Why Wineries Need Ambassadors

Wineries need ambassadors. They need them because in the world of wine the role of the wine sales rep has changed so much, partially because of Covid-19, causing many to be furloughed, but really because so often they are so overloaded and time-famished: many worthy wines are rarely presented to those who really would enjoy selling, offering or yes, buying the wine.

The role of the wine rep, at the distributor level, is to present the right wines to their customers, most of which are, or were, restaurants or retail shops and get the order. But let’s face it, they are so jammed up with an ever-expanding portfolio, stiff competition for appointments and mindshare, they have to match up with the buyers’ share of wallet, and mostly, there is just too much wine available.

But with so little time to get in front of buyers, many reps’ jobs have largely become more of being an order taker, not an order getter. This delegation, or perception, really hurts the boutique wineries, and the many small producers of fine wines versus what’s best known as supermarket plonk in the trade.

Enter the wine ambassador. Just like the emissaries of olden days, the wine ambassador carries the message about the winery to the right people, often wine buyers, sommeliers or shopkeepers who simply don’t have the time to taste every wine. And in turn they help the reps get the orders.

If done right, the wine ambassador, who is part evangelist, part brand representative, will result in wines being presented to the right buyers, who have often been skipped over by the reps simply due to the pressure placed on them of selling the flavor of the day or wine of the week.

How do I know this? Years ago, at one of my earliest moments of seeing a wine rep in action occurred at the now long shuttered Piret’s in Encinitas, CA.

Here was the quintessential Parisian-style bistro in San Diego County, and perhaps all of the West Coast. It was run by the affable and outright gentile Rick Alles, and featured a slice of Paris and the French countryside that was so en vogue in the ’90s. Much like Paris’ Willi’s Wine Bar, the food was imaginative, without going too far off the traditional bistro fare, and featured wines of the country. And that country was France. One weekday, I was lunching and chatting with Rick when a wine rep came in and wanted to pour their wine of the week. It was an Italian Chianti. I’ll still never forget Rick’s reply to the offer. “We’re a French restaurant. We have our one Chianti on the list, and we don’t need another.”

Clearly, the rep thought she was doing her job. She was showing the new wine of the week and had been told to go show this wine to every account. But, if she had done her homework she would have known what was already on the list at Piret’s, and what the restaurant was about. She would have come in with a wine that was relevant, and then said something like — oh, we also have a new Chianti, so when you’re thinking of reordering one, maybe give me a call. That would have shown intelligence and client management.

But the conversation that ensued between Rick and me after the dejected rep left the bistro was really all about selling wines that are what the restaurant is about. In this case, wines of the French countryside, and some California wines that blended with the cooking. Upon Piret’s closure a few years later, Alles went on to become one of Wine Warehouse’s best sales people, much like Steve Ledbetter, the former Odeon owner from Philadelphia, who went on to guide Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants’ Bay Area restaurant sales program. Both had one thing in common. They understood restaurants and what wines would work with which. As a result their placements on restaurant lists grew and grew, often to the demise of the competition.

As someone who loves to BYOB, I often bring along wines that are appropriately appealing for the restaurants which I frequent — it is one of the pleasures of having a deep cellar! This can also be an eye-opener for many restaurateurs. And, as an “ambassador” for my friends in the winemaking world, it makes them happy too.

Take for example, when it came time to help John Sungkamee, the owner of one of Los Angeles’ top Thai dining spots, Emporium Thai. Early on we established some simple rules for the new list. Reps were told this: either the wines had to come from one of my friends’ wineries or I had to be friends with the rep. Wines that made the initial list were from Doug Margerum, Bob Lindquist, Helene Durand, Even Bakke and Gary Burke, all winemakers I knew, had tasted with, often eaten with, and always visited with. The wines also had to be able to retail for under 30 dollars — on the restaurant list.

On went the Margerum M5 White and Riviera Rose. From Bob Lindquist came one of his last vintages of Los Olivos Cuvee and a Qupe Chardonnay. From Even’s Clos de Trias came his ethereal Ventoux Rouge and so on. But in every case the wines got there because as an “ambassador” anointed or self-appointed, the goal was to bring food-appropriate wines to the customers. That meant high acid whites and crisp rosé wines, or big, spicy Rhone grape-based reds. And for reps, it meant a new account, and new orders.

A similar “exposure” of new wines that found their way on to a list occurred at my former “local” regular spot, Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach.

