not anywhere to be found on that restaurant’s list.

This situation is a classic example of two of the easiest things you can do to avoid losing a sale. So what did he do wrong?

Don’t offer objections before your buyer does

I’m reminded of a line from Inception, wherein one character explains the idea behind “inception”:

Arthur: I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants?

Don't think of grocery stores when thinking of this wine... wait... that came out wrong...

Don’t think of grocery stores when thinking of this wine… wait… that came out wrong…

Arthur is referencing something called Ironic Process Theory. Basically, deliberately attempting to suppress certain thoughts (in your own mind, or in your buyer’s) makes those thoughts MORE likely to surface. Talk all day long about the features and benefits, but don’t offer objections or say what you wine ISN’T. If there’s a common objection about one of the features of your wine (price, style, market penetration, etc) it’s good to have responses lined up so that you can answer the objections, but don’t offer them before the buyer does. And never assume the objections of one buyer will be the same for all.

Don’t talk too much

I recently re-read Death of A Salesman (I heard a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman on NPR a few months ago and he spoke at length about his experience playing Willy Loman, so out of morbid curiousity, I went down the internet k-hole and spent way too long learning about his tenure in the play, which inevitably led to me re-reading it). I found the play to be disquieting when I first read it in my high school teacher Mr. LeBeau’s English class, but as an adult with a long history of working in sales, it really was particularly meaningful the second time around–I have to say one of my biggest fears as a salesperson is the idea of becoming obsolete and reading about Willy’s breakdown was highly unsettling. There’s a line where Willy, fully in the throes of his breakdown, philosophizes to his wife Linda about why he’s having trouble selling:
Willy: I don’t know why – I can’t stop myself – I talk too much. A man oughta come in with a few words. Charlie’s a man of few words, and they respect him.

I thought about all the sales people I have listened to over the years, and it’s too bad that Willy couldn’t have overheard some of the long-winded spiels and useless chatter I have—maybe he wouldn’t have ended up the way he did.

But seriously—I see this happen all the time. As I have said before, selling wine is about having a conversation with your customer. If you’re spending all your time talking, you won’t be able to listen to what your buyer wants and consequently be able to address their needs. It’s especially common among young sales reps who are nervous—silence equals the unknown, and that’s particularly scary to some reps who lack the confidence and experience of selling.

I have also seen a lot of reps chatter/small talk their way out of a sale. Instead of taking the buying signals and asking questions like, “so it seems like there may be a spot for this wine on your list,” or “it looks like you may have room for this wine,” reps change the subject and talk about their weekend plans, the weather, anything that will get them off the topic of selling the wine they have poured in their buyer’s glass.

cool story bro

Take notes and follow up

Finally, contrary to Blake’s famous line in Glengarry Glen Ross, these days closing means taking notes, following up with your buyer and consistently checking in on their needs. But I shouldn’t have to tell you that, should I? Thanks for reading.


“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” –Alice Roosevelt

A few months ago while I was mopping my floor, I heard something in my shoulder pop, and for the next few hours, I could barely raise my arm above my head. Initially I wrote it off as a onetime thing, but it kept happening and so I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon (who just happens to be my husband’s best friend—score!). After x-rays and an exam, he told me that I’d worn most of the cartilage away in my AC joint, and that I’d probably never be able to regularly practice vinyasa yoga again.

If you know me at all, you can probably surmise that the diagnosis and recommendation were pretty devastating for me. I have been practicing yoga regularly for years, and credit it with getting me through some of the hardest times in my life, both personally and professionally. When I was on the road, it kept me sane, and when I was experiencing difficulty in any area of my life, time on the mat really helped put things into perspective for me. I learned so much about practicing daily mindfulness, kindness, and gratitude.  Whenever I was facing a particularly tough question in life or work, an hour or two on the mat would usually help clear my mind and help me get things focused.

So what does all this have to do with selling wine?

