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In the wine business, as elsewhere, relationships matter

25 comments

I was raised to take relationships personally, including working relationships. People have criticized me for sometimes taking things too personally, but what the heck, it’s the way I am. It’s easy to make me happy — just be nice to me — and it’s easy to make me miserable: be mean. But if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you, and then it will be a better world.

What put me in this reflective frame of mind is that I got an email from the P.R. representative of a certain Napa Valley winery whose name I won’t mention, except to say that they were made famous when a bottle of their wine was featured in a Hollywood movie. The P.R. firm had just taken over the account and they wanted to know if I would write about the winery, which the email described as a “cult” winery no fewer than three times (just in case that fact escaped my attention).

Well, I’m certainly aware of the winery. I wrote about them in Wine Spectator when I used to work there — not a shabby place for a brand new winery to get a write-up. But you know what? When I left the Spectator to go to work for Wine Enthusiast, the winery owner never again contacted me, never returned a phone call, never invited me up to visit, never sent me a review bottle to sample. It was like I’d ceased to exist. Sure, it bothered me, to an extent, but I know how the game is played. All during the 1990s and 2000s, the winery didn’t need articles or reviews from me. Business was booming; they really had achieved cult status. Fine. I had more than enough fish to fry without losing any sleep over something like that.

Fast forward to Feb. 24, 2009, and here’s that incoming email basically begging me to show the winery a little love. But they’re gonna have to get their lovin’ someplace else, cuz it ain’t comin’ from me. (Why am I suddenly starting to talk like a blues singer?)

Is that unprofessional behavior on my part? Probably. Hey, I never said I was the most mature guy. I’m just a helluva good wine writer who’s made a modest success of things. But I’m still human, still Steve, and I feel like if you give me the finger for the better part of 20 years, then please don’t come to me for salvation just because the economy is tanking and you’re not selling those $100 bottles like you used to.

Like I said, relationships matter.

  1. Thom Calabrese says:

    Bravo for you Steve! It is all about relationships. When I was in the business I was always amazed at the customers that just saw things from their prospective. They didn’t look at things from a win win, they just looked at it from what (a price,sample, my time, what have you) would give them.
    People need to realize that in business(and life) it’s always better to have everyone leave the table feeling like they got a good deal.
    What I couldn’t understand, was how many people were rude, arrogant, and unless they wanted something, couldn’t be bothered.
    But I came in to contact with hundreds of potential customers (and I was one myself) and people would ask me all the time about where to by wine or eat.
    So they didn’t do themselves any favors there.
    I don’t think you are being petty or sensitive. I think you are just using your valuable and energy where it is appreciated.

  2. Your feelings make sense, but what about the dozens of “cult” wineries that simply ignored you over the years? You are essentially punishing this one for coming back to you, but all ther others who never reached out in the past at all get a pass.

    This is a hard time for everyone, wineries included. Maybe they finally have a PR person who gets it, and is trying to do things right, even if they did things wrong in the past.

    And what of the wine? The wine has no idea how its makers have been treating you. So maybe that should be sufficient motivation to give the wine(ry) a second chance.

  3. Your inside wine information is always insightful but it is your honesty and passion that makes your wine blog a great read.

  4. Karma works in mysterious ways…

  5. Elaine Smith says:

    Steve, with respectful trepidation, I have to be the devil’s advocate here and point out that you are a journalist with a duty to cover the wine world. Whether a winery has been your friend or not, by being in touch or sending you wine, should take a back seat to its relevance to your readers and its place in the wine world. If you don’t think they are relevant, fine, but making it personal is really a disservice to the field of wine writing. Your “nice to me” sentence sounds like back scratching, and the field suffers from too much of that already.
    Thanks for considering this alternative view.
    Cheers!

  6. Steve, I read you regularly, but I have never commented. Regardless of the specific situation you note here, I think this post is one of the most important and revealing you have done because the general concept isn’t fully understood in business. In fact, it’s rarely acknowledged when it comes to media relations. The media is not dispensable and to be used like a yo-yo on an as-need basis. True success comes from creating long lasting bonds with all your partners. Too often companies look at the media with tunnel vision and forget about the emotions you express here. Constant communications, and more importantly, developing credibility and trust with the media is not an option, it’s the only way to achieve your marketing goals.

