The Airplane Conversation: Discussing Wine Sales with Non-Industry People

A few days ago, I took my Macbook to the Apple store because I had gotten a gray screen that just wouldn’t boot any time I tried starting my computer. A peremptory Google search told me I should be scared—that it was the “gray screen of death.” Sure enough, the Google search proved true; I lost everything on my entire hard drive, including about 6 blog entries that I have been mulling over for the last few weeks. I guess this would be a good moment to tell you I deserve a big, fat, “I told you so,” and to warn you that you should always back up your files!

One of the reasons for my absence here is that I have been traveling a lot this spring and while I have been thinking about writing, I just haven’t had the energy to update.

With all the traveling, I have been engaging in quite a bit of the airplane seatmate banter.  Here is a transcript of the general conversation:

How much wine do you spit out? NOOOOO!

Flight attendant has come around and asked me to please turn off my kindle for the second time. I quickly turn it off, ashamed, and turn my face to the window. The guy next to me, a non-descript 40-something in a Brooks Brother’s button down and gray slacks leans over so he can look out my window at our ascent.

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO, HEADING HOME TO DALLAS, OR GOING FOR FUN?

ME: NOPE—JUST HEADING OUT FOR WORK. I silently hope he doesn’t want to keep talking—we only have a few more minutes to go before I can get back into my thoroughly engrossing book about the history of Cholera. Ok, don’t want to be rude. YOU?

FELLOW PASSENGER: I’M IN THE SAME BOAT—HEADING THROUGH DALLAS TO IOWA CITY FOR A CONFERENCE. INJECTION MOLDED PARTS FOR FARM EQUIPMENT. SHOULD BE REALLY INTERESTING!

ME: NICE! Inwardly shudder. My book beckons.

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO WHAT DO YOU DO?

ME, vaguely: SALES.

FELLOW PASSENGER: ME TOO! FARM EQUIPMENT. WELL, PARTS REALLY. HOW ABOUT YOU?

ME: OH, I JUST SELL (mumbles) WINE.

FELLOW PASSENGER: REALLY? COOL! SO DO YOU WORK FOR A VINEYARD IN NAPA?

ME: NOPE—THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. (Please let that be it.)

FELLOW PASSENGER: YOU SELL TO COSTCO? I THOUGHT IT WAS TOO RAINY IN SEATTLE TO MAKE WINE?

We then have a side conversation about basic geography of the northwest, the difference between Oregon and Washington winemaking, and work out whether or not he is familiar with the wine I sell. He (depending on the type of guy he is) will either ask me if I have heard of Silver Oak, or drop in a line about how he and his wife visited a vineyard in Napa that is very exclusive, but that they were able to purchase three bottles of said wine and are still holding onto one of them, just waiting for the right moment to try it. Conversely, he may try to convince me of the quality and value in boxed wine, Two-Buck Chuck, or some other sub $4 wine. In extremely rare instances, he will not try to stump me or teach me anything, and will either know something about wine, or be very inquisitive in a friendly and humble way. This last instance almost never happens.

Now that we’ve established some basics, the conversation continues. We are well into our flight by this time and I sigh because my book is looking like a mirage in the distant future.

Can anyone here tell me–what does a winery sales rep REALLY do?

FELLOW PASSENGER: SO, DO YOU LIKE, GO AROUND TO RESTAURANTS AND GROCERY STORES ALL DAY DRINKING WINE? He looks at me to gauge whether or not I am a complete alcoholic and perhaps to check if I am, in fact, drunk at this moment (although it is 6 in the morning). IF I HAD YOUR JOB I WOULD BE DRUNK ALL THE TIME!

ME: WELL, (getting back on track) MY JOB IS SOMETHING LIKE THAT, ALTHOUGH IT’S A BIT MORE COMPLICATED. AND I USUALLY NEVER DRINK THE WINE I SELL—I JUST SPIT IT OUT AFTER TASTING—TO MAKE SURE IT’S GOOD.