As I am sure you’ve realized, the wine industry is a very small place. If you travel at all, you start to recognize certain faces, and you might even have a group of people you socialize with from other wineries that tend to travel in the same waves and schedules as you do. And naturally, in a small industry that is highly social and that revolves around the consumption of alcoholic beverages, gossip becomes a huge component of our interactions with each other. We gossip a lot because it helps us figure out how to manage our business better—knowing which buyer who historically supported your wines has moved to what new restaurant, which rep has been promoted, and what person at a distributor has a knack for getting things done—they’re all things we talk about. But of course, sometimes the discussions devolve into critiques of someone’s personal behavior, relationship choices, or professionalism and that’s where the line goes from gray to red.

Did you...uh..hear about this new supplier rep?

Did you…uh..hear about this new supplier rep? His name is Kendall Mondavi and he sells Blanc de Rose Champagne…

I’m not proud of it, but I occasionally have a pretty pessimistic side, which I was reminded about this weekend. I spent the last few days with a very good girlfriend (who also happens to be in the wine business). I love her because she’s smart, funny and generally amazing. Of course when we get together we discuss our jobs quite a bit, covering both things that have been high-points for us, but also things or people that have been troubling for us.

On this occasion, I brought up a supplier that had said and done some things (the one time I had met him) that I viewed as arrogant and out-of-left field.   For a few moments, I negatively lamented his unseemly behavior, and when I finished, I glanced at my friend, to back me up. Instead, she arched her eyebrows incredulously and stared over the rims of her sunglasses and said, “Wow, you really seem to dislike this guy and you don’t even work with him! Do you think maybe you’re reading too much into it?” And of course she then proceeded to positively sum up how she felt about him like this: “he’s smart, he’s efficient, and he’s good at his job. I probably wouldn’t go to dinner with him, but no knocks against him. We’re just different.”

I realized in that moment that I REALLY hadn’t been bringing the yoga of kindness and positivity into that conversation, or into my words very much at all since I had given up my practice. I mean, what the f*ck? What is the point of talking sh*t about someone I hardly know, and with whom I don’t even work?

And just to hammer that lesson home, on the heels of this conversation, a coworker today told me that she’d heard a rumor about me that was ridiculous at best, and malicious at worst. Thankfully she stuck up for me, but it did make me think: the wine business IS a small place. It’s really not worth it to be a negative asshole–your words will come back to haunt you, and in the end, it’s just not worth it. I’m not saying that it’s bad to be analytical and realistic. It’s just that being negative and shitty because it’s fun and dishy doesn’t get you anywhere. Really.

Also, I started going to yoga again, even though it’s just a couple times a week. And I picked up cycling. How’s this for karma:

This is what I get for talking shit...

This is what I get for talking shit…

I’m Baaa-aack! Thoughts on Being Cool…

I kind of took a break from this blog for a few months, but I *think* I am back. I started a new job, so at first, I was really busy. And then, I just started thinking, “well, I’m not on the road anymore, so I don’t know if I have new and compelling things to write about.” I didn’t know if anyone would even want to read what I had to say, now that I’m basically just in one place all the time. And I also went through a bit of an existential crisis thinking that if I wasn’t out in other markets all the time, that I would lose my edge, and I would become one of those people who pontificate about things that everyone else has already known about FOREVER.

But I do like writing my thoughts down, and I do like (ostensibly) helping other people in the wine business by starting conversations and sharing my ideas on what works and what doesn’t—and though my scope of experience will be more limited because I’m just selling in one state and not 50, I think many of the things I go through are applicable to wine sales in most other markets. Plus, people that I don’t directly work with email or call me at least once a week to ask me advice about selling wine, so some of this will be just a brain dump from the conversations I have with them.

So, without further ado…

Last week, my company welcomed a new supplier into our portfolio. To launch the wines, we had the national sales manager come in and do a presentation to our staff. The wines showed very well, and our reps seemed excited about the wines so I was pretty happy about the way things turned out. Then, after we wrapped up the meeting, I walked the national sales manager out to his car. As we stood there chatting, I shifted my weight and suddenly my ankle twisted in. I had that “Oh shit!” moment and suddenly realized that I had completely lost my balance. I was holding some things in my hands and ended up falling, in what seemed like slow-motion, flat on my ass and having a total yard sale. My phone skidded across the pavement and my papers flew everywhere. Oh, and did I mention that the winery we picked up is a very trendy, hip winery and that I was trying to “be cool” in front of the sales guy, so he would know that by extension, the distributor I work for would also be deemed cool and he could be excited about the cool people he was going to be now working with?

