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Secret Life of a Wine Salesman

As she trails three New York City salespeople on their rounds, F&W's Lettie Teague discovers some terrific Burgundies and one great Gavi.

Over the years I've failed at all sorts of things, though perhaps never more completely than I did trying to sell wine in New York more than a decade ago. After a short stint as a clerk in a retail store I embarked on what I hoped would be a more substantial career: selling wine for a distributor, calling on restaurants and stores and trying to convince them to buy cases (preferably five at a time) of expensive Italian wines.

I'd interviewed with a half-dozen importers and distributors before one agreed to take me on, for a very small salary and an even smaller commission. The idea back then (as it still is today) was that I would spend a short time on salary and move to straight commission as I amassed a list of reliable clients. Alas, this never occurred. Although I tried three different wine companies before officially abandoning my sales career, I never managed to reach full-commission status.

One of the men savvy enough not to hire me back then was Scott Gerber, cofounder of Martin Scott Wines, a wholesaler based in Lake Success, New York. He and his partner Marty Gold founded the company in 1989 with a few dozen brands. They're known for their strong selection of California wines (Robert Foley Vineyards, Pisoni Vineyards & Winery) and impressive array of Burgundy domaines (Domaine Dujac, Jean Noël Gagnard), although they represent a number of top Italian, Australian and Spanish wineries as well.

When I first met him, Scott was the general manager of the importing company Frederick Wildman and Sons. "I didn't hire you?" Scott said with a nervous laugh when I mentioned our first, fateful encounter during a recent phone call. Clearly Scott had no memory of our interview at all. "I'm sure I made a terrible mistake in not hiring you," he said gallantly. I assured him it was likely one of the most sensible things he'd done during his Wildman career. I wasn't calling Scott to rebuke him for that rejection; I was looking for a second chance of sorts. What did Scott think of sending me out on the streets with his sales team? So much had happened in the world of wine since I'd been in the business; I was curious to see what selling wine was like today and how much it had changed (or stayed the same), especially since there are more good wines being made now than ever before, much of it in places no one even knew existed 10 years ago.

Whether compelled by guilt or curiosity or some combination of the two, Scott agreed to take me on. But you can't actually sell wine, he said. You don't have a license. You can only help out. Why don't you come to our office and we'll talk about it?

Scott, Marty and I met in Lake Success to discuss my idea. Marty seemed skeptical of the entire enterprise. Or was he just skeptical that I had, in fact, ever sold wine? What did Marty look for in a prospective salesperson anyway? "I look for someone experienced, who can command respect," he said. "Especially if it is a large sales territory. I'd also want someone who can bring a lot of enthusiasm to the job." Marty paused and seemed to give me a once-over. I tried to look simultaneously commanding and eager. "We need someone who loves people, has a sense of urgency, a knowledge of wine—and a thick skin," he added.

I'd never managed to acquire much of the latter during my sales career, I confessed. I'd never really gotten used to constant rejection—and worse. Some of the retailers I'd called on had been, well, mean. Marty didn't look sympathetic. That was just the business, he replied. Nevertheless, he agreed that I could spend a few days with three of his salespeople as they made their rounds in Manhattan.

I spent my first day with Chris Corrao, who has been with Martin Scott for over six years and is considered one of the company's stars. (For example, it took Chris less than a year to go off salary and onto full commission.) Chris is both a salesman, calling on some of the city's top accounts (restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Oceana and retail stores like Crossroads), and also an assistant sales supervisor. And he dresses the part. Although the day was warm and humid, he wore a suit and tie. "I like wearing a tie," he replied when I questioned his comfort. Then he wiped his already moist brow and hefted two large bags, filled with samples, over his shoulders.

"I'm only carrying six bottles today," Chris replied when I expressed concern over the size of his load. "I thought about bringing a seventh but just couldn't bring myself to pack a Zinfandel in this weather." I lifted the bags experimentally and judged them to weigh a total of some 20 pounds—about what I carried around in my own sales days.

