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Selling wine Stateside

New York City

One of our major markets within the United States was New York City. We had a very successful importer there. So with our agent for the USA we went to meet with him.

Hustle and bustle, people strutting their stuff, cabs honking, skyscrapers gleaming, it’s dog eat dog in NYC. We go down a back alley into a warehouse and up an elevator to the top floor, which was their office. Although the back alley wasn’t that swank, particularly the aromatics, the office sure was smart. And smack dab in prime position was a huge desk where the man himself sat, cigar in hand, barking out orders to his staff. The intensity of the office was high-stress. Everything was urgent. Small talk was out.

Within seconds it was our turn to get blasted by Monsieur, the boss. “Oh well bonjour! Look, it’s the idiots from Bordeaux with their ridiculous new prices. Get out!” The formality and politeness of our Japanese importers was a distant memory. I looked at my agent to see if he was serious, but he just chuckled. But it was clear to me that he was dead serious, and he wanted us to leave.

Full blown warfare erupted. It went from the importer cursing about the price increases to the agent yelling about unpaid invoices, and then a few personal shots were fired. Then suddenly there was some laughter, a few resolutions, and then the agent launched into the sales. “You should take 250 cases of Chateau X, come on, you can sell it, I’m putting you down for 250 cases, we will ship next month, done, …OK?” It was beyond aggressive.

And what I learnt about selling wine in the US, or at least in some of the major east coast markets, is that you’ve got to be direct and tough, and ask for the order. In fact, sometimes you have to fight for it. The sales reps are often on commission only, and they sell to live. Every month they take home the commission on whatever they sold, and that’s it. So they hustle. They hunt. And you’ll never see sales reps as slick as some of these guys in NYC. We would go and visit major retail accounts, taste wine with the Buyer out of plastic cups, and if you didn’t make a sale for the Reps then they were not happy at all.

Yes, some of the refined sophistication of a soft sell was gone, and our company had always had a soft sell approach which I preferred. But you had to admire the directness, and it sure cut to the chase. I have always been perplexed by wine importers who do not commission or clearly bonus their staff on sales. If reps are paid regardless of their sales results then one day, sooner or later, the hustle is gone.