Eating shit in front of someone you’ve known all of 45 minutes was not the greatest first impression. At all. And let me tell you, I replayed that moment in my head for about 2 hours after it happened. And then I was like, “F*ck it. I am a huge klutz and it’s not a secret. Doesn’t make me bad at my job. And being cool? What am I, in high school?”

But it’s weird, though, isn’t it? There’s a HUGE trend in the wine business these days that seems to be all about being cool. It seems that there has been a big value placed on WHO you know and not WHAT you know. Being cool, being part of the “in crowd,” having the most likes on your pictures of rare/expensive wine and food on Instagram, THAT has become the litmus test for your importance, your relevance, your everything if you’re in the business of selling wine.

But after some conversations about this with friends of mine who are also in the industry, it got me thinking—does it really matter?

In my view: yes AND no.

I’d say, on the winery side, that being cool matters in two instances:

If you are new. This is when being cool really helps. Get some buzz and get some mojo going. People always love something new! Especially when it is cool!

If your production is limited (like less than 2-3,000 cases). There is a lot of competition here in the Northwest at that size. Many people these days absolutely love wineries that have the “hipster-underdog” vibe going on. It doesn’t matter if the owner/winemaker comes from a family with a huge amount of money bankrolling his or her operation. If he has a beard, ironic t-shirts (ones about Riesling seem to be a popular choice), ripped up Carhartt pants and overuses the hashtag #acidambassador on his hugely popular Twitter/Instagram accounts, people will eat it up¹. Cool + Tiny Production=Golden.  Bonus tip: letting people know the size of your production by printing on the bottle the number of cases made is actually wonderful. I always love knowing stuff like that. But increase the mystique and cool factor by taking at least a week to 10 days to respond to emails and phone calls, and only allow visitors to taste wine by appointment. You will sell a vintage out in a matter of days (or at least give the appearance of it). 

Here is when being cool does not help:

If your wines are not good and/or you want to grow your production. Eventually people will figure out that the emperor has no clothes (I HOPE. DEAR GOD I HOPE). You’ll still get the suckers that fall for the hype, but that’s not enough to sustain any growth or serious business plan. I can think of one winery in particular that I don’t personally represent, but I have tasted the wines many times over the years and have consistently thought that they were flawed or sub-par, or at best, pedestrian. The labels are intriguing and well done, and the owner is a winemaker hipster that hangs out with an “in crowd.” He’s all over social media, but in my opinion of him, given how long he’s been around, and the appearance that he has many “friends” in important wine-industry positions (reps, buyers, etc), the fact that he still has to work extremely hard to sell his wines speaks to the fact that no matter how cool you are, if the quality isn’t in the bottle, sales don’t typically follow.

If your wines are overpriced. Cool only goes so far.  There’s a supplier I can think of that drops the names of all the “who’s who” in the world of food and wine in their myriad Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pictures of their travels and plates of food/bottle shots. But when I asked my friends who sell that supplier’s wines how well they move, the general response seems to be that they’re a tough price–an average fish in a big pond full of more beautiful, less expensive fishes (outside of a couple larger markets). The quality is somewhat inconsistent, the prices are too high, and there’s not much pull-through once the wines do get placed.

If you make over 5,000 cases. It helps to be nice, but once you hit this volume, being cool will basically do jack for you. One of my all-time favorite suppliers (one I don’t actually work with) isn’t part of the “in-crowd.” But he is awesome. He’s a super effective salesperson—he knows a ton about his wine, and seems to know just as much about his competitors. He is extremely responsive—if you send him an email, he usually responds within a couple of hours. He picks up when you call. He sends regular correspondence with release dates, allocation updates, and any other information that reps would find useful. But I think if you asked most people about him, they would say he’s just exceedingly likeable, but he’s not what you’d call “hella cool” or “f*cking cool as shit” (two highly scientific expressions used by wine biz “peeps”—a term I F*CKING HATE, by the way—to describe desirable persons). He works for a bigger winery, and he KILLS it with sales. That’s because he is a nice guy who is smart and professional. Take note, people, take note.