I then get to hear about how he thinks it’s a waste to spit out wine (generally because he’s of the feeling that “all wine tastes good to him”), and then I have to explain why we have to be, essentially “professional wine wasters.” This usually does not go over well and he appears distressed and unsettled. Usually at this time, he becomes so agitated by the idea of me wasting wine that he can’t wrap his head around what I do for a living. I have spent years trying to figure out a one liner to explain what I do, but for the life of me I really can’t think of anything good. After this point, he becomes exasperated and can’t be bothered to spend much more time chatting with someone so wasteful, and I am allowed to go back to my book.

So what does a winery sales rep do, anyway? It really is hard to sum up. I suppose that is what makes the job so interesting. Every day is different, which is why I love it so much. It requires the ability to analyze and synthesize data, to communicate effectively and have the willingness and desire to be social and develop long-lasting business relationships. The job is so multifaceted it’s hard to even begin to describe it, but in a nutshell, this is my best stab so far: A winery sales rep is a kind of educational and sales ambassador. Their job is to manage distributors and accounts by providing comprehensive information about their wines, expectations for sales, and assist in meeting goals by visiting markets to see accounts (restaurants and retail alike) and be an extension of the winery whenever they are in the field working. How’s that for a vague answer?

What do you tell people when you meet them about your job?

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12 thoughts on “The Airplane Conversation: Discussing Wine Sales with Non-Industry People

  1. I usually deflect the question and tell them what my wife does: she is a pediatric oncologist that specializes in brain tumors. That usually gets them to clam up. If it doesn’t I add that she also runs the Palliative Care Unit (caring for terminal children) at the hospital. THAT always works…

  2. I usually tell them that I’m very fortunate to market a product that is part of our most joyful and memorable moments……

  3. When I hear something like “Let me tell you about my Opus One, Silver Oak, or Leonetti Vertical” the rest of what they say registers in my brain like the teacher in the Peanuts Cartoons “Wa Wont Wa Wa Wa Wa” The key in this situation is to nod you head a lot and say “Sure, Of Course, I see”

  4. A wise mentor told me when someone asks what line of work you are in, tell them you are a janitor and the conversation will end there.

  5. I almost always avoid revealing that I work in the wine industry. It gets people too excited.

    I start with, “I work in sales.”
    “What kind of sales?” -stranger
    “Food and beverage” -me
    “What food and beverages do you sell?” -stranger
    “Beverages” -me
    “Soda or water or juice?” -stranger
    “Alcohol” -me
    “Vodka?” -stranger
    “Wine” -me
    “OMG you sell wine!!! OMG I love wine!!! OMG what wines do you sell? I love Napa!!! And red blends!!! The Prisoner!!! Do you sell Prisoner??? Oh and Rombauer, what about Rombauer??? Their Chardonnay is amazing!!!” -stranger

    At this point I try to find a way out. There is never a good exit strategy though.

  6. Apparently I am one of those rare wine sales people that doesn’t mind talking about what I do. While not easy, the wine industry has to be one of the best industries to work in and I get a kick out of the fact that everyone thinks it sounds like the “best job ever.”

    • Chris–totally agree and most times I enjoy talking about the wine business with strangers (that is my job, after all!), but the fact that most airplane conversations follow the exact same pattern with frightening predictability, capped by the fact that many of them come at the end of a long stretch of traveling (which can be exhausting), I’m not always up for it again. Although I will say I do feel very lucky and always try to be as polite and forthcoming as I can, if the conversation goes on for any length.

  7. Get over yourself. We are the luckiest people on the planet to work in an industry that most everyone outside MADD thinks is a gas! Because it is! Try answering “I’m a CPA and audtor” or “I work for the IRS” OR “I work at a winery” Three guesses which answer gets total strangers engaged, enthused and sharing – I hope I am never so jaded that I am bothered by that kind of reaction. When I do, I will move on to accounting for farm equipment parts and leave the wine business to someone who cares.

  8. Pingback: How Do I Get Your Job? | Buy My Wine!

  9. As one of just-drinkers wine writers points out in a direct quote from Jago of TESCO, “What we don’t do enough of is talk about the people behind the product and the passion and creativity…I think the wine trade is better at talking to each other than consumers.” In my years of teaching wine to university students and other consumers, and attending wine trade events in many countries, I would say that is so true. Only a few wine makers like Dr.Loosen, Charles Osbourne really can whip up a wine frenzy with a crowd of wine loving consumers.

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