I got a lot of positive feedback on my last post, and a few non-industry friends asked me to share their favorite story about a funny experience I had on a ride-with. The wine industry is full of tons of interesting, intelligent and wonderful people; I am lucky enough to call some of them my friends. The flipside is that it is also full of some really strange characters, and I had the (mis)fortune of working with one on what is (legendary among my friends), my weirdest ride-with of all time. Suffice it to say that I will never disclose who this was with, and I will never, ever write about anyone I work with presently (or even the fairly distant past). But this was many years ago, and I am not sure if this person is still even in the wine business. Without giving too much away, it was in a secondary market–there were one or two really big “A” accounts in this particular town, but I’d never been before because it was kind of a trek to get there. After a lot of pressuring from my distributor, and a desire on my part to establish a relationship with one big account in particular, I made the commitment to work with the rep who called on that particular area and booked my tickets.
When I landed, I had about 15 frantic text messages, voicemails and emails from the rep asking where I was. My flight was perfectly on time, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that the day was not going to turn out as well as I had hoped. Up until this point, we’d only communicated via email, and had arranged that he would pick me up at the airport and get me to the city with that big account (which was an hour or two away). I called him immediately and let him know that I was waiting outside. I explained what I looked like and what I was wearing (this is one of the weirdest conversations to have with reps you don’t know yet–it feels like a creepy blind date), and while I was talking, I became distracted by the unmuffled sound of a taped up, teal beater groaning its way around the airport pickup lane.
My stomach sank even lower when I realized that the beater car was to be my chariot for the rest of the day. I couldn’t actually open my door–it had to be opened from the inside by the driver, but when the door finally swung towards me, I was enveloped by a cloud of yellow labrador hair. The seats were pretty much upholstered with dog hair (instantly making me regret my all black sweater/pants combo). I shook the rep’s clammy hand and flinchingly got into the passenger seat, where I was greeted with slobber and panting by his dog (that he unironically called his “girlfriend”–he even teared up about it–but I decided not to press that one any further). I tried to make chit chat as we started our drive, but all conversation points led to a dead end, so instead we just listened to AM sports radio and I leaned hard against the door and stared out the window, half fearing for my life (the dashboard was lit up like a christmas tree) and half out of sheer frustration because I now had a huge pool of slime/hot condensed breath and dog hair coating my neck (don’t get me wrong–I love dogs and now have two, but this was unbearable).
After about 45 minutes, we were out in the middle of nowhere and I was happy because I thought we’d be close to our destination. Just as I started to breathe a sigh of relief, I saw that we were slowing down and turning onto a gravel road. My heart jumped into my throat (was he going to take me into the woods and kill me?!) and I squeaked, “Wait, is this where we are supposed to be going?!”
The rep gave me an exasperated sigh and told me that in fact, we were going to drop his dog/girlfriend off with his family because he didn’t feel safe having her in the car with him–highway driving and vehicles were patently unsafe, if anything were to happen to her he’d never forgive himself (What. The. F*&!? At this point, I started to lose it). I told him I’d wait in the car (and regain my composure by calling my loved ones and thanking them for all the good times), but he sighed again and told me that no, I couldn’t wait in the car because we were about to have breakfast with his family.
I was horrified–I mean, what was happening? Was this for real? But what could I do? I got out of the car and finally made it into the house after being accosted by about 8 dogs and 19 cats. As I passed through walls covered with 1970s, wood-framed family photographs and a decor scheme that looked as if a country craft fair had thrown up all over the house, I walked into the kitchen and was confronted with his entire family, in their pajamas, eating breakfast around their dining room table. I kept waiting for Ashton to jump out and be like, “You just got PUNK’D!”
His (really quite kind and affable) father asked me how I liked my eggs, and if I wanted coffee, and then I was shuffled to a seat next to his grandmother, who proceeded to keep touching my pants and sweater (but eventually stopped after someone told her, “no, no, granny, don’t touch the nice lady!”). The rest of the meal was a nightmarish blur filled with questions seemingly related to my relationship status (I’m not altogether convinced that the family knew I was a colleague and not a girlfriend), but somehow I managed to choke down my meal and stood up as soon as I’d finished, quite anxious to leave.
As we headed out, his mom kindly gave us a lunchbox generously filled with roast beef and tuna sandwiches, and a huge pile of ironed shirts (he proudly told me she still did his laundry and ironing), and we hit the road. I learned in the car that we would in fact be staying over night in the satellite market (at a Motel 6) and I nearly had a panic attack thinking about the drive back and the fact that I had nearly 24 hours more before my nightmare was over. We finally made it to our destination, where we saw a couple of accounts, sold zero point zero wine, and eventually ended up at the one good restaurant in town; the rep ended up pissing off the buyer and got his company kicked out of the account for good. The ride back was in silence (except for the AM talk radio) while the rep silently seethed about the buyer for expelling him from sales to his restaurant.
I am not sure how I could have prevented this series of events, other than insisting I get my own car, but thankfully, nothing even close has happened in the years since that very strange 24 hours. And luckily, these days, if anything gets weird, I have millions of emails, phonecalls and if all else fails, the internet and Facebook to keep me distracted. And of course, it makes a great story on how sometimes, the wine business can be anything but glamorous (although it provides endless hours of entertainment, even if only in hindsight).