Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Somms and Reps

Two groups of people need one another to survive. That does not mean they naturally get along. In fact, quite the opposite can be true because they are so integral to each other's world.
Karen MacNeil (The Wine Bible, among others), interviewed a handful of sommeliers around the country about their relationships with their sales representatives. While my career in wine has not included a stint running a wine program, working for more than a decade as an outside sales rep more than qualifies me to discuss the complaints lodged in the article. (You can read the entire article here. Just click to zoom in and click again to zoom out, if needed.)
Note: I will use the term buyer and sommelier (or somm) interchangeably here so you don't tire of one word or the other

There is nothing outrageous or unreasonable in their complaints. Reps often act unprofessionally and discourteously but sommeliers are far from infallible.
The top two pet peeves:
"Showing up unannounced and often in the middle of service...Tardiness to a scheduled appointment." I wholeheartedly agree with the complaint about showing up in the middle of service. I appeared often at the end of my day (into their dinner service) but only to drop off a few opened sample bottles. I never expected anyone to stop what they were doing to deal with me once service was underway. The rest of the top complaints are a bit more nebulous.
Sometimes showing up unannounced was the only way to get in front of a buyer. Some sommeliers would tell you straight to your face they had no interest in wine X or even in doing business with your company. In those instances, professionalism dictated you stay in touch from time to time, (dropping off a new price list was a great way to do this). However, some buyers would just duck phone calls from reps they didn't want to see. I have witnessed this countless times. If a rep shows up unannounced under these conditions, it is the somm's fault.
Tardiness is a big deal and a great frustration on both sides of the relationship. Reps try to fill a day with appointments, especially with sample bottles in tow. Some meetings can take a few minutes and some can last for an hour or more. I have had numerous buyers tell me, upon arrival, that they want to discuss re-doing portions of the list. I could put some off by getting as much information as I could and then putting together a formal presentation that night so they could look at it before the end of their workday. That kept me on schedule. If the discussion needed to be done then and there, my day could be a total loss if the rest of my visits had no flexibility. While it is certainly not the fault of the sommelier in the 11am time slot if the 10:30am keeps me for an hour, another somm still created the problem.
Also mentioned here was "aggressive follow-up." See the example above of somms not responding. It is a simple matter: you taste a wine and listen to the presentation, you decide if the wine is for you/your restaurant, you decline the wine or order it or have a basic timeframe where it will get ordered. Simple. Again, a professional rep will follow-up to get the results of the meeting, especially if they had a supplier with them (ride-along) because that person needs to know as well. Too many buyers try to be nice, saying pleasant things and giving the impression that business will follow, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As a rep, I could often tell the difference, but I am not clairvoyant and need an answer to pass along. Even if the answer is a dismissive "No," the rep has an answer and aggressive follow-up is no longer needed. I sympathize and empathize with not having enough time but if you are being asked about a meeting you agreed to have then you owe the participants a response. If there is no response, then repeated, multi-channel, "aggressive" follow-up is likely to happen.
In defense of sommeliers, direct responses of "No" and "Not interested" are all too often ignored by sales reps. They continue to return and pester the buyer after receiving an answer the rep, and the rep's bosses, didn't like. My patience would wear thin, quickly. Reps are within their rights to ascertain the reason(s) behind the refusal of a proposed wine and somms should be ready to explain themselves. This can benefit both parties if there is a meaningful exchange of information here and the rep actually pays attention and gears future tastings accordingly.
It's a fine line between accepting a rejection quietly and being an advocate for the wine, i.e. being a salesperson. There are occasions when buyers reject wines simply because they don't like them. However, making a case for the wine and where it might fit on the list is a sales rep's job. Be prepared, make your case and if there is still no interest from the sommelier, let it go. You can always revisit the wine at a later date. Reps that push hard often succeed in the short term with the desired placement but hurt their long-term prospects with the account because the buyer may offer them less opportunities in the future, wanting to avoid the "hard-sell."
I believe the model sales rep should be familiar with the wine list (and menu) and able to discuss it (them), in depth, with the sommelier. There was, however, little consensus from the somms interviewed about whether reps should know the food/menu of the restaurant with one specific quote from a sommelier, "Knowing the menu is my job." I certainly applaud this approach, the sommelier should be the ultimate connection between the menu and the wine list. However, any rep that doesn't understand the menu of a restaurant can not possibly understand their needs and will never be valuable to the business. Reps should strive to tailor their presentations to the customer and not just load up a bag full of wine hoping some will be hits. This is the difference between a run of the mill rep who does business and a partner who can grow business.

 I will continue breaking down this article and sharing my perspective in the next post, stay tuned.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Can We Make Wine Descriptions Useful?

Do you read flowery descriptions of wine anymore? Did you ever? Did you feel any closer to understanding the wine being described? Do descriptions like these help or hinder?
"...with honeyed overtones to the flavors of quince paste, tarte Tatin and juicy grapefruit...lots of anise, bergamot, floral, spiced almond and smoke notes."
"Shows the sweet and smoky character of burning vine clippings...Kirsch, grilled plum, sanguine and espresso notes mix with hints of lavender, marjoram and sage..."
The above are both from Wine Spectator but they are hardly the worst offenders of wine writers. [For more of these, and my take on them, check out my series. Simply search Preposterous Pundit Pontifications. If that sounds like work, some samples can be found here and here.]

It is not a new problem in the wine world. Or the music world. Can you know what an album sounds like without actually listening? No, but there are ways to communicate more effectively. 
I have long believed that describing wine in complicated, overly specific detail not only confuses many readers (including yours truly) but is actually a disservice. Implied snobbery with esoteric, even bizarre, terms can discourage would-be enthusiasts from learning about wine. 
My take was always to use general terms like: red or black fruit, tart citrus or juicier fruit, for example. If Bing cherry leaps to mind, great, feel free to share, but broader strokes will resonate with more people. Of course, that kind of reading can get repetitive, so publications with hundreds of reviews encourage different language to communicate a similar message.
Over the years I have employed myriad other ways to convey a wine's style. Comparing them to books, Hemingway vs. Faulkner, or music, Bob Dylan vs. Steve Winwood, or food or weather or actors...you get the idea.
Universal concepts like this might still confuse some people when presented in a three of four sentence description. However, with a little more space these descriptors can really make a wine come alive for a reader even without a glass in front of them. Dylan's voice is rough, and not for everyone, but can be very rewarding to those who like it. Steve Winwood's vocal take is smooth and pretty and much more universally appealing, but some say his music is a bit simple. 
Of course, if you write too much then you run the risk of no one reading it because it's more long form...like this. 
Oh well, the wine world rarely presents us with perfect answers...it's all part of the fun.