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I love this article by Karen MacNeil in the latest issue of The Tasting Panel on “Somms and Salespeople.”

I don’t think I would particularly have cared about the topic when I was a wine critic, but now that I work for Jackson Family Wines and have hung out with sales people (I’m what they aptly call a “ridealong”), the article resonated with me. For I’ve seen, up close and personal, how “the relationship between sommeliers and the reps who sell them wine…is often fraught with tension.”

As the somms whom Karen interviewed point out, they have quite a few “pet peeves” when it comes to salespeople. I wish, though, that Karen had asked salespeople what they think of somms! From my experiences, I’ve seen somms treat salespeople with haughtiness and even dismissiveness. “Rudely,” as my southern-born mother would have said.

We all work in a very small world, those of us in the California wine business. And I’ve always believed that there should be no room for negativity or animosity. I’ve seen bad attitudes from winemakers toward wine critics, from wine critics toward winemakers, from wine writers toward each other, from small wineries toward big wineries, and so on. I’ve tried to avoid such stuff. Why can’t we all get along?

Look, somms depend on salespeople for their business. And just because a sommelier is “more educated” (an arguable point) than a wine salesperson is no reason for them to take a superior attitude. Didn’t we all learn in kindergarten to get along with each other—to be nice and polite and treat others as we would have them treat us?

Reading the somm quotes in Karen’s article, I can sympathize with some of their peeves. Certainly, people shouldn’t be late for appointments if they can help it. And I can see why a busy somm would object to a cold call—somebody stopping by who didn’t even bother to make an appointment.

I can also see why some of the somms would complain about salespeople not knowing very much about the wines they’re selling! I don’t believe that’s a problem at Jackson Family Wines, because our sales force is highly trained. But, on the other hand, it’s probably impossible for a salesperson to know as much about wine in general as a sommelier, so I would hope that somms would temper their expectations. If I have a tip for salespeople, it’s to be sensitive to the somm you’re with. If you detect that they’re not really into a conversation about the terroir of the wine you’re selling, or its acidity and sugar level, then don’t go there.

In the end, I have great sympathy and empathy for salespeople. They have what is perhaps the toughest job in the wine business. They’re road warriors who spend half their lives in cars or on planes, schlepping from account to account even when they’re tired and not feeling so good. Selling is difficult; you have to have a certain calling for it, and also have a high tolerance for rejection. And you always have to keep that smile on your face—a rule that apparently doesn’t apply to somms in the sales interaction. (But somms do have to keep that smile on the dining room floor, where they may encounter rude, supercilious people. So I’d remind somms to think of their own experiences when they’re tempted to be haughty with a salesperson.)

To all the somms out there—and I love you all—I say, be nice to your salespeople. If you have a problem with one, explain it. Try to realize that, just like you, the salesperson has a job to do. We’re all in this together, so we might as well make life as pleasant as it can be for each other.

  1. A considerable piece of the shortfall in somm grace with salespeople is time. They are over-multitasking when we salespeo people enter their establishments. Their attention is naturally fractured by their work environment, & expectations.

  2. If a somm is overtasking when it comes to sampling wines for the list, then what the hell is that somm be paid to do? Polish glasses? The character and quality of the list is directly tied to what the somm does to make that list. How far down the task list does tasting come? Or is anything from Bierzo and the Savoie good enough?

  3. Kurt Burris says:

    I have never ceased to be amazed that a whole industry centered around reservations can be so bad at keeping appointments. It’s not so much that Somms are rude to me, it’s that they tend to be flaky. Although I guess standing me up for a lunch with a winemaker is kind of rude.

  4. After 50 calls and no reply a cold call is the only option. I think somms increase their own and the restaurants workload by not responding to that first call. Then someone has to answer 49 more calls. I was a somm for 12 years so I know first hand.

  5. Mat: “After 50 calls and no reply a cold call is the only option.”

    You mean “taking a hint” isn’t an option? I’m not in the wine business, but I certainly don’t feel obligated to return the phone calls or emails of every person who wants to sell me something. Assuming there’s no prior relationship, of course — I agree it’s a different story if it’s someone you deal with regularly.

