Be forewarned that this is going to be a discombobulated post, verging on steam of consciousness, about life in the fast lane of wine sales womanship. Before I get started, however, I’d like to give a shout out to a friend.
Of late I’ve been really enjoying Lauren Gitlin’s blog. (I’ve put a link in the right hand sidebar; take a look!) Lauren used to be a manager and buyer at Uva wines in Williamsburg, and she left New York at the same time I did. I left for two months to wander around Europe; she left indefinitely to make cheese in Vermont. We both looked to agriculture and the countryside to sooth a malaise brought about by long term habitation in New York. Yet I imagined Lauren would come back to the infectious energy of the city after a few months of roughing it. She’s not coming back. Sigh. It shows a lot of strength to embrace a totally new career in spite of various hardships: early mornings, bone-chilling weather, and the lack of local entertainment aside from contra dancing. I admire Lauren, and I miss her. She’s someone who puts a lot of joy into drinking and talking about wine among many things. Her writing is heartfelt and hilarious … and there are sweet goat photos.
Back to the fast lane. A friend who does not use Facebook recently gently complained that she didn’t know what I’d been doing since coming back from Europe. She’d heard I’d become a schnook (the local vernacular for a wine sales person), but I hadn’t posted an update on my blog about my professional life, and thus she didn’t know what I was up to. Well, the rumors are true. I am now a wholesale seller of wine, pending my alcohol solicitor’s license, which requires a longish stint at the department of motor vehicles to obtain a New York driver’s license. Oh and I’ve got to get finger printed.
Anyway, here’s how I arrived at schnookery:
Upon deciding I needed to try my hand at something other than retail, I thought extensively about what my ideal job would be, which aspects of the wine business I enjoy most, who I am as a person, as a professional, what my skills and strengths are, what I want the next few years of my life to be like. You know: all that soul searching that precedes any deliberate major decision. As a notorious waffler without a five-year plan, I was thrilled to discover that I could answer these internally posed questions. (Big ups to the head shrinker; she helped me a lot.)
At the end of the day, I knew that I could only sell a portfolio of wine that I truly loved, that my sympathies lay more with small companies than big ones, that I wanted to be involved in the creative process of importing wine, not just the selling of it … and that hands down my favorite aspect of this job is traveling to meet farmers in Europe. As luck and circumstance would have it, I started to talk to Guilhaume Gérard of Selection Massale, a growing company with an impeccable portfolio of wine that I’d loved since Guilhaume arrived in New York about three years ago. When I went to Europe, I had a sense I’d come back a member of Selection Massale, but I didn’t want to finalize the decision because I wanted to take my sabbatical, and I wanted to work with Stéphane, and Gernot, without feeling obligated to another employer. I needed respite from the New York wine business.
Now I’m back, and the head shrinker would doubtless have suggested taking more than a couple of days to digest the experience before diving into the next thing, but the truth is that I’m absolutely excited about working for this company in various capacities. According to my palate, the wines are outstanding, and I want to shout it to the world.
In reality, this means becoming a sales person, which I have mixed feelings about having always been on the other side of the wholesale buying arrangement. I’m fortunate that at Chambers Street I dealt with some top notch sales people, and I have them in mind as I delve into this new enterprise: Mike Foulk of MFW, Ryan Looper of T. Edward Wines, Alex Miranda of David Bowler, the list goes on. I’ll probably never be a proper schnook; the expression “price point” makes me cringe, but I’ll give it my all … while trying not to sacrifice my integrity or annoy my friends, many of whom are buyers. (At Selection Massale, we like to deflect discussion of price points by wearing hot dog outfits. It’s very professional.)
Yesterday I went out for my first day of attempting to sell wine on the street. Seems as though it should be perfectly easy to carry a bag of wine around pouring tastes for people and getting their feedback, hoping they’ll order something while trying not to take it personally if they don’t. However … Here are some observations:
1) What if a wine isn’t showing well? Channeling my ex-boyfriend Clarke Boehling, a highly talented schnook for Rosenthal, I opened my bottles in the morning, tasted them, and formulated my own opinions before taking them out. I wasn’t satisfied by one, so I left it at home. However I was thrilled by two, and I couldn’t wait to share them.
2) The bag is heavy, unwieldy, and a pain in the ass.
3) Sometimes the buyer isn’t there, and then you feel silly, and you leave her some tastes, which you hope she’ll actually taste.
4) No matter how much time you spend cramming, you are going to occasionally forget important details like the size of the Domaine and the cépage. If you forget the cépage, you feel very silly.
5) When the hell do you tell the buyer the prices of the wines? When there’s a lull in conversation? While he is contemplatively sucking and mulling over the wine while scribbling or typing away?
6) As the day goes on, the bag gets heavier, though in theory as you pour tastes the bag should be getting lighter, which leaves you both fatigued and mystified. (I chose this bag to begin my career as a schnook. My mom found it in Mexico; she was the first person to suggested that I work in the wine business. She died at the dawn of my career; the bag is a bit of an homage.)
7) It’s totally different, and inherently a bit humiliating walking into a shop where you know everyone … as a schnook, even if all you intended to do was to say “hello,” you have no intention of trying to sell them anything, and in truth *you’re more likely to buy something from them than they are to buy something from you* (this happened to me yesterday when Christy Frank sold me a bottle of L’Anglore Chemin de la Brune, which officially means that I’ve bought more wine than I’ve sold as a sales rep.)
8) Am I becoming a solider? I’ve always been put off by schnooks who became soldiers for their companies, sales reps who lost all objectivity, believing that their wines are hands down God’s gift to the wine drinking world. That said, as I tasted these wines over the course of the day, I became increasingly proud of them; I believed in what was in my make-shift shook bag.
There was much more that I observed yesterday, but I’ll end with one thing I kept coming back to as I meandered around lower Manhattan with my bag. It’s something I’ve been pondering heavily for the past few months. While it’s certainly true that the majority of people in our trade don’t actually know much about the reality of making wine, it’s also true that generally the people who make wine don’t understand the reality of selling it in a busy city with a million venues and ample competition. The wine business has myriad layers, and those layers make up the rich fabric of our industry. There were certainly moments yesterday when I hearkened back to Gernot Kollmann’s cellar at Immich-Batterieberg, its stark cleanliness and dank aromas, the constant, lush burbling of the fermentations, the cellar floor damp from sterilizing tanks, sensations of inner peace as the mind floated two thousand miles away while the hands reached for a hose and a nozzle … I know I can’t become a vigneron. My work is here, spreading the gospel of good wine in one way or another.