I brought along Chene Bleu’s Heloise and Abelard 2007s for a dinner with Cold Heaven’s Morgan Clendenen and The Hitching Post’s Gray Hartley, who were in San Diego for a tasting event. Coincidentally Tracy, the regional rep for importer, Wilson-Daniels’, had just presented the Chene Bleu 09’s earlier that same afternoon to Pamplemousse Grille’s GM, Steve Ernst. By showcasing the older vintage at dinner that night, with other winemakers and some a cadre of wine industry professionals in attendance that Steve respected, and then hearing their comments about Chene Bleu, Steve was convinced of how well the earlier vintage of Chene Bleu’s wines were showing, something that often drives the sales of new wines, so he ordered in the wines — Tracy had played her part perfectly that day, and the teamwork was a shining example of how well Ambassador and reps can tag-team to sell in a wine .

With Morgan visiting for dinner, and after my own extolling of the virtues of Cold Heaven to Steve, the end result was a few of her Pinots and one Viognier being added to the list. The same endgame happened for Doug Margerum, and his Rhone-like blend, M5. In each case as the “ambassador,” I made sure the wines found their way onto the over sized list.

But with the arrival of the next vintage, all of the distributor’s reps failed to call on either Steve or John again to take a new order. And therein lies the wine brand’s dilemma. The distributor’s reps too often lack the time, or tools to follow-up about a specific wine after the prior vintage has already been placed on a list, putting the onus on the buyer to ask for it again.

But the wine distribution world, especially in the import sector, is too often plagued by lost opportunities when it comes to sales. Rife with an ever-changing game of musical chairs of reps, importers, and distributors, the memory of where a wine was sold is fleeting. And that’s why when reps and ambassadors work together, success comes to all.

Another good example of that stands out in my mind is with Chene Bleu and Magnum Wines, a shop in Sarasota that appeared on their list of retailers. Having poured the 2017 Rose at Hospice Du Rhone in 2018 along with winery owner, Nicole Sierra Rolet, I was looking to pick up a few bottles for my weekly tasting group that I had organized at my apartment building.

My conversation with shop owner Heath Cordes of Magnum Wines in Sarasota turned to Rosé, and a discussion around his success with Chene Bleu. He had sold out of the 2016 and was delighted to hear the 2017’s were now available. He called his rep from Breakthru a few days later and a full end cap of the wines went into the store, all to the delight of the CB team back in France when I sent over a photo. This was a perfect example of the ambassador acting like a pharmaceutical detail rep and highlighting the availability of the wine to the buyer, followed by the distributor doing their part for the benefit of all: the retailer, distributor, importer and most of all the winery.

Wines though are really like tickets to sporting events. There’s only so much of them, and once they’re gone, that’s it: those who want them need to know they are available with each new vintage, just like when the tickets go on sale for the next season.

So, perhaps, I’m jaded from my years in professional sports management, but our first sale the next year always went to our season ticket holders from the prior season. Did you want your seats again? Did you want to move your seats? Did you want to buy more seats (if they were available)? Did you need some extra tickets for some games if some can be obtained? Then, and only then, after all of the prior season’s seat holders were accommodated, came offers to those who had put themselves on the waiting list. Would you want to buy a season ticket? How many seats? Only then, if there were any single game seats remaining,were they put on sale to the general public.

Let’s compare wine sales and shelf or list management to the beer and soda industries, where the truck driver who delivers kegs, bottles and cans is called a Route Manager. When Miller Brewing was my client, I learned from the marketing manager and distributor’s owner how important the “Route Manager” was to the success of the brand, and why many of them had been on the same route for years, growing the business. Those “drivers” were incentivized to sell more, by working more with each “account” and in turn their success benefited the distributor and the brand.

When the “route manager” visits a retail location they check the levels of the inventory every time they make a delivery. They talk with the department or store manager about promotions, a new display option and the new packaging or bottle sizes, formats and pack-outs. They look in the back storage area to see what’s missing in the case or on the sales floor, and they make sure to pull and face their products in the slots or shelves where they belong, often twice a week.

Unfortunately, wine reps don’t all get the time to value and romance the brands, largely because they have too many wines to sell, too little time to promote them, an overload of accounts, and too much pressure to sell what’s new, not what’s already out there. That’s why having a wine ambassador can be so helpful.

Like the route manager for beer and soda, the ambassador elevates the importance of the current release, keeps the wine brand front-and-center, and most of all, makes sure the wine is placed where it rightfully belongs so it can be sold.

Follow me on Twitter @andyabramson or read my occasional blog post at andyabramson.com

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