  6. Jim: There is no “hint” that they don’t like your wines, especially in SF, they are just overwhelmed. Once I get the appointment my success rate is extremely high. Give up and you are lost.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Dear Jim B and wine industry “Willy Lomans” / “Road Warriors”:

    How many times should you contact an account to elicit a meeting or an order?

    Recall these stats from a leading business periodical.


    Time-tested statistics from McGraw-Hill (former publisher of BusinessWeek magazine and other periodicals).

    Citing their “Laboratory of Advertising Performance” — a compendium of research studies on trade advertising and marketing:

    46% of salespeople call ONCE, and QUIT;
    25% call TWICE and quit;
    12% call THREE times and quit;
    Only 10% PERSIST on calling;
    80% of all sales are made after FIVE calls;
    And 10% of all salespeople “close” 80% of all sales.


  8. Bob Henry,

    Your link just goes to a index that tells me which box in the Duke University library holds a paper copy of some studies. So I have no practical way of even confirming that those studies say what you claim, let alone of evaluating how good these studies were or when they were performed (other than that they were some time between 1948 and 1991).

    And I have my suspicions about that little pithy statistic of yours, because Google shows it being tossed around all over the internet with various sources, none of which check out upon further examination. It has the air of a “drink 8 glasses of water a day” thing to me.

    But even if I assume that it’s valid, and that it still has meaning in the context of selling wine today, that just means it’s effective. It doesn’t make it any less rude.

  9. STEVE!
    I’m late to this party. I’m lousy at showing up on time.

    I worked as a sommelier for 19 years. Mat touches on perhaps the biggest point–so damned many reps. In the course of a single year, I dealt with a LOT of winery reps, salespeople, winemakers, distributors–easily a couple of hundred, and many of them several times a month. I usually tried to see almost anyone once. After that, I often knew if they had any wine that would fit my list. If they didn’t, I’d tell them, and hope they’d go away. They often didn’t.

    And, Charlie, a sommelier doesn’t just taste wine for a living. A lot of time is spent keeping the cellar organized, dealing with the constant wine deliveries, inventory, and endless phone calls. Not complaining, just saying. The tasting is the best part of the job–but there is a lot of actual work to do that can limit your time to taste.

    It’s been my experience that salespeople see sommeliers as adversaries more than the other way around. There were many reps I admired and learned from–but they were few. Too many, and you’d find them to be the biggest complainers about sommeliers, brought wines to taste the were clearly oxidized, or even corked (this happens more than you might think), or constantly asked for favors, though I certainly never owed any favors. When you run a successful wine program, and you pay your bills on time, you are in huge demand, especially in a major city. And, frankly, there is a lot of crap wine out there, and that crap wine also has someone on the streets trying to sell it. That isn’t the sommelier’s problem.

    I could write another thousand words on the subject but I won’t. MacNeil’s article, unsurprisingly, was full of loaded questions, and selected answers. Of course the sommelier/salesperson relationship is “fraught with tension.” That’s very much stating the obvious. One of them is usually human, and both of them are trying to make money, how else could it be?

  10. Ron–In any business, including mine, there is always a constant hum of “pay attention to me”. It goes with the territory. No one can taste all wines all the time. Not somms, not critics, not retailers, not ordinary punters. But wineries do need to get the word out, and whether somm or critic, we are remiss if we fail to understand that part of the equation.

    We do make choices, but I hope we make them politely and with an eye towards learning. No need to attend every coming out party for the same winery, but even though everything that I recommend comes directly from our blind tastings, I try whenever possible to give wineries their fair share of attention. Without the wineries and their good efforts, our efforts are nothing.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B,

    I understand your frustration.

    Not unlike this marketer’s lament trying to find McGraw-Hill Research’s Laboratory of Advertising Performance Report (# 5262 dating to 1986):

    Excerpt from MarketingProfs website
    (June 16, 2009):

    “Marketing in a Recession: What Do the Studies Really Tell Us?”


    By Christian Shea

    “Tell me whether you’ve heard this one: ‘All the research shows that companies that spend on marketing during a recession come out ahead of the competition as the economy rebounds.’