Our first appointment was with a big downtown retailer—someone who had once been an account of mine, though he showed no sign of recognition when Chris introduced us. Probably because he'd never bought so much as a case of wine from me. "Too expensive!" the notoriously gruff retailer had said to me (more than once), and I'd had to agree. I'd been selling some pretty pricey Italian wines (Maculan, Bruno Giacosa, Fèlsina) in a day when a $20 wholesale price seemed like a lot of money for Italian Chardonnay. And to many, including me, it still does.

The wines Chris had chosen to show included the 2004 Green Truck Cellars Pinot Noir from Napa and the 2004 Core 163, a red blend from Santa Barbara. "Pinot Noir is still the hottest category we sell," Chris told me. He had a Syrah, the intense 2003 bottling from the up-and-coming Central Coast winery Shadow Canyon Cellars, and a soft, pretty 2004 red blend called Recess Red from the Washington State producer L'Ecole No 41. As for whites, he'd brought the crisp and bright 2005 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc, made from Lake County fruit by Napa-based star winemaker Randy Mason; the ever-popular (but rather oaky to my taste) 2005 Cartlidge & Browne Chardonnay; and the 2005 Gavi di Gavi from Picollo Ernesto in Piedmont. Most Gavis are uninteresting, but this one was a minor revelation, with lots of fruit and character. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the hit of the day. But not with the gruff retailer. "I don't need a Gavi," he said.

Even that didn't deter Chris from telling the story of the Gavi, produced by a small family of growers who once sold their high-quality grapes but recently decided to make their own wine. In fact, Chris had a story for each wine, a little narrative about the winemaker as well as the wine. (By our fifth or sixth appointment I'd had them all memorized and even muttered them at times under my breath: "The Green Truck Pinot is made by a winemaker who actually delivers his wines in, yes, a green truck.")

After half an hour with the gruff retailer (who didn't buy anything) we had a few appointments uptown, followed by a few more downtown. We took the subway each time. "It's a lot faster than a taxi," Chris said, as we stood waiting for the Lexington Avenue local. And we waited. Twenty minutes went by. "It usually doesn't take this long," Chris said, wiping more sweat from his brow but not loosening his tie. We were late for our fourth appointment, but Chris didn't seem fazed. "It's not a problem," he said. Nor did he seem flustered by the fact that all of his sales so far had been under the company case-minimum (four) for free delivery.

We finally made it to Etats-Unis, a tiny Upper East Side restaurant and wine bar. The beverage manager, Katie Stephens, was quite pretty and very young. ("I think she's 27," Chris said.) Katie liked most of the wines Chris showed her. The Core red she declared to be "great in a woody way." (I thought it was too oaky and preferred the Green Truck, which had more polish and greater intensity of fruit.) "This is a wine for people like you," Chris said to Katie of the Recess Red. "Something to pour by the glass." (Getting a restaurant to feature your wine by the glass is the holy grail; it means a regular sale—sometimes as much as a few cases a week.) Katie took two cases. "Thank you," said Chris. Another order under the four-case minimum. What would Chris do? I wondered. "I'll deliver it myself," Chris replied. "I do that a lot."

Our next few uptown appointments included a couple of stores and an Italian restaurant whose manager liked the Gavi but wanted the owner, a so-called Gavi "connoisseur," to taste it. But he wouldn't be in until later that day. "If the owner wants me to come back at the end of the day and tell him the story of this wine I'd be happy to," Chris offered. (The story ran something like this: "This wine is made by a small family who used to sell their grapes to famed Gavi producer La Scolca.")

It was three o'clock, and although we'd visited seven restaurants and stores and taken eight subway rides north and south and back again, we'd yet to stop to eat. "Lunch slows me down," Chris said.

