Friday, July 30, 2010

I love You But....Well, Your Wines Kind Of Suck

Years ago we had a buyer at the store, a funny guy with an amazing gift for remembering all the shit I tend to forget; where the vineyard is, who the winemaker is, (now in my defense in my department this is almost always a family member so not that important to make stick…friggin’ name is there on the label and stuff) the exact percentage on each and every blended wine he had. So the thing was, as charming and talented as this cat was…he was a total dick. Rude to customers and down-right hateful to sales reps and winery representatives. It was gruesome to watch, standing by as he would almost gleefully tell a winemaker that his or her wines were no good, or worse. I never got that and I spent a good chunk of the time he was with us playing cheerleader in an effort to soothe hurt feelings and calm the waters. It was ugly, that part of him was truly ugly and I just never understood why he got off on being such a tool. I know he was not the only one, there seems or seemed, (sounds like things have changed a bit) to be a big chunk of wine buyers that think it’s cool to be shitty to people….

Last month I started writing a post about a perfect day of tasting. Not sure what distracted me from finishing it other than it was probably too short and maybe just a tad too Pollyanna for this place. I had spent the afternoon tasting with my Kermit Lynch rep Kate. Now to start off I adore running through just about all of Kermit’s wines, that is not to say I love them all but even the wines I don’t like are at the very least interesting, well made and have character. So I am always open to meeting with Kate, wines that make me think and a sales rep that is not only wicked cool but…well she’s just sexy as hell. Cool vintage look, mysterious blue stripe tattoo running down her arm, a sweet shyness that draws you close and just when you are feeling almost protective of her she hits you with a fiercely snarky swipe or remarkably astute comment about the wine we are tasting. She knows her shit, has a palate very similar to mine and she is just a pleasure to be around. Spending an hour or two tasting through Kermit’s new releases while chatting with a cat as cool as Kate, well that is a pretty damn fine afternoon spent. The conversation is stimulating and the wines are the kind that inspire, inspire me to think of my customers, think of the other wines I have in the same category and best of all….they inspire me to swallow.

The same is true of my appointments with Chuck, my Beaune Imports rep. The wines are thrilling, always vibrant, affordable (sometimes where the Kermit wines break my heart….but less so as of late) speak to my inner geek that loves wines that taste like where they came from and to top it off Chuck feels like family. I walk away from those appointments all bubbly and reminded why I do what I do, the love of wine and people.

There are however the times when it works the other way. When someone just rubs me the wrong way and I have to make a very concerted effort to not hold that against the wines. I get the smug jackholes that try to “explain” French wine to me, always with an exaggerated over pronunciation of the French names, often with a pinched up face and arched eyebrows over the eyes that are locked on me trying to gauge whether or not I am impressed….I am not. I get the guys that know dick about French wines but try and fake it by responding to my not wanting to taste a late picked Vouvray from a terrible vintage by saying, “2003 was the best vintage in the Loire Valley in twenty years. What your customers don’t like good wine?” shit like that is an automatic fail in the trustworthy department and will likely create a roadblock in getting another appointment for a bit. I get the over talkers, the ones that yammer away at me while I am trying to evaluate the wine in my glass, not a deal breaker but plenty annoying, as are the “Tell me what you think of this wine. What flavors are you getting from it?” dudes. Look I’m not a buddy and we are not sharing a bottle here, I’m working and have neither the time nor the desire to share my feelings with you. May sound harsh but I need to focus on the wines not geek out with some dude I wouldn’t likely be sharing a bottle with anyway. In these situations I struggle but do my best to ignore the sand-in-the-underpants feeling and just taste the wines, see if they have a place in the store and move on. Not my favorite kind of appointment but not the worst.

The worst is when I absolutely love the sales rep but deplore their wines. Oh man is that a heartbreaker. The wine business is kind of a industry full of recycled humans; people that jump from company to company either by choice or necessity and they show up with their new business cards and catalogs wanting to show their old friend their new wines…..not always a good thing. Had one of these the other day and as a woman that rarely feels uncomfortable sitting down to a tasting appointment this one, well this one had me futzing about and delaying planting my chunky ass down in that chair for as long as I possibly could.

I first met Laurent about two years ago when he was working for a tiny little importer based in the Bay Area. I had been working with the owner who would fly down once every couple months and meet with me but he had hired Laurent to work the Southern California market. My first meeting went extremely well, I already knew and liked the wines and he was, (still is) um, well he’s gorgeous. We got along like we had known each other for years, he has that French dude thing, the thing that finds me shocking but funny and I loved tasting his little Rhone wines while cracking his ass up. It was always a bummer for the two of us when we had run through the day’s lineup and had to say goodbye. Well as I mentioned the book he was selling was tiny, too tiny and Laurent simply could not make a living selling just those wines so he took on another book to supplement his income…..well Tiny Importer was not having it so they let him go. Really too bad but I can see both sides of that coin; the importer wanting him to focus solely on his portfolio and Laurent not having enough wine to sell in order to make a living. A sad but not at all uncommon thing in this business and one of the really difficult things for people like me in that situation is when the new book…..well when it really sucks.

