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Office politics? Count me out!

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I generally enjoyed my four years at Jackson Family Wines, but there was one incident that left a really bad taste in my mouth. It concerned a rather bitchy salesman down in Southern California who worked for JFW’s distribution company.

A large group of us had been invited to lunch at a fancy restaurant. It’s fair to say that I was the “star guest.” The restaurant owner seemed particularly interested in meeting me; in fact, we were seated next to each other. I soon learned why.

He had a wine list, of course. For years, he’d been submitting it to Wine Spectator Magazine, in the hopes of obtaining one of their coveted Restaurant Wine List Awards, but alas, it never happened, which was enormously frustrating to him. He knew that I’d once worked for Wine Spectator, so he figured I had some insider knowledge of how to get an award.

I explained to the guy that it had been 25 years since I’d worked at Wine Spectator, and that I had no special knowledge to give him. But he wouldn’t listen. You have to know something, he insisted. He was being really pathetic, and to make matters worse, here were all these salesmen listening in. Well, I had to say something. So I told him that I could offer certain opinions I had, for whatever they were worth. The poor guy started taking notes.

I said it seemed to me that Wine Spectator generally gave Wine List Awards to two kinds of lists. One is what I call the “Manhattan Phone Book” type of list, as exemplified by Bern’s Steak House, whose cellar (which they claim is “one of the largest in the world”) contains half-a-million bottles. This kind of list, I explained, impressed Wine Spectator’s editors due to the sheer breadth and depth of its inventory.

I sense the restaurateur’s disappointment. He certainly couldn’t match Bern’s. “But there’s another kind of list that, I think, Wine Spectator likes,” I said. That kind was much smaller; it boasted quality rather than quantity. I call it a “curated list” because, while it might contain fewer than 60 different wines, each had been carefully and lovingly selected, based on the owner’s (or sommelier’s) tastes, and on the wine’s affinity for chef’s foods.

Now, this analysis seems fair to me, even at this remove in time (it all happened around 5 years ago). I felt really sorry for the guy. He was just so sad; he wanted that Award more than anything, and he’d never be happy until he got it. He wanted to go on talking, and I felt the need to console him, the way a parent might if her child got a bruise. “The important thing,” I told him, “is to create a list that you love. It’s not to try to figure out a gimmick that might get you a Wine Spectator Award. That should be a by-product of your effort, not its motivation. Work with your cooks and servers and maybe some of your top customers. Study other successful wine lists from your restaurant peers. Come up with something you love and can be proud of, that will show off your food. If you do, that’s when you might catch the attention of Wine Spectator.”

Well, the rest of that luncheon went fine, it seemed to me. A week later, my trip to Southern California had ended, and I was back at home in Oakland, when the phone rang. It was my direct supervisor at Jackson Family Wines. He’d received a letter from one of their salesmen in L.A. who complained about my treatment of the restaurateur. This restaurant, the salesman explained, was a very important client to him, and he—the salesman—felt I had thrown cold water on the restaurateur’s dreams. I should have encouraged him in the belief that he would get a Wine Spectator Award, instead of telling him how hard it was. My supervisor said this was a very serious complaint about me, and it would go into my personnel file.

I was very affronted by that. It annoyed me to no end that this salesman (and I didn’t know who he was) had gone behind my back and complained about me to my boss. Surely, if he’d felt I’d handled the situation poorly, he could have taken me aside and told me directly. But it also pissed me off, because in reviewing what I’d told the restaurateur, I thought I was being honest in conveying my views (which he’d asked for), and because I felt I really had encouraged him. My message had been, “Do the very best you can do. Make your list personal, a work of art.” What’s wrong with that?

I explained this to my boss, but he was pretty close-minded. He said, “That’s how you saw yourself. But obviously, others saw something very different.” At that point in my life, I was closing in on 70 years of age, which is when I’d always promised myself I’d retire. That incident made me decide to call it quits. I was getting sucked into some ugly office politics and backstabbing. I was in the position of the guy who’s asked, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Nothing I could say would make the slightest difference. I’ve always refused to play that game; it’s a game for losers, for bureaucrats, like that salesman, whose careers have dead-ended. They have nothing better to do than to stir up trouble, usually anonymously.

A few weeks later, I told JFW’s CEO, Rick Tigner (a man for whom I had, and still have, enormous respect) I was quitting. It’s a move I haven’t regretted for a second.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    I love the advice you gave to the restaurateur. I would have said the same kind of thing. Which is why I would never have been successful as a salesman.
    By the way, many years ago I had dinner at Bern’s while in Tampa on business. I knew about their reputation for their wine list; it’s why we went. But when presented with the wine list I was overwhelmed. And it was just 2 of us, and my co-worker didn’t drink a whole lot, so I couldn’t even pick 2 or 3 bottles to try. I had to pick just 1. The only good thing was that it was almost exclusively a steak restaur5ant, so I could totally ignore the white wines.

  2. Thanks Bob Rossi.

  3. It has been 20 years, but after the dot-com crash that resulted in so much negative impact in the wine market I was asked to speak on a panel about positioning your winery for the recovery. I went through a couple examples that proved the storm could be weathered. After the event was over, I met several people who wanted to thank me. One guy was very energized approached me and blurted out “I want you to do THAT for my wine!!”I told him if he had a wine he could bring it to my store and the staff would taste it. He brought it, we tasted and rejected it. I still remember the look of his upper lip quivering as he tried to find a shred of hope. I had to explain we don’t work magic. we recognize quality and take our cues from that. I never heard from him again.

  4. Hopefully, he recovered from the shock and figured out how to make better wine!

  5. I worked at Regal in 2005. When hired I was unaware that they had an internal candidate that had wanted my job. from day one others in the office made my life difficult. It could be a toxic place for people not i the “club”. I am sorry that you had a simiolliar experience.

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