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.