    “Little kindness and courtesies are so important. In relationships, the little things are the big things.” – Stephen R. Covey

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    You are doing the right thing. It supports the personal nature and relationship basis of the wine business that permeates from the critic to the customer to the reseller to the wholesaler and to the winery. I have found that these relationships are not shallow, rather we form lifelong friendships. We support one another good times and bad.

    An example. Though I am not the best example of adhering to “the code, if asked, I make a 800 mile roundtrip to appear at a long forgotten wine writer’s wine class just to continue to support that individual in his old age. To be honest, I don’t really enjoy it or get anything out of it, except the warm feeling that I am doing what the industry has always done. He supported me in my youth. Now it’s my turn.

    That’s why I know I can count on you, Steve, in my old age.

  8. Yes, Morton, but who can I count on in mine?

  9. Elaine, thanks for your comments. A few remarks: 1, with 4000 wineries doing business in California, I have more than enough wines to review. No one could possibly taste them all, which means that some wines necessarily go untasted by me. Therefore I must pick and choose, and I choose not to review the wines from the winery I wrote about. 2, regarding the “nice to me” sentence and “back scratching,” that’s not what I meant at all. Nothing and no one can influence my scores/reviews. If a wine sucks I say so and if it’s great I say so regardless of whether I like the person who made it. What I meant by “nice” is that 99.9% of California wineries are professional and respectful and play well with others. It’s all about common courtesy. There are a few discourteous souls in the wine industry (as there are in other industries) who seem to be full of themselves, and it’s not my task to enable them.

  10. Thanks, Jose, for your wise observations.

  11. Steve, I applaud your honesty.

    To Elaine I would say, this is not medicine this is wine. Absolute acceptance and impartiality are not a job requirement, nor should they be. Wine is best experienced in context. “Cult winery X’ has made an active choice as to the context in which Steve will now view their wines.

    To Tish I would say, these ARE tough times and the wineries able to emerge from those tough times will be those that have built strong and meaningful relationships with both customers and the media. Those that exist simply for the sake of growing a business or gaining publicity will be seen for what they are and quickly dissolve as we all tighten our belts and fall back on trusted friends and allies. It’s only fair for Steve to decide who those are for him personally.

    It seems clear that “cult winery X” is just using Steve for publicity during a rough patch, and my attitude is, “two can play at that game”. I’m sure there are plenty of “cult wineries” that love making great wine, sharing it with the world, and have included Steve over the years as they have risen to prominence. Time is short and wineries are many, I hope that Steve will continue to focus on those that “do it right”.

    After all, we provide a luxury good to the wealthiest people in the world. “Cult winery X” should consider itself lucky that wine critics even exist to help them peddle their over-priced swill. Don’t get me wrong, I love wine. But in an industry filled with egos and arrogance, I think we need to keep things in perspective. Shouldn’t it be a minimum requirement to CONSISTENTLY play nice?

  12. Rusty Eddy says:

    Steve:

    I agree with you entirely. Come on people, if you’ve been in the wine industry for any length of time you must realize that this incestuous business runs on relationships, from media and PR people to salespeople and accounts. Burning a bridge should not be an option.

    And by the way, why should anyone care that there’s another cult winery out there? If the winery doesn’t have a good story to tell (aside from the fact that the wine costs a lot of money), it doesn’t matter how much the bottle costs.

  13. Good for you, Steve! Nobody ever told me I was entitled to anything, and those who act as if they are get no love from me.

    Steven Mirassou

  14. steve Says:

    February 25th, 2009 at 10:43 am
    Yes, Morton, but who can I count on in mine?

    UMMMMM…..your new President?

  15. OUR new President. Not just mine.

  16. Spending well over 40 years in the wine business from a wholesale sales perspective, relationships mean a lot. Stories such as yours are not uncommon. I applaud you for your stance. If I were in your shoes I might be tempted to test this winery to see what their response to your complaint might be. But that’s just the devil in me.

  17. Steve,

    I am certainly a believer not only in Karma but in ‘pay it forward’ approaches to things. I feel that you are justified for not writing about them . . . but then again, you truly are in this case (-:

    The other thing that would be interesting to know is whether their attitude changed only with you – or with every other writer as well. Not that it matters . . . this would just be good to know.

    At the end of the day, you should treat everyone and anyone you know with the greatest deal of respect and courtesy possible – and this ESPECIALLY is true with business relationships . . . Who knows where you or I or anyone else in this industry will be tomorrow – and it’s always good to know that you are on ‘good footing’ with everyone.

