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The critic as therapist


Sometimes, in this job, I have to be a psychotherapist.

I had a phone call yesterday from a lady I’d never met or heard of. The conversation went something like this:

Lady: Hi, my name is Sarah. [Not her real name] I, uh, well we have a small vineyard in Napa, I make some wine, and, uh, well, I think I have to, you know, have it, send it to someone, but I’m not sure, uh, some people I know say it’s really quite good, I work our little vineyard and buy the best French barrels, but I don’t know how–I mean, no one has ever reviewed it, and I’m sure you’re very busy, but could you–do you do that? I mean, I’ve been producing wine since 2000, but in 2003, 04, 05, I could, you know, I didn’t have to work hard at selling it. Our production is very low, and [famous Napa Valley restaurant] bought some, and we had a little wine club my daughter runs, and I just didn’t have to, you know–I probably should have worked harder to sell it, but no one told me, it just seemed to sell. But now, something has changed, I’m not sure what. I know I have to do a better job. I just don’t know how. I don’t know where to start. What do you think of China? Maybe I could sell there….I just don’t know. Can I get you some wine? I know you’re very busy. I could drop it off. What should I do? I don’t have a lot of money. How many people should I send it to? I can’t keep going like this. I have to do something. I have to learn how to market my wine. I don’t like to do that. I’m not good at it. That’s why I’m calling you…

I’ve condensed what was really a very long conversation into the above monologue. As we talked, my heart was breaking. I get these calls from time to time. A winery that never played the submitting game has gotten its rear end pinched by the Recession. In their hearts, they don’t want to have to send the wine to anyone. It’s humiliating. They know, or believe, they’re making great wine. Their friends tell them so. Some sommeliers agree. Shouldn’t that be enough? But it isn’t, not these days. I had to tell this lovely, embarrassed, kindly lady the hard truth. I said:

I hear you, I really do. I understand completely. Believe me, you’re not the only one out there. Every one of your Napa friends and colleagues is going through the same thing. Some of them learned earlier than you that they have to market their wines, whether they want to or not. They got a head start. But believe me, there are people who haven’t even realized that yet. You’re ahead of them, at least, in knowing you have to change. You’ve taken the first step. I congratulate you for that. I want to help you in any way I can. If you want to submit your wine, it’s risky; my review will be what it is; I line wines up in paper bags and tell it like I see it. That’s the chance you have to take.

But if there’s anything at all I can do for you–explain how this works, give you my perspective on selling wine in this day and age, help you in any way I can–just let me know.

The lady was grateful. She’s going to drop the wine off pretty soon (she’s concerned about shocking it through a commercial shipment). Then I’ll review it. I’m hoping I can give it a great high score, because she really did touch my heart. What I meant by the “psychotherapist” remark above was that, on some deeply emotional level, the lady was reaching out to me. She wasn’t just asking for technical information on how to send a wine. She was conflicted and confused and a little ashamed about being conflicted and confused. She was coming down hard on herself, a self-judgment obviously made harder by economic realities. I can’t cure her economic realities, but in terms of her self-esteem, she needn’t feel that way. Everybody has to start someplace. Every journey begins from where you are. Then you take a step, and another one after that. That’s what I told the lady. I hope it meant something to her, more even than a high score.

  1. I know a little of her pain. I’m a General Contractor who prides himself on superior workmanship/service and managed to turn a profit 2001 through 2009, but in 2010 there simply wasn’t a market for what I do.
    It’s a helpless feeling and I hope the lady you mentioned finds a way to get her wine sold.

    We just spent Tues/Wednesday in Napa and did a tasting in a room on the western hillside that more closely resembled a (clean) frathouse garage. The owner/winemaker was happy to pour for us no charge and didn’t seem concerned about the sale. Totally chill, he just wanted to talk wine.
    Turns out mommy & daddy are bankrolling him so he isn’t facing the same pressure as your caller.
    We also noticed a lot of for sale signs on overgrown properties along the Silverado, especially between Calistoga and St. Helena, but none along Highway 29.

    Good time to be a buyer?

  2. Bill, yes it’s a good time to be a buyer — but if you need a big loan, forget it, because the banks won’t help. You need cash.

  3. Steve, you left out a really important part: The price. I’m not so sorry to see the ground shift under people who were charging $75 for ordinary wines, even if they are nice people.

  4. This quote from Michael Binstein, owner of Binny’s in Chicago speaks what she and others are up against: “I think a bottle of wine, or liquor or beer is like all commodities. It’s no different from selling soybeans, corn or wheat. It has a price, and it’s based on supply and demand, and it ebbs and flows in every market. Just as the corn, soybean or wheat broker or farmer can’t get too ideological or theological about what a bushel should cost, the same goes for our business. One of the oxymorons in our business is something called price integrity, when suppliers believe something should cost $20 or $30 and they don’t really care what the customer thinks it should cost. I think that’s a very myopic, unprogressive way of looking at business. This is not a very popular thing to say.”

  5. Patrick says:

    You’re not alone, Steve. Most of us, at some point, are presented at work with the opportunity to function partly as therapists. And I think that if we take the bait, and do it right, as it sounds like you did, it’s a good thing. Are you complaining or boasting?

  6. David Bantly says:

    Blake, price wasn’t left out. It was omitted because it wasn’t germane to the point. Steve’s point is how the producer is struggling with the changed economic environment. Your point, unfortunately, is that all of us folks making wine seek out to sell a bottle of wine for what our ego demands. In the simplest of terms, it’s a very capital intensive business. Furthermore the economics that took place occurred in 2007 (our currently released wines), when the DOW was at 14000 and your property was worth double what it is today. Similarly our land cost, financing, farming costs, tractor repair, barrels, crop yield, etc. are in that 2007 $75 bottle. And like any business, one should attempt to avoid selling at a loss. This isn’t a can of Coca-Cola were selling. It’s more complicated than that.

    Sadly, most consumers share your uninformed opinion on pricing, combine it with some vitriol and think that we’re all just egomanics in the wine business. In would imagine that in your thinking, charging $75 for a bottle of wine is nothing more than a random number formed over cocktails and has little to do with the cost of Taransaud barrels, low yields and October rain. Like this owner, we’re all struggling for answers in a very challenging and changing landscape. An over-simplification dumbs down the entire wine producing process and our raison d’être.

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