¹ This style of clothing generally equates to coolness with American/New World winemakers. However, if you are French, Italian, Spanish or German, you get cool points for being well dressed. Bonus if you are older and have a sarcastic sense of humor. 

Everyone Hates Your Powerpoint Presentation

I took a bit of a hiatus the last couple of months because I started a new job, and then I got really sick (which sucked ass. It’s like, “Hey, I just started, and even though it’s less than a month in, can I please take some sick days?!” Nice first impression.) Side bar–If you don’t know me very well, then you might not have heard that the new job I started is on the distribution side as a brand manager. So far I love it.

Each week in my new job revolves around a sales meeting that happens every Monday afternoon and generally lasts for an hour or two. During that time, we go over sales numbers, new items, upcoming releases and any important information that needs to be shared. We also have suppliers visit and make presentations to our sales staff.

Which has reminded me of a time in my past when I was living in Chicago, dating a guy who worked for a huge, national distribution company. He used to tell me about the hellish marathon sales meetings he’d have to attend every Friday from 7 in the morning until 5 or 6 at night. I remember a time when he came home super psyched up, wearing a ridiculously hideous, tie-dyed t-shirt from some new “lifestyle” winery (the brainchild subsidiary of a mega-corporation’s marketing department, of course). He excitedly told me about how the man representing the brand was super cool—he wore casual “surfer” clothes, and even had long hair (I think I remember that it was later revealed to be a wig). This “dude” was completely out of place in a room filled with guys wearing bad pleated slacks, dress shirts and mandatory ties. Instead of discussing what the wine tasted like or, as was the usual case, numbers and sales projections in a powerpoint presentation, the salesman wanted to promote the bohemian attitude of the wines and winery (completely fabricated, of course). The pitch at the meeting completely won over my former boyfriend, and probably got the attention of many of his counterparts as well (for my part, I mercilessly teased him about drinking the kool-aid, which probably explains the direction our relationship took–the fast train to Nowheresville).

While I have always felt that the “wines” my ex-boyfriend sold might as well have been widgets, and that the two of us were basically in only mildly-related industries (my opinion was that I sold “real” wine, and he just shipped cases of meaningless, industrial crap, which might make me a snob, but I’ll live with it), it certainly made me recognize that a well-planned sales presentation can do wonders for a brand. Though I was unimpressed with the pitch and quality of those “lifestyle wines,” the guy I was dating seemed to love them, and was more than happy to promote and sell them. While I thought the presentation sounded ridiculous and fake, to the people there it was real, relatable and made an impact on sales.

So, after sitting through a number of them in the last 8 weeks, I have found that a few things consistently make a presentation stand out:

  • Know your audience

Who are you talking to? In my company, most of the sales reps are extremely passionate about wine. They see through the bullsh*t. The things they care about and want to know are things like: what makes you and your winery real? Why do your wines matter to this market? and most of all, what makes them worth selling? Of course, there are other companies like the one my former boyfriend worked for where the reps care much less about authenticity and are more interested in gimmicks, flashiness or packaging. It really helps to understand what gets the mojo going when you’re talking to different sales teams.

  • Why are you here?

You should make this abundantly clear, to show that you have a very good reason for the time you’re taking up. Are you: Launching a new brand or product? Pushing for sales improvements on a certain wine? Re-introducing a wine with a new vintage? Offering new pricing or discounts?

  • What are your expectations?

Have clear and concise information about how much wine you made, how much you have available to sell, and how long it will be around.

  • Why should I sell your wine?