    Cheers!

  18. Larry Chandler says:

    This reminds me of something similar in an unrelated area. Many years ago in New York, the theater critic, Clive Barnes, writing in the the New York Times, could make or break a show. Everyone would read him to decide whether or not to buy tickets. Well, he was fired by the NY Times, and hired soon after by the NY Post. Same man, same opinions, but no one now cared what he had to say. Even when quoted in full page ads, or when the NY Post took an ad in the Times reprinting his NY Post review, he had no impact whatsoever on sales.

    So apparently where a review is posted is everything, rather than the review itself.

    You could be right to ignore this winery’s entreaties now, or perhaps not. But a lot of wineries are in trouble. I’ve even lately gotten email from wine clubs I dropped ten years ago.

  19. Larry, a fascinating observation on the vagaries of our times. Thanks.

  20. Well done, Steve, and they deserve what they didn’t get…namely a review from you. “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.” If I didn’t learn that in 2nd grade, I learned it in the 1st. Funny thing happened last week, in a different vein, but it applies.

    While peddling our first bottling to restaurants and markets, I had been met with good humor and cheer. Then I hit my first wine bar. My wife and I were intentionally ignored, one of the two owners finally came over and pointed out I should have brought my own corkscrew, snidley questioned “Who did your label”, and then mentioned they didn’t buy anything for less than 33% off. I asked for a decanter, which brought looks of “Ye gads, this guy is a leper”.

    Our Paso blend needs a minimum of 20 minutes decanting, so we waited while it opened up. Finally the 2nd owner came over and said “Hmm… Nice”. Then she left. Nothing further was said, until we got up to leave and I asked, “Would you all be kind enough to dispose of this wine for us?” Both responded “Yes” with glee, then returned to other chores. Mind you, this was at a time designated for wine tasting of new releases. I did ask if they would be kind enough to let me know what the comments were of patrons who tried our wine. Two days went by with no phone call, so I called them.

    I asked if anyone had tried our Rhone/Bordeaux blend. “Yes, was the reply, and one man drank flights of it all nite, and asked to buy 6 bottles.”
    Stunned, I hung up the phone, delivered the half case, and asked for cash/check payment. “Now?” was the response. I nodded, she got her checkbook, and I walked out, never to return.

    In point of fact, had these owners even been moderately pleasant, they would have gained a very loyal customer. As it is, I will never darken their doorway again, and if I can’t sell another bottle of wine anywhere else but there, I would never take another to their establishment. Some people get it…some don’t. This life is too precious to have to deal with people such as this, and I’m too old. The majority of folks out there are good people… really good people. But the lurks who inhabit this earth, like your “friends” who suddenly “needed” you, and the two who did their best to insult us, ultimately get what they deserve. The pendulum always swings back…and in your case it did, with good measure. In my case, I will be patient and the pendulum theory will ultimately be proven once again. I don’t know where or when, but it will. “You done good”, and there is no need to have even the slightest feeling of remorse. Some of my Texas buds would say, “They had it coming, and that’s a big 10-4 Texas howdy on that.” “Thems” is my sentiments, too.

  21. Steve Amaya says:

    The wine biz is full of nice wonderful people.I am sure there are plenty of bad apples though like in any other industry. I farm many crops other than grapes and let me tell you it’s
    easy to be gracious when everything is going right,but I was always taught to treat people on a value for value basisand that thinking has served me well through the years.No sense in throwing away good money for bad. From one Steve to another, I am with you. Keep up the good work!

  22. I am sometimes amazed how relationships matter and karma catches up with you.

    Sitting at a party with a distributor in town for the big Napa Auction last week, I was amazed at the stories of people who had burned him when times were good looking to reconnect when times are bad.

  23. Sara Smart says:

    Just a thought. I work in the PR business (not in wine however). We are often getting emails to the effect of “stop emailing me” and some people get quite offended when they feel we are flooding their mail boxes. Therefore, if someone left their position as a journalist, I would feel like I was badgering them to track them down and continue mailing PR agendas to them. So I guess I would just like to portray another point of view- maybe they didn’t want to annoy you.

  24. Sara: Umm, actually, no. Not in this case.

  25. Very well said, maintaining relationships with people can turn out to be beneficial in the future when you least expect it. It is always a good idea to treat your co-workers and client with respect because they can be your best advertising if they are satisfied with your product.

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