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I’m the new “go with” wine guy



I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.

What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.

One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.

But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.

I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.

  1. In my day, it was called “ride with.” Fun part of the business, huh? So much to learn and see. I used to love seeing what was on someone’s shelves. Get the person to tell you his favorite wine of all time. Ice breaker…

  2. Patrick Frank says:

    Good for you, Steve. I admire you for doing this. And, yes, you were always very up-front about how you tasted, and the issues thereby arising in the life of a Pro Taster (which also earns my respect). But your publishers weren’t too happy about all that openness, were they?

  3. Steve,

    Just so you sound like you’ve been around this block before, it’s called a “ride-with”. Jo is correct.

  4. Josh Kimball says:

    Fun post Steve. I’ve been selling wine for 10 years now, and can honestly say that I’ve sold more wine based on the non-wine conversations I’ve had with buyers. Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality Group always preaches that his staff should Always Be Connecting Dots (ABCD) with their clientele to find common ground/interest to increase sales. This has stuck with me over the years, and I feel buyers find more sincerity in your approach when you are more interested with where they are from (or what they studied in college) rather than discussing the open slots in their domestic Grenache inventory.

  5. Yes, Jo would know. I swear she knows everything about the industry, and has been everywhere and done everything connected with it.

    I, too, think the sales part would be very interesting. I love meeting and talking with different people here and there, and learning their stories.

  6. Having done everything from waiter, bartender, store merchandiser, salesman, manager, and winemaker, I can honestly say work withs (-Jo D-) are the hardest. I spend about 130 days on the road, and every visit only affords me 15-20 minutes to make the connection and make a sale. Sometimes its easy, but sometimes is nearly impossible. Salespeople have have history with these buys which can go back 20 years, you get 3 minutes before you start presenting.

    In addition, the rejection rate can be heartbreaking, no matter how good your wine is. Showing 5 wines to each of 6-8 customers in a day = 30-40 presentations/day. Even if EVERYONE buys one wine (yeah, right), you’re still batting .125-.166. Do that 4 times/ week for 20 weeks year and try to stay positive!

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