Laurent is a Frenchman so when he brought me a catalog from the new company he was working for I could not help but cringe. “Um, what do you think of the French wines in this book?” I asked my dear friend and was impressed when he was willing to admit, “Not too much” but he assured me he was going to work with the importer on getting better French wines and would not waste my time until that started happening. The new book had wines from all over so I still got to see my adorable French buddy from time to time when he would visit some of the other buyers at The Wine Country. We set up two appointments and as it had always been with that book I hated all the wines. They were just the worst kind of French wines; boring, dirty, thin and lacking anything at all compelling. There are a billion of these kind of French portfolios, unscrupulous Frenchmen that prey on peoples lack of experience when it comes to French wines. They sell them to rinky dink liquor stores and use their contacts in French restaurants to dump this insipid crap on unsuspecting diners that assume a French restaurant is going to have good French wines. That shit right there ends up making my job just that much harder as I have to try and convince people that not all French wines taste like watered down dirt. Grumble…..

It had been awhile since my last meeting with Laurent so I agreed to meet with him but was fearful that I would have to look my friend in the face and reject him once again. As sat there nervously he poured me the first wine, a little stainless Chardonnay from the South of France. I picked up the glass feeling much like you do when you have to touch your car door during the Santa Ana winds, knowing you are going to get that, “Don’t touch that” shock. I was instantly soothed when I smelled a fresh blast of clean fruit, my shoulders softened and I gave Laurent a little grin before bringing the wine to my lips. Took a sip and honestly found the wine to be pretty nice, nothing super exciting but pleasant enough….just as a little Chardonnay from Languedoc should be. Wrote a few notes and then asked him the price….right back to being discouraged. “It’s $12.00 but there is a 10% discount when you buy five cases” he told me. I adore him but I could not help but look at him as if he had just taken a poo on the tasting room floor. I have Burgundies that retail for close to that price, Petit Chablis and wines from the Maconnais, wines far superior in pedigree and in flavor…what the hell were they thinking?

I mentioned that it seemed a little steep for the region and honestly, for what was in the bottle, “If it retailed for $10.00 then I could see it but I can’t expect my customers to pay like $15.00 for a VdP Chard” I said in as soft and friendly tone as I could muster. “Well, we have been doing really well with it” he replied in a tone that let me know that he was less than pleased with me. As we tasted through the rest of the wines he brought I could see why, that little wine was not only the best of the bunch it was by far the least expensive. All the wines were aromatically stunted, astonishingly thin and boring as hell. Not a chance, there was not a chance I would bring any of them in even if they retailed for ten dollars, they were that bad and friendship or not I was not going to subject my customers to what would ultimately be disappointment. Laurent might be cute but no one is cute enough for me to lower my standards for.

This business is very much about relationships, between supplier, importers, buyers and most importantly for us, the consumer. As important as I think it is to always be supportive and pleasant with our wholesalers it is most important for me to be faithful to the people that walk in the front door of The Wine Country and trust that we have found the most interesting and delicious wines in whatever price point they are willing and comfortable to spend. If I let my buddy buddy relationships dictate my purchasing rather than my palate then I am going to lose the only thing that makes our store different than any liquor store or box store….our credibility, just cannot think of any friendship that is worth that.


John M. Kelly said...

Jeez when I saw the title I thought yo were referring to me. Yeah - just picked up a couple of just OK reviews and feeling a little "oh well" about the whole thing.

I tend to have friends, and then business "friends" - who frankly I expect to stab me in the back if the dollars swing that way. As I might them. I rarely mix business with real friendship, unless there is an explicit statement of "I'm only doing this because we are friends and we're both OK with that, right?" Because leaving that unspoken turns into the elephant in the room forever.

Your French friend knows the wines he is repping suck. But he's got to try, and his boss probably requires him to hit so many accounts a week. Your guy is just glad you will sit with him so he can tell his boss he's trying. If he's worthy of being your friend, he's the kind of guy who would lose some respect for you if you actually bought that crap.

Samantha Dugan said...

John My Dear,
You know I would tell you if I didn't like your wines....just as well as you must know that I would NEVER write a post about it. Sorry about the "Meh" reviews kid, sucks.

I hope you are right about Laurent but in the end he should know that there is not a chance in hell that I was going to bring those overpriced, flaccid wines in. That French Mafia "We are buddies so we should help each other out" crap just doesn't fly at our store. I need to be able to assure anyone that asks me about one of our wines that they are spending their money wisely....could never do that with the crap he brought me. Just hope he doesn't take it personally but have a feeling that he just might...can't help that.

Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

You've hit the nail on the head when it comes to being a buyer. You have to keep personalities out of it and focus on the wines, but that's incredibly hard to do. And especially when lean economic times come. You love the sales rep, you know how badly they need a sale, but their wines are substandard. It's hard to say No. But that's the job.

The main reason I never wanted to peddle wine was the fear that I'd have to sell crap and wouldn't be able to. That, and I'd probably run into buyers like me.

vickibarkley said...

As a customer, all I can say is,
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I tell people on a regular basis that I can spend $10 at your store, and know it will be something I enjoy, or can bring to dinner with pride. $20 anywhere else, and I'm likely to have to pour it down the sink.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
Now everything I have heard leads me to believe that you were one of those buyers that people loved meeting with. Now when I tell people that you are my internet husband they all tell me, "Oh I loved Ron!" so sorry if that wrecks your grumpy guy image but the story around these are/were a pleasure.

Thank you for that. Really does mean a lot.