What makes it unique? Who are the competitors and why does this wine stand out? So many suppliers these days seem to know very little about their own wines, and even less about their competitors. The reps I work with are pretty knowledgeable about winemaking and wines from all over the world. If you say your California Tempranillo tastes just as good as one at a similar price from Spain you better be sure you can back it up, or the staff (though, maybe not to your face) will call BS on you.

Be succinct, don’t take more than 20-30 minutes, and make sure you are straightforward and genuine.

Finally, I’d wager that 99% of Power Point presentations are a complete waste of time. 

Franchise States Part Deux: Breaking up is REALLY Hard to Do

In the last couple of weeks, I have had a number of conversations with friends in the industry about dissolving relationships with distributors in franchise states. As I have written about before, franchise laws can be extremely tricky. I have gone through a few instances of making changes in those states so here are a few quick tips I have to offer:

1. Although there are laws in many franchise states that allow wineries some recourse, and those laws may seem cut and dried to you, the state heavily favors the side of the distributor and nearly all lawsuits show this as precedence. Do you see provisions that state that if a distributor is a late or slow/no pay, they don’t adequately market wine, or they don’t buy wine at all, then that qualifies as “just cause” for a release? Sorry. It’s hard to win on this one.

2.  If you can prove you have “just cause,” and your existing distributor agrees to a release, it’s common practice in many franchise states that in order to obtain a letter of release, you must buy out your franchise agreement. This means that the winery pays its old, under-performing distributor a year+ of gross or net profits. Even if the distributor still owes thousands of dollars!

3. How about waiting periods? In many franchise states, once a release letter is obtained, they still have 30, 60, 90+ days to sell their remaining product and the newly appointed distributor must sit on their hands and wait to sell your wines until that waiting period is up. Of course, the old distributor will offer a fire sale, which means that for months afterward, who will want to purchase them at regular wholesale prices? This can cause slow shipments, depletions and months of pain for a winery that has finally obtained a release, not to mention a frustrated and dejected newly appointed distributor sales force.

4. Have you considered lawsuits? Many distributors (particularly the big ones) in franchise states retain franchise attorneys to specifically go after wineries that have dropped them. Although you may eventually win the suit and be granted a release, consider that you may end up spending tens of thousands of dollars, and while the suit drags on, you will have months without your product being sold in that particular market. Also consider that your emails are NOT your personal property, so during a lawsuit, anything you have ever written to anyone in that franchise state becomes public record if it is included in the suit.

My biggest piece of advice: leaving distributors in franchise states is rarely easy and commonly very expensive. Do not consult other distributors in a franchise state for recommendations on what to do. Call up a qualified franchise attorney, spend the $2-5k it will likely cost to evaluate your position and possibly obtain a release letter, and do things the RIGHT WAY.

Talking About and Selling Wine You Don’t Like

When I was in college, I worked part-time in a few tasting rooms in Walla Walla. One of the things that used to bother me was when customers would come in, taste the wines, and then, completely sh*t-talk the wines in front of me.  Normally when that happened, I would stand behind the bar with an idiotic grin on my face, while inside I secretly fumed and judged the men on their fanny packs, bad loafers with white socks and comb-overs, and the women on their cheap dye jobs, bejeweled t-shirts with phrases like “How Merlot Can You Go,” and pleated-front, high-waisted mom jeans (which, I’ll admit, were totally immature and sh*tty things to think about).

Wow, this wine is really...dry!

Wow, this wine is really…dry!

I saw that attitude again when I became a supplier rep and participated in retail shop tastings. I’d pour a dry red wine for someone, and she’d scrunch up her face, stick her tongue out and emphatically say, “I don’t like that one at ALL. NO. This one is…I really don’t like that wine!”  Eventually, I learned not to take it so personally, and also to explain to people that they should try to give the wine the benefit of the doubt—tasting it in a retail setting without any food or friends around to share it with probably made a huge difference in their perception; I encouraged them to acknowledge their own tastes, but be open-minded to the idea that it’s hard to taste in a “vaccum.” I always referenced the Pepsi Challenge, wherein most tasters preferred the taste of Pepsi because it tasted sweeter and the flavors were more “obvious” right away, but many people actually chose a less sweet beverage (Coke) over the course of an entire glass or can.

