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.
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.
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.
- They are excited about a new wine and hope you will be too
- It is at an astoundingly good price that will help you shift serious volume
- 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.
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.
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.
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…