    [Jim, substitute in this statement: “80% of all sales are made after five calls.”]

    “I would estimate that I have heard that statement from a marketer at least once at every conference and networking event that I’ve attended in the past year. That’s a catchy buzz phrase — and if people believe it, even better. As principal of a marketing agency, I need clients to trust in the value of marketing.

    “But here’s the thing: What research? From the myriad marketers from whom I’ve heard utter those words of wisdom, I have yet to hear the name of a researcher or report related to those findings. Well, I decided to call their bluff on this one and look at ‘all the research’ that my colleagues continue to tout.

    “Upon conducting an online search, I found several articles and papers that reference studies that support the sound bite:

    “• McGraw-Hill Research. Laboratory of Advertising Performance Report 5262, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

    “Eureka! With this study in hand, I too could tell clients to ‘Spend, spend, spend!’ And, they wouldn’t have to take my word for it because now I’ve got backup. I just needed to brush up on the data.

    “Apparently, a citation for a 25-year-old research report is a lot easier to dig up than the actual report. . . .”

    Jim, I’m lucky: I was “gifted” with hard copies of these LAP Reports many, many moons ago.

    (BusinessWeek was relocating its Los Angeles office, and an ad agency research colleague and I volunteered to take copies of the reports off their hands — a better outcome than their initial inclination to throw them out. So during lunch break one day we trekked down Wilshire Blvd. and rifled through all of their filing cabinets.)

    I applaud folks’ sense of suspicion and skepticism, but I can assure you that McGraw-Hill Publishing’s fact-checkers and researchers were first-rate.

    For a sense of how they supported with research their stable of trade periodicals, click on this link:

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B,

    SEEMS YOU NEED TO CONTACT THE “National Sales Executive Association.”

    GOOGLING THE PHRASE “80% of all sales are made after five calls.”



    According to the National Sales Association:

    2% of sales are made on the 1st contact
    3% of sales are made on the 2nd contact
    5% of sales are made on the 3rd contact
    10% of sales are made on the 4th contact
    80% of sales are made on the 5th – 12th contact!!!!

    A classic study of sales calls made by Dartnell and McGraw Hill produced the following fascinating statistics:

    48% of all salespeople give up after the first contact
    25% give up after the 2nd contact
    17% give up after the 3rd or 4th contact

    This study confirmed that 80% of all sales are made only after 5 or more contacts.

    These statistics show that 90% of the salespeople give up before 80% of
    the sales will ever be made!



    Why your sales people miss out on 80% of sales opportunities
    In the B2B world, it is estimated that 90% of companies aren’t actually in a buying cycle when we first contact them.(Source: Selling is Dead)

    48% of sales people never follow up with a prospect
    25% of sales people make a second contact and stop
    12% of sales people only make three contacts and stop
    only 10% of sales people make more than three contacts
    2% of sales are made on the first contact
    3% of sales are made on the second contact
    5% of sales are made on the third contact
    10% of sales are made on the fourth contact
    80% of sales are made on the fifth to twelfth contact

    According to the National Sales Executive Association, 80% of sales are made from the 5th to the 12th contact (an average of eight contacts).

    The problem is that according to the statistics, only 52% of sales people follow up at least twice. What’s worse is that less than 25% of sales people will make a second contact. Worse still is that 12% of the sales population will make three contacts before they stop. The scary statistic for most sales managers is that less than 10% of all sales people will make more than 3 calls.



    90% of Salespeople Give Up Before 80% of the Sales Are Made

    Studies by Dartnell and McGraw Hill found:
    * 80% of all sales are made after 5 or more contacts
    * 48% of all salespeople give up after the 1st contact
    * 25% give up after the 2nd contact
    * 17% give up after the 3rd and 4th contact

    That means 90% of the salespeople give up before 80% of the sales are going to be made.

    The truth is — you can’t manage the salesperson — you must manage the sales process.

    Extraordinary results happen when you define and manage a sales process that assures 5 or more contacts will take place.

