Friday, May 29, 2015

The People Behind the Paycheck


When I cut myself out of the warm, comfortable womb of Air Conditioning Marketing nearly 3 1/2 years ago, I burst into the full-time world of wine distribution naked, cold, and naive.  I had bright eyes, big ideas, and a vision to turn the wine world on its ear.

Today- a grizzled, jaded, still-occasionally naked (and often naive) veteran of the Chardonnay-soaked trenches of "the business"- I've let my my evangelism dry up like a dream deferred.  It's a little depressing, realizing that one must eventually make the luxury-segment-sales equivalent of Sophie's Choice to survive:

1.  Embrace evangelism and jockey the hip little producers, the esoteric finds, the neglected-but-delicious grape varieties, the obscurely exotic Eastern Bloc gems, and the "natural wine" screwballs.  Align with the people who are farmers and the cellar rats; folks who are toiling to turn grapes into wine, and doing so without swollen marketing budgets, PR firms, teams of consumer analysts, and healthy distribution networks.  By doing this, an individual experiences much of the mystery and intrigue of wine; transcending into a vision quest of myriad grape varieties and endless expressions of terroir...

...Also, said individual declines into abject poverty.  People don't want to buy that weird crap.  Go 'merica.


2.  Sell out and pay the bills.  Shill overpriced "big time" grapes from "big time" regions onto status-sensitive wine drinkers with money to burn.  Wines with backstories like, "after Kensington Penniesworth III sold his grandfather's monocle business for billions, his supermodel wife and he visited wine country, where they fell in love with wine.  They bought 8,000 acres from poor apple farmers to make expressive, world-class wines."  Wines that are all pomp & circumstance.  Wines with big ratings.  Wines that stroke egos.  Why?  Because even though this bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is $90 more than that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a heavier bottle, a deeper punt, and an edgier label.  It got 95 points from the Dubuque State Fair.  Also, my boss bought it at that steakhouse in Vegas with the F-you-money he won at the blackjack table when we attended the Tupperware convention in 2004, and he said it was the best, so it's the best wine ever.  My boss said.  And he has lots of money and a flawless portfolio.  He does Crossfit.  And the Europeans make terrorist wine.  Go 'merica.


Hmm.  Wasn't really going for jaded.  Came across a bit jaded.  Maybe I was, but only for hyperbolic emphasis.

It's not so bad out there.  But I did decide that I needed to make a living.  I needed plump American kids.  I needed to splurge on that occasional date night at Long John Silvers with the wife.  A pampered spouse is a happy spouse.  "Extra side of tarter sauce, hon?  No sweat.  Thank 100% New French and American Oak for 22 months."

The wine consuming public is incredibly diverse, opinionated, and stubborn.  There are the natural zealots who only want to buy wine based on the biodynamic calendar.  Conversely, there are suburban white-collar businessmen who are too stubborn to look beyond their Silver Oak-branded blinders.  And there are the retailers and restaurants who cater specifically to these- and other segments- almost exclusively.  Rarely, if ever, will one yield to the other.  They probably don't even know each other exist.  And they should probably never attend the same wine tasting together.  This dichotomy represents the polar-opposites of the wine consumer spectrum.  And I've decided I'm happy to sell to both camps.

But one does not survive in wine sales by selling a few bottles of unfiltered Poulsard here and blockbuster Mt. Veeder there.  There are dozens of splinter groups within the subculture of wine consumers.  To name a few:

Old people who selectively ignore the laws of inflation as they pertain to beverage alcohol.  I know a jug of wine cost two-bits back in the day, but a quarter-sawbuck is not an outrageous price for a bottle these days.  I mean, it's not as if the cost of the land to grow the grapes has increased in the past 50 years.  Or fuel prices, crucial to transport said wine from vineyard to (ironically) your local gas station.  Or glass.  Or corks.  Or taxes, tariffs, and duties. But please, take the case of $3.99 red.  I know its expensive, but my kids need new shoes, and you need the high percentage of formaldehyde in that bottle to preserve your liver.

Benevolent Burgundy Collectors.  Generally men of highborn stock, who went on to become doctors, lawyers, CEOs.  They were raised by families with large cellars, so they know about the good stuff, and never-once balked at the cost.  Fine Burgundies are the ultimate in rare prizes for these types, and they track down DRCs and Rousseaus as the ultimate rush... like Zaroff hunting "The Most Dangerous Game."  Yet, the Benevolent Burgundy Collectors can be generous.  They often shares their kill with the unwashed masses at wine tastings and dinners.  It's a way to give back to society.  They know you'll never be able to afford these wines.  They've already spotted your Kirkland-brand slacks.

College Guy with Overbearing Girlfriend.  He doesn't want to be at the wine tasting.  Wine is for sissies.  But all it takes is one afternoon at the frat house sucking down a few too many Natty Light, which leads to the eventual hookup with the bartender at Wet Willie's ("OMG.  She's such a skank!").  Now, he's got a joint Facebook account.  And he's going to get some culture.  Because Oprah was talking about how a man who drinks a half glass of wine a week is proven by an Oprah Show poll to be better husband material.  And she is NOT going back to that creep Bobby Masterson again.  So- buddy- at least act interested, and don't spill that Pinot you're trying to swirl onto her new Vineyard Vines loafers.  Remember:  one bottle of wine = 8.4 Natural Lights.  See you at Wet Willie's later.

Yep, I've accepted that I will happily sell to every segment.  And I will appreciate the likes and dislikes of every segment.  Because, although some of us "wine folk" internally fight every instinct to tell you what to drink, what not to drink, what you're missing, why you're wrong, et cetera, the truth is that everyone is different.  And people like different things.  I think the first major step in a life of wine appreciation is knowing when to challenge people, and knowing when to just give them what they want.  Truthfully, if I really desire for a person to like wine more, I'd rather him have something I perceive as awful in a glass than nothing at all.  He will either hate it (and decide he hates wine in general forever), like it and drink that same wine forever, or- most hopefully- use this experience as a first toe dipped into the infinity pool.

I'll take those odds.   And the money.  My Kirkland slacks have a hole in them.

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