While I (mostly) got over my frustrations with consumers being rude about not liking wine during tastings, what I can’t get over is how rude some people INSIDE the industry are about their competitor’s wine. I hear people constantly bashing other people’s wines, quickly jumping on their perceived flaws. I think a lot of people on the sales side of the wine business treat selling their wine as a zero-sum game and refuse to recognize value in competitor’s products.  I recently got invited to a private tasting and was unable to go, so I gave up my spots to a couple other industry people. I then saw on Facebook that the person who’d taken my spot had a status update that totally trashed the wines, AND tagged the location where the tasting had been held.  WTF?shocked

Trust me—there are wines I’ve tried where I felt personally violated (in fact, just a few months ago at a trade tasting I tried a cult wine that basically raped my tongue with sugar, alcohol and oak). But it did get me thinking about how I would sell the wines that my friend found so “awful” in the Facebook status update. After all, I have had a few occasions where, because of the vintage, the style or whatever reason, a particular wine in my portfolio was not my favorite. Yet I still had to sell them anyway.

So what I want to talk about today is how to talk about and sell wines you don’t like. And a little etiquette…

1. One of the first things I try to remember is that, particularly if the winery is independent, a whole lot of work went into making that wine. At my last job, I became good friends with the cellar and vineyard crews, and I learned that each bottle of wine I opened meant countless hours of work and sweat and maybe some tears. To diminish that seems, to me, disrespectful and callous.

2. Just because YOU don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not any good.  I went tasting with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago, and we visited a well-known winery. We began tasting through their lineup, and as we tasted their merlot, she quickly said, privately to me, of course, that she didn’t care for it. I pointed out that for the price, the wine was well balanced, had moderate tannins (that many consumers shopping in that price-point would look for), pretty fruit, the wine was clean and correct, and that the label was beautiful. She nodded in assent and said, “Yup. Hadn’t thought of it that way.”  Here are some general things to consider when selling a wine you don’t like:

  • Is it a good value for the price?
  • Does it taste like it comes from somewhere? Bonus if it tastes like where it’s from.
  • Is the wine correctly made, or does it have some flaws like EA/VA or Brettanomyces (which some people love)?
  • What are the flavors like? Fruity? Tannic? Oaky? Think about what the account’s customers might like—will it fit in with their general taste profiles?
  • Is the label nice? Because hey, it can’t hurt to have a pretty label on the back bar…
  • Is the winery or the people who own it well known (which can help pull-through), or do they have any good stories relating to the wine?

3. Don’t talk sh*t about other people’s wines because you may one day be selling them. That kind of goes without saying—even if you are competing for a placement on a wine list or shelf, I find it’s often better to stress the positive attributes of your own wine (even if you don’t like it) than to stress the negatives of someone else’s. Plus, the winery personnel are probably really nice people–would you say those things to their face?

Dude! This wine is so oaky they might as well call it Chateau 2x4! And hellooooo powdered tannin. Malo anyone? Get out the movies, it's time to watch one with all this buttered popcorn!

Dude! This wine is so oaky they might as well call it Chateau 2×4! And hellooooo Malo anyone? Get out the DVDs: it’s time to watch one with all this buttered popcorn! [Cackles] We are so hilar! Wait, they just switched to our distributor? Oh, well, crap!

4. We’re all in this together (mostly). What I love about living in Oregon is that, by and large, people in the wine business are extremely supportive of one another. However, there are a couple big wineries in the Pacific Northwest that some folks love to bag-on because they’re placed everywhere, they have a massive sales force, a fairly corporate structure and produce thousands (if not millions) of cases of wine a year. While personally they’re not always my first choice to drink (even though I can appreciate that they are generally well made), I can see that those big wineries have made inroads for the little guys—training winemakers and sales people, buying fruit from many vineyards, nationally campaigning for the region—and for those things, I am thankful.

Yep--I am a bit of a Pollyanna about wine.