    At Number of Contacts:
    #5 ==> You’re becoming a factor in the prospect’s mind
    #6 ==> Your prospect gets to know you
    #7 ==> You’re achieving “top of the mind” awareness
    #8 ==> You’re probably the only person to make 8 contacts with this prospect.
    #9 ==> At this point, when your prospect is ready to buy, you have a 90% chance of being called.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B,

    One last deep dive before calling it a night:


    “. . . there’s something you should know: These stats are completely made up, and the National Sales Executive Association doesn’t exist.

    [Bob’s aside: when I couldn’t locate them on the Web, I too had my suspicions. Like I wrote above, suspicions are a good thing.]

    “Googling the organization or its acronym (NSEA) bears no related fruit at all. The closest we get is the National Association of Sales Professionals. If it had changed its name at some point from National Sales Executive Association, it would say that on its History of NASP page, right? It doesn’t.

    “The Council of Better Business Bureaus also shows no trace of the group. I used the IRS website’s search tools to see if I could find the organization, but still came up empty. I also searched the relevant organization and company registers in other countries in case this is an international organization. Again, no results.

    “Indeed, if there ever was an organization of this name, it has either wiped its entire footprint from the web or they existed at a time before the Internet started cataloging everything, which would make the validity of the data sketchy at best — things have moved on a little in business since the 1980s.

    . . .

    “Think about those ramifications for a moment. Entrepreneurs, owners, proprietors, and managers potentially steering their company in a new direction as a result of fake information. It makes me shudder.

    . . .

    “Of course, one of the reasons memes like this do so well is because they’re:

    “* free
    “* look official
    “* seem plausible

    “Remember, it took me five whole minutes to realize they were neither real nor came from a reputable source of studies, analysis and reports. The moral; always check your sources, regardless of how official or mind-blowing the information may be.”

    I still stand by the veracity of McGraw-Hill LAP Reports.

    And subscribe to this philosophy:

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section
    (February 10, 2012, Page A19):

    “Syntax? Logic? Why?”

    Allternate link:

    By Michael Kinsley
    Bloomberg View columnist

    “It’s been going on now for too long, right before our eyes. . . .

    “. . . [Felix Salmon, the famous financial blogger for Reuters] blog item this week about the quality of writing on the Internet. . . . his basic point is that on the Web, sheer quantity trumps quality. . . .

    “. . . all aspects of good writing — ACCURACY, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what is the difference between those two again) — are all overrated.

    “. . . Now one of our nation’s leading bloggers has confessed what we all suspected: that bad writing is inherent to the online world. . . .”

  14. Charlie,
    I have a great deal of sympathy for folks who sell wine (my alter ego the HoseMaster aside). It’s an era of shrinking wine lists, “curated” wine lists, and there are exponentially more wines to choose from than when I began as a sommelier. It’s not a “constant hum,” it’s a roaring in the ears. And sommeliers also have to deal with crazy restaurant owners and investors, crazy chefs, and the tired old image of sommelier as jerk and snob.

    It’s easy to be polite when salespeople simply do their job, and understand what the sommelier job is, too. There are fewer of those than you think. But the sommelier holds the trump card over the salesman–he’s the customer. And he (or she) is one of those “gatekeepers” the business talks about–salespeople are not.

    That said, the sommelier job is a great one, but, for the most part, a meaningless one, and not one to be so damned celebrated. An awful lot of “sommeliers” these days are glorified assistant managers, and, for a sales rep, that has to make you crazy. I could never be a wine salesman–I don’t have the patience or talent to be one. Sommeliers make terrible salespeople, in my experience. It’s harder to be a wine rep than a somm, something sommeliers should keep in mind.

  15. Chuck Hayward says:

    If you want some REAL observations about the rough and tumble world of wine sales (with heavy doses of snark), I strongly recommend reading the commentary of the great Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wine & Spirits ( and a great blog from an anonymous sales rep in the bay Area ( Great for laughs and more than enough sobering truths as well.

  16. Bob,

    Yes, you pretty much found the same articles (and bogus organizations cited as the source) that arose my suspicions.