Josh Miles, the 31-year-old salesman I accompanied the second day, shared Chris's love of public transportation and, unfortunately, his aversion to lunch. "I almost never eat lunch," Josh declared, although he did admit to feeling faint sometimes around three o'clock, and by four he usually has a slice of pizza.

Josh was dressed slightly less formally than Chris, in green seersucker pants ("I have six pairs of seersucker pants," he confided) and a tie but no jacket. He didn't carry his wines but pulled them along behind him in a little wheeled bag. "I don't want to look like a typical wine salesman," he said. Josh had organized his appointments much in the same way that Chris had—which was to say, they were all over the city. "You have to visit people at a time when they'll see you," Josh explained.

We started in Soho at Aquagrill, where Josh explained to owner and wine buyer Jennifer Marshall that he'd brought two Muscadets for her to try, both from the 2005 vintage, both from Domaine de la Louvetrie. "This winemaker is a real character," he told her. "You'd love him; he's got a crazy handlebar moustache. I'll bring him by next time he's in town." I liked the bright sappy fruit and zingy acidity of the basic Muscadet more than the special Amphibolite, which had a sort of yeasty quality.

While Chris told his stories carefully and exuded politeness, Josh projected pure enthusiasm. "This wine is really smokin'," he declared of the basic Muscadet. "This is really killer! There's so much to it!" In fact, Josh wasn't exaggerating much. It was a really good Muscadet, one of the best I've had in a while.

Being able to sell distinctive wines at good prices was one of the main reasons Chris and Josh enjoyed their work. Of course, both men had also been given some very good accounts when they started their jobs—unlike, for example, my old job, where the territory had included all the inactive, a.k.a. "dead," accounts in Manhattan and as far north of the city as I wanted to go. The day I found myself driving from liquor store to liquor store in downtown Poughkeepsie was the day I knew I needed a new career. When I described my former sales territory, Josh looked aghast. "I wouldn't have taken a job like that," he said.

Veritas wine director Tim Kopec was our next call. "I did tell Tim that you were with me," Josh admitted. "I think that's why he agreed to see me. He's a really busy guy." But before we went to Veritas (on our seventh subway ride of the day), Josh had to make a few calls. He stopped in front of a deli, balancing his notebook on one knee. I went inside and bought a "Hungry Size" bag of pretzels. I offered them to Josh. "Good idea," he said, and proceeded to eat half the bag.

In addition to the two Muscadets, Josh had brought along three other wines—a 2004 Mercurey from Burgundian négociant Faiveley; a 2005 Italian Sauvignon Blanc from the Alto Adige cooperative St. Michael-Eppan; and the 2003 La Massa, a Tuscan Sangiovese–Merlot–Cabernet blend whose Merlot vines, according to Josh, "might have been cuttings from Château Pétrus."

Tim tasted the wines rapidly, rejecting the Sauvignon because it tasted "like candied geranium" and the Amphibolite, which he likened to beer. But he approved of the basic Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet. "It is a really good Muscadet," I said to Tim. "And you don't even have a Muscadet on your list. How could that be?" Tim shook his head. It was a hole, he admitted: "But you're only the second person who's ever shown me a Muscadet." He tasted the Muscadet again. "Send me a case of it," he said. "And a case of the Mercurey and two cases of the La Massa." Four cases! It was Josh's biggest sale of the day. Which he partly credited to me. "You were a big help," he offered.

I was curious to know how Josh had selected his wines; they were so different from Chris's. "It's like putting together a puzzle," Josh replied, noting that unlike big distributors, who might send their sales team out with particular wines, at a relatively small company like Martin Scott the choice was more or less up to each person. (Each has a quarterly sample allowance that varies according to how much wine he or she sells.) But sometimes the selection amounts to no more than guesswork. "It's very rare you'll have a bagful of wines that everyone wants or needs," he said, adding meditatively, "In truth, no one needs any of these wines. Or for that matter, to see me." Then he perked up a bit, as if remembering all the positive comments his wines had engendered, the customers who'd seemed genuinely happy to see him. "My accounts know I won't waste their time, that I'll bring them some good wine."

