I Joined The Dark Side But Now I’m Back!

I’m walking wearily through the twilight streets of misted cobblestones, heady aromas of petrichor dancing in the cooling of the new night. My bones are aching and my joints stiff, yet I carry with me an overwhelming sense of pride and happiness. The day has been long, yes, but satisfying.

With hospitality slowly reopening, hundreds of my fellow Sommelier Collective members will be feeling the same. Hospitality is a hub and a home; the sense of family is almost tangible.

I left it, but now I’m back. And I feel glad and humbled at the same time.

In 2018 a step into the Dark Side (a wine merchants) felt like the right thing to do. My wife and I were expecting our first child and the clock was ticking.

Kids need training, planning – and lots of time! Working in hospitality I didn’t feel I could provide any of that. I was ripe for seduction.

From Bordeaux to bathtime

Becoming a wine rep meant saying goodbye to late nights and hello to bath-time and burping. If there is one positive from the two years I spent there, it is that I got to spend important minutes and hours with my family.

But I also gained an insight into the inner workings of the Wine Merchant.

It was a big change from my Zalto glasses…

Of course, as somms we think we know what wine reps are like: venal floggers of dead horses who listen little and care less about what we have to say.

But is this necessarily the case? Are we in danger of stereotyping what is, after all, not an easy job?

Good reps and a bad rep

What’s definitely true is that bad reps give all reps a bad reputation.

A bad wine rep will harass and cajole his customers in the hope that the harder they sell, the more likely the wine buyers will yield. As we all know, this rarely if ever happens.

Is this your relationship with your rep – or do they make you want to scream? Pic: Flazingo.com/creativecommons

A good rep, on the other hand, will listen. They will bide their time, be patient and let the relationship blossom organically.

When a good wine merchant recommends a wine, it is for one of three reasons.

  1. They are excited about a new wine and hope you will be too
  2. It is at an astoundingly good price that will help you shift serious volume
  3. It is a wine which the supplier has taken much time about selecting specifically for you.

And when they offer you a producer trip or a free magnum, it is not bribery but a genuine reward for loyalty.

It just wasn’t me…

Misguidedly, I thought that by becoming a wine rep myself, I would be advancing my career prospects. And because I had been a member of the on-trade for so long that I would find it easy to sell to my own kin.

I was naïve. It was a schoolboy error.

Safe to say, repping was not the life for me. I spent most of the day sat at a desk, eating cheesy puffs and staring at P&L sheets, forecasts and prospect lists. All the while yearning to be out with customers, waxing lyrical about a white Malbec or new single vineyard Voor-Paardeberg.

Sitting at my desk, I missed the interaction between like-minded souls that every somm gets working with their team, and visiting clients was always a highlight. Just to be surrounded by the atmosphere of the restaurant, bar, or pub was enough –  to talk shop and taste some wine with fellow somms was the icing on the cake.

Tough school

Being a wine rep is tough. It is far removed from the glitz and glamour claimed by most in the supply trade. Invitations to dinners or wine launches are rare, spreadsheets are not. And months after starting the jury is out on whether you have made a difference or not.

The joy of service, by contrast, is immediate. You can tell straight away if the choice you have made has truly changed an outlook or philosophy. It’s a great feeling.

And yet, for all that, I discovered that working for a merchants was not for me, it also gave me a greater respect and understanding for the profession. A realisation, too, that the relationship between Merchant and Somm is a tender one, with responsibilities on both sides.

The joy of service is immediate…

If you are to be successful, you need to build the relationship with your wine rep in such a way as to add value to both your list and theirs. Too many good merchants are squeezed. They cannot simply swallow costs.

And if they don’t hit their meagre (and I can say this with absolute certainty) margins, then they will simply disappear. No more interesting wines and no more good relationships.

In this together

A good merchant will bend over backwards to source wines unique to you, but only if the respect for them and their business remains intact. So if they suggest a wine for you apparently out-of-the-blue, stop to consider for a moment why they have done so. They’ve probably put a lot of thought into it.

These are tough times, and I do not envy anyone working as a wine rep at the moment. Hospitality is my home; it holds my soul and will never leave me.  But a lot of my friends are wine merchants or reps, and these friendships have always been born from a professional relationship.

This shouldn’t be a battle –  a them versus us. Somms need merchants and merchants need somms. We’re in this together…

I was gone… but now I’m back. And it’s good to be safely home in hospitality – however tiring it is. Cheers!

I Made My Own Website – You Can Too!

Building your own brand is an essential part of becoming a top sommelier these days – and having your own website is a key part of the process. Sommelier Collective member Stefan Neumann MS recently finished putting together his own site, so we asked him how he went about it and what tips he could pass on to any other members thinking about doing the same.

Why did you decide to create a website for yourself?

It was something I had wanted to do for years but time restrictions and the nature of my day-to-day job meant it didn’t happen until March 2020. Everything was moving more towards a digital world, so it seemed the right time to start my personal development in this direction and transform an abstract idea into reality. Since I passed my MS in 2018, I have been very keen on helping and essentially nurturing sommeliers and wine professionals to achieve their individual goals. Now a website gives me a platform where I can showcase information about myself (via an online CV), write my own blog, share my journey, and give a broader audience access to my videos.

Having an online cv with testimonials can be a strong selling tool if you really want to get ahead

WordPress logo: Zekelhuter, Wikimedia Commons

How did you start the process?

First I looked for a free domain name. I settled on the “co.uk” to start off with and may expend to the “.com” later on. Then I looked for a free website builder. I settled on “WordPress” but there are plenty to choose from; it entirely depends on what you are after. I chose that one because of the sheer number of Plugins you can ‘add’ to it. It’s like a mid-terrace house with potential to extend into the garden, loft and cellar (a wine cellar of course). This is where the first tough decision is made. Do you settle for the free version or upgrade to get more functionality?

How did you work out what to put in it?

With the help of a pen and a white sheet of paper! A lot of decisions I take start with scribbling down something and developing it from there. I wrote my plans and content down and categorised them into “must have”, “would be great” and “future”. So I knew the site needed an online CV with testimonials, a blog, and a press section. It had to show the person who lands on this page that I am serious about wine!

Having a blog section is a good way of showcasing your thoughts on a range of topics – and can enhance your credibility

How long did it take?

Hours, days, weeks… I honestly can’t put a number on it. I had so much help from various people who gave me their honest advice and feedback so the initial plan and timetable changed several times and got pushed back.

How much did it cost – and can you do some (or all) of it yourself?

Costs vary depending on your requirements for the domain name, whether you want insurance or not, and whether you want to pay for a cookie policy or create one by yourself.

It’s close impossible to do everything yourself and still create something that you are totally happy with.

I had (massive) help from someone who builds websites for a living, but what I learned is that you have to remember that what works in your head sometimes doesn’t work on websites. And desktop is very different to a mobile version. Unless you want to hire a developer (which is expensive) you will inevitably need to make compromises on how things look and function.

So costs can go from almost nothing to four or figures.

What do you want to achieve with it?

That is the million-dollar question! I’ve listed a few reasons below, but I’m sure it will develop further with time.

  • Online CV
  • Write articles and use my own pictures (photography is a hobby of mine)
  • Share my tasting notes and link these with my IG videos. There is only so much you can say in 10 minutes!
  • It would be great if one day it could become a learning platform for wine professionals.

What one piece of advice would the you of ‘now’ give to the you who is thinking of starting on the website?

That I should have done it earlier!  

Take a look at Stefan’s website on www.stefanneumann.co.uk