    Are you saying that you have a hard copy of a report for the 80% statistic, or for the marketing in a recession claim, or just some McGraw-Hill reports generally? Because it sounds like a lot of people have looked in vain for the first one!

  17. Jim B,

    “Are you saying that you have a hard copy of a report for the 80% statistic, or for the marketing in a recession claim, or just some McGraw-Hill reports generally? Because it sounds like a lot of people have looked in vain for the first one!”

    I would “like” to say I have a hard copy of the “80% of all sales are made after five calls” study” in my hoary archive.

    But I can’t definitively state that.

    And those archived copies are buried in my wine locker at The Wine Vault.

    It would take a lot of digging to excavate them. And even then my efforts might “come a cropper,” as not every LAP Report was stored (and retrieved for posterity) at BusinessWeek’s Los Angeles office.

    (Aside: I just Googled LAP researcher Gordon Ross — profiled by Quirks Marketing Research Media — on LinkedIn. No luck — most likely retired by now.)

    I was first introduced to LAP Reports in 1988. And that “80%” stat has been known to me (and requoted by me) since that time period.

    So I would project that this “holy grail” LAP Report dates to the first half of the 1980s.

    Long before we cast a jaundiced eye at “pronouncements” and “assertions” publicized on the Web.

    Let me use this occasion to once again champion the reading of this timeless tome:

  18. Jim B,

    A piece of the puzzle overlooked.

    “A classic study of sales calls made by Dartnell and McGraw Hill produced the following fascinating statistics:”

    So what is Dartnell?


    Quote: “The Dartnell Corporation was one of the earliest companies to deliver easy-to-access business training for sales professionals.”

    Contact info:

    Dartnell Corporation,
    2222 Sedwick Drive, Durham, NC 27713
    Toll Free: 1-800-223-8720
    Fax: 1-800-508-2592

    Jim, I suggest sending an e-mail query to them requesting their assistance in validating the “80% stat.

    Email: customerservice [at] dartnellcorp [dot] com

    Good hunting.

    Tell us how it goes?


  19. Scott Barber says:

    Great follow up, Steve. I mentioned to Karen she should follow up with the trade side of the story. I think sommeliers do make great sales reps. Our entire sales team at Gregory Condes Wines are ex floor somms and we think having reps who have been on the other side allows us to better identify with and assist our customers. Jackson Family has a great bench of outstanding sommeliers on their team and they benefit greatly from the association. I don’t get upset when a somm comes across as frazzled as I’ve walked many miles in their shoes. I can look at a list and can quickly understand the philosophy of the restaurant/buyer and can present appropriate wines for them. Our book is built on wines we know work in restaurants because we have worked with them successfully in our own programs for years.

    Smart companies have people like Sur Lucero, Fred Dame and Guy Stout on staff to educate and mentor young sommeliers. I train many somms for exams at all levels and host a webcast designed to mentor them and help them be more successful by benefiting from the experience of some of the best in the business. By helping sommeliers to do their job better we hope to improve restaurant service and spread the excitement that brought us to the profession.

    I understand that it can be challenging for young buyers to keep up with the demands of so many people seeking your attention especially when you add wine country politics into the equation. It can sometimes take a lot of persistence and patience to rise above the din but by focusing on solutions to our customers needs we have been able to establish great relationships with sommeliers. The key is to move from being across the table in an adversarial position to being alongside the somm as a partner working to provide wines and solutions to make the guests happy and the restaurant successful.

  20. Bob Henry says:


    Just did a speed read of

    Wonderfully insightful and drolly written.

    Gerald Weisl comes off like a mensch.

    Thanks for sharing.


  21. Bob Henry says:

    W. Blake Gray’s blog titled “Most Master Sommeliers are somms in name only” [link: questioned how many Master Sommeliers actually work on the sales floor of restaurants . . . versus working off the floor as “Beverage Directors,” or for distributors selling wines, or for wineries as educators.

    My question to Scott: you transitioned from a career as an art dealer to sommelier (Stephan Pyles, The French Laundry, Rose Mansion on Turtle Creek, Meadowood), and now sell wine for Gregory Condes Wines.

    Why the move to the other side of the proverbial negotiating table?

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