Deirdre Ledwitz was carrying only good wines the day I trailed her. And "trail" is the operative word. Deirdre, an exceptionally fit woman sporting an athlete's close-cropped haircut and an architect's severe eyewear, was always five or six paces ahead of me, even though she was carrying two heavy bags of wine. Deirdre is the New York City sales supervisor for Martin Scott, responsible for key accounts such as Daniel and Per Se as well as some 75 percent of the company's Burgundy sales. She travels to Burgundy at least once a year and speaks perfect French (as well as Italian, Spanish and even some Portuguese and German). During our day together she didn't set foot in a restaurant without getting a sale or the promise of one. In short, she was everything I never could be.

Deirdre had chosen two Rhône whites and five white Burgundies to show to the six restaurants and one store we visited. They included a wonderfully minerally and deep-flavored 2004 Château de Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières and a lush, seductive 2004 Jean Noël Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Masures. "Great whites—that's my theme for today," Deirdre explained. Whether great or simply very good, they were more expensive than the wines that either Chris or Josh had. Some of Deirdre's wines even cost more than $400 a case wholesale, while Josh and Chris had more $100-a-case brands.

Not only were Deirdre's wines a cut above those of her team (10 salespeople report to her, including Josh and Chris), but so was the level of her sales patter. Deirdre, like Chris and Josh, told little stories about each of her wines but hers tended to begin with "When I was in Burgundy" or "This wine is from my buddy Patrick Javillier," before she continued in perfectly accented French. Her wine descriptions were equally attention-getting. They were so compelling I found myself furiously writing them down in my notebook: The Puligny-Montrachet had "a gorgeous elevation on the palate," and the Chassagne-Montrachet had "puffy creamy stuff on the sides and great acidity." A Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc had "great definition and roundness." Deirdre was the one who taught her salespeople to have a narrative about all their wines and the winemakers too. Or, as Deirdre said, "I'm in the business of selling personalities. I represent winemakers, not just their wines. If I don't like someone, I can't sell their wines."

Deirdre was also in the somewhat unique position of sometimes having to turn down a sale. "I'd like to try to accommodate you," she said to André Mack, sommelier of Per Se, who was interested in buying her white Burgundies. "I'll see what I have. But you really should get in on the '04s," she counseled him, as if giving investment advice.

"What do you think of the wines, André?" she asked after they'd tasted the seven. "A lot of winners," André replied. "I could order just about everything." Words I'd never heard anyone utter in my entire selling career.

After concluding a two-case sale at Per Se, Deirdre and I took the subway, which Deirdre called her "office," to Cookshop restaurant in Chelsea. Then we rode to the Upper East Side, where Deirdre even flirted a bit in French with Daniel restaurant sommelier Philippe Marchal, who seemed to appreciate both the wines and the flirting and subsequently ordered a number of cases.

After a bus ride to the Upper West Side and yet another sale at Telepan restaurant, I asked Deirdre her secret. Was it the fact that she spoke French? Or all the good wines she had to show? Or was it smart clients like Philippe at Daniel who know so much about wine?

"Flirting," Deirdre said. "I do a lot of flirting." I was a bit taken aback. Was that the secret? Not the wine or the languages? Well, yes, said Deirdre, those were important too. But most important was that she could just be herself.

I thought this over for a few blocks (and another subway ride) and finally asked Deirdre the question I'd been wanting to ask all day. Did she think I had any potential as a salesperson? Would she have hired me? Deirdre gave me an appraising look. "Well, you're educated. You have a good personality and you obviously know your wines." She surveyed me a bit longer. "And you don't have any wardrobe issues. You'd be surprised at how badly some people dress." My shortcomings? Deirdre paused. "You sure do take an awful lot of notes!"

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published September 2006
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