Ye, I am a bit of a Pollyanna about wine. She tried to see the good in every situation (she called it “the Glad Game”), which is what I try to do with the wines I taste and sell.

And just a quick shout-out to my favorite wine writer, Jon Bonne of the SF Chronicle—I think he’s a great example of someone who can taste wines from a huge range of regions and styles and come up with positive, interesting and extremely well-written things to say about wines of all stripes. Check out his writing if you need some inspiration!

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I can remember the first time I ever had to “fire” a distributor—I was given the directive by my boss, and for a week, I sat and stewed about how I would do it. I finally wrote myself a little script, and with some resolve got my nerve to pick up the phone to call—my stomach was in my throat, my heart was beating rapidly and my mouth was dry. As the phone rang, I silently recited what I would say. The person on the end of the line answered so good-naturedly—I felt awful for what I was about to do. We exchanged some pleasantries and I awkwardly blurted out, “The reason I called is because I have some bad news. Unfortunately, we have decided we’d like to take the winery in another direction and we have decided to move to another distributor.” Of course, this is when the conversation veered off script. The person on the other end of the line started throwing out numbers and percentages about how our business had grown, and how this was a complete and total shock. As they talked, I realized that they were probably right—that they HAD done what they thought was, at the very least, a decent job, and that the winery had never approached them about the fact that we were unhappy with their performance and given a chance to try to change it.

I mostly just included this picture because it came up when I did a google image search for “awkward phone conversation.”

Even though I’m not working right now, I see my friends at wineries around the country wrapping up their fall travels, and begin looking towards the New Year, while taking stock of the progress and challenges of the previous one. This is a time where people start forecasting for their year-end meetings, and in some cases, start making plans to change distributors. The worst conversation you can possibly have in the wine business is the one where you tell a distributor you are planning to leave, and they have no idea that you were unhappy. I had a friend tell me once that when she left a distributor, it felt like a breakup—they weren’t even on speaking terms anymore.

So before you decide to make a move, please learn from my mistakes and consider the following:

Have you told them exactly what you expect?

  • No one can read minds—and even if it might be obvious to you, remember that distributors have hundreds or thousands of wines they represent so being pointedly honest and well prepared about what exactly it is that you expect is extremely important.

Have you asked them if they think your expectations are reasonable?

  • The sales you want to achieve might seem like a no-brainer to you, but distributors know their business and their market better than you do. They are your partners and so it’s important to remember that you need to listen to their side of the story and take into account their honest assessment of what can reasonably be done.

Have you visited the market regularly or supported them in any way?

  • If you haven’t been to their market, how can you even conceive of how much business they can do for you? San Francisco and Indianapolis have roughly the same population, but the markets are drastically different. Evaluating what one market might against one of a comparable size is like apples to oranges.

Do you have relationships with their Reps?

  • They can often offer valuable feedback about how your wines are received, or if they take them out regularly, if at all.

Have you gone over pricing? Have you offered any programs? Samples?

  • No one can sell your wine if no one knows what it tastes like.

Have you been consistent in your follow up?

  • People have a lot on their plates these days. Gentle reminders (maybe once every month, not daily as I have heard from some brand managers) can be effective—spreadsheets with information on depletions and shipments against expectations have proved helpful for me.

If ultimately you decide you need to make a change, I offer the following suggestions for a smooth transition:

  1. Make sure you are not breaking any franchise laws.
  2. Make sure that before you tell them you are moving, you have paid them for all bill-backs and that they do not have any outstanding invoices.
  3. You have a plan and the money to pay them for their existing inventory—will your new distributor buy it? Will you buy it back?
  4. Make sure IT IS NOT A SURPRISE. One of the people I admire greatly is a guy who has left any number of distributors over the years, but he has been able to do it with class, grace and a sense of dignity—each of the companies he has left has not been surprised—they’ve been a part of the conversation, have been given ample chance to correct or improve business, and ultimately both parties came to the table mutually agreeing that while it was sad, the winery was not a fit for them any more. In all cases, they have remained friendly years down the road. I think that’s something we should all aspire to.