Thursday, April 9, 2015

Somms and reps part 2

This continues an earlier post about the sometimes tense relationships between sommeliers and their distributor sales reps - find the first here.

Sommeliers were strongly in support of representatives knowing the basics of wine. This seems so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning except that you would be amazed how many clueless individuals there are in the business. "Distributors hire super sexy women or 'stud' male reps who have no knowledge about the wine they're trying to sell." For every sommelier that wrinkles their nose at these hires, there are dozens of other accounts tripping over themselves to do business. I can't even count the number of times I have heard, 'She doesn't know anything about wine and she brings me questionable product but I always try to order something to make sure she comes back next week.'
This tied into a few questions. There was also wide agreement about reps understanding "sensory concepts (tannin, residual sugar...)." This falls under basics of wine, to my mind. If you can't discuss and evaluate the wine on a similar level, building a business relationship will be that much harder.
Sommeliers also freely admitted they were more likely to buy from reps with a good wine education. "It shows dedication and professionalism."
One somm also mentioned knowing the products and pricing. While this also seems obvious, there were a few wholesalers (the biggest ones) in New Orleans that could not get a price right on an invoice. Time after time, the same wine arrived at different prices. When I worked retail, we had weekly meetings with our reps and managers to get the pricing correct. It goes beyond knowing the price, you have to get it right on the invoice too.

"There is nothing more irritating that a distributor rep reciting all the statistics on sugars and acids." Agreed. If you want the stats, there are usually available online. Reps that insist on regurgitating those numbers usually do so in a vain attempt to make themselves appear knowledgable.

When asked how much time they give a rep to present the answers ranged from "two minutes per wine" to 30 minutes (the most common). There is a nice shot at those reps who bring almost a case out with them hoping some will find success. The shotgun approach is universally reviled by professional buyers and adored by those hoping to get a nice buzz while "doing their job." "Forget the 'let's pick from the bag' routine. If you want to sell me something, sell me something."
I applaud this! I dreaded seeing a rep in front of me with a huge array of bottles, it could really put me behind if the buyer didn't limit the tasting. One technique (that I have witnessed) employed by large wholesalers with multiple reps working some accounts, was to try to monopolize the buyer. One rep shows up, calls the others and they try to piggy-back presentations. This can tie up a buyer for a long time and discourages competing reps from waiting to present their wines.

When asked if there were any 'rules' for sales reps, one somm responded, "Bring a great product - not the wines you are being told by higher-ups to upsell." This is perhaps the biggest hindrance to accessing great wine. Not only are reps pressed to sell certain brands within their portfolio but sometimes there are monetary incentives tied to pushing particular wines. Large production wines drive sales for wholesalers and mean lots of profits year after year. These producers want constant growth and pressure the distributors to make sure it happens. These are supposed to be the lead recommendations and take priority over other wines. Occasionally, especially during OND (October, November, December - the big sales months), the wineries will put their money where their mouth is. Cash awards are available for new placements and for overall sales of certain products.
I used to represent a couple of wineries that offered $10-$20 for new placements (meaning an account that hadn't ordered the wine in the last six months, or a year, placed an order and took delivery). The rep needed the customer to sell through a few cases in order to qualify for further bonuses on the placement. This showed the new account was actually selling the product. Sometimes sommeliers need these wines but that is a rarer and rarer occurrence. What usually happens is a months long game of reps trying to present what they need while somms wade through the dreck to get to what they need. Eventually, a mutual understanding would develop and a change of rep or somm could start the game all over again.

On a side note, reps sometimes created "new placements" by sending bottles that were never ordered and then made it such a pain in the neck to pick up the bottles for credit that the account finally just put the wine on the shelf or the wine list and sold it. Sometimes, this would result in re-orders if the wine sold through. Orders should not have been placed with the offending rep until the bottles were returned but the reps I saw employing this sleazy tactic sold brand name liquor and wine and most accounts could not easily go without the other products, so the practice continued.

Steve Heimoff wrote a piece in response to the article that prompted my posts, called "Kumbaya" wondering why we all can't just get along in the wine business. The comments are telling. Lots of reps responded but the best one was from an ex-somm who pointed out the biggest problem was the sheer number of reps. A buyer could easily fill most of a week with nothing but appointments to taste wine with different reps. That's just the reps, consider the ever-growing portfolio of wines available and there is always something new to present. The dance card fills quickly and so does the wish list.
Wines do not always get ordered even if the somm approves. Room may need to be made in the cellar and/or the list itself. Sometimes it takes weeks to make room for a wine, even one that excites the buyer. 

Good and bad examples exist in each group, it would be great to find a way to shuffle all the incompetent sales reps to the buyers who purport to be sommeliers while they look for favors and drink for free. Meanwhile the worthy, considerate, professionals could work together. Another pipe dream...or maybe pipette?

Hope you enjoyed some insight into a relationship that brings wine to you in restaurants. 

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