C’mon, we’ve all seen them out there on the street—the ladies and gentlemen with their roller bags and printouts of their portfolios culled from Sevenfifty.com going in and out of shop to shop, restaurant to restaurant, and bar to bar. Conducting the tastings on Friday and Saturday evenings, where they elegantly expound on the intricacies of terroir, grape varietal, and climate. Of course, at some point in the conversation, there will probably be some mention of the Loire, or the Rhone, or Piedmont, or Santorini, And at the end of it all, there will be the following of the ABCs—the basic mantra for anyone associated in sales made famous by the playwright and screenwriter Dave Mamet taken straight from the pages of his legendary Glengarry Glenross: Always. Be. Closing. And a career as a wine sales rep is no different. Or is it?
It takes a certain kind of sales animal to be a rep, or “juice warrior” as I like to call it, and I should know, because in the interest of full disclosure, yes, I've been one, having logged some some serious street time while working as a rep for an importer/distributor here in Manhattan. And it has been my humble experience that one must possess a certain kind of insanity to be successful at this line of work (no comment!). A certain kind of knowledge, or rather lack of it, depending on whether you are dealing with an overeducated sommelier at the latest and greatest restaurant with the well-curated wine program, or with a trucker cap-wearing owner of a blue collar off-premise churn and burn Chardonnay kind of outfit, who could probably care less about whether the golden nectar is oaked or un-oaked, buttery or not. They just want to know whether or not there is a case minimum, and if they take a flyer on five, will a sixth case get thrown in the mix gratis?
How Do I Sigh Up For The Gig?
Well, it obviously helps if you have already been around the juicy stuff in some capacity to start with, whether that be previous work in a restaurant or bar as a bartender or server or somm (I had previously been both a bartender and server at a wine-heavy restaurant before I decided to jump into the mix). Or maybe you’ve worked in a retail wine shop, which would be ideal, because not only would you probably have gained the basics in wine knowledge 101, but also, chances are, you would have then seen the reps come in and do their thing firsthand, giving you an up-close look at the job and exactly what it entails.
But even if none of the above is your background, it goes without saying, that having some sort of sales experience on any kind of level is key. Because in the end, sales is sales. And it doesn’t matter what the product or service is that’s being sold. It all takes the same traits: persistence...being a good communicator...being organized...persistence…and did I mention being persistent?!
And obviously, not getting discouraged when you hear the word “no” is a given, because if you become a rep, you’re going to hear that word a lot. A LOT. Also, you better not be afraid to push a bag full of wine bottles all over town, and under all sorts of weather conditions—in the snow, in the heat, in the rain, because just like postal workers, wine reps must make their rounds no matter what the conditions are, as it's always game on.
But if you are still with me so far, and none of this scares you off, then the best way to become a wine rep is to start reaching out to some companies—importers, distributors, wholesalers and the like—to see if there are any openings, and a great website to use as a resource for this is www.winejobs.com. You also might want to try www.winejobsusa.com, or even the almighty www.craigslist.com.
A Day In The Life
Typically, your average day will begin with answering emails and catching up with calls, lining up tasting appointments for later in the afternoon or week with buyers. Again, sales is sales, and as is the case with just about anything relating to sales, when you really get down to it, it's all a numbers game. And being a wine rep is no different. The more prospects you reach out to and make contact with, the greater the chance for your success. For example, if you find that it takes 100 calls to set up 10 solid tastings, then you should figure that perhaps one out of those 10 will put in an order with you. And if you need to hit a target of 10 sales per month, well then, better start prospecting...
This is just spit-balling, but the logic is there.
Once you've established contact and been able to do a tasting, your work is not done. Always make sure to take notes on what the buyer liked/disliked, because that will inform you on what bottles to pitch them the next time. And a lot of whether or not they buy with you has less to do with how good or bad the wine tastes—although of course it doesn't hurt if your wines are spectacular—but more to do with other variables such as shelf space, what has been recently moving, and perhaps most importantly, MARGINS. Margins, margins, margins. This is the bottom line. What is the bottle price on one case...three cases...five cases...and how they can mark it up at the purchase level. This is very important. Get to know your clients buying preferences, because then you'll know what to present them. Instill credibility and trust, and this will directly correlate to the amount of outgoing invoices that you will start writing up I can nearly guarantee it.
As you might've gathered, the takeaway here is that your success begins and ends with the cultivation and nurturing of these relationships. You could be the smoothest and most well-informed rep on the planet with a bag full of the best juice around, but if you can’t get your foot in the door at the restaurant or shop that’s on your prospect sheet, than you may as well be trying to push melting slush to Eskimos. And although I know I said that the average day begins with emails and phone calls, yes, but in actuality, the best way to accomplish the task of building and maintaing a relationship with a decison-maker, i.e. the person who can actually say "yes" to putting in an order, is by doing it old-school style, and by that I mean hitting the pavement and going door to door, so you can meet these buyers/DMs in person, which is easier said than done, because most wine buyers are super elusive. They already have shelves full of wine, and a million other reps to contend with, so why do they want more, and/or why would they want to have to deal with the likes of you? But that’s where you really earn your money and utilize your sales chops. Your personality. Your downright chutzpah and moxie, which is every salesperson's secret weapon.
If it's a restaurant, maybe go in without your bag and sit at the bar. Take a look at what's on their list. See if you have something in your portfolio that might be a good fit. Next, order up a glass and a small bite and strike up a conversation with the bartender, server, hostess, or whoever. But in the beginning, DON'T BE A SALESMAN—BE A CUSTOMER! Albeit, a curious customer. This is vitally important. Because nobody wants to do business with a salesman, but everyone wants to do business with a customer. Ask questions: "I see that you have some great wines Mr. or Ms. Bartender...I'm just curious, who does the buying for you?"..."Yeah, when is the best time to catch them here at the restaurant?"..."Do they have a cell or email I can grab?
If it's a shop, again, be a customer first: "Wow, I really love your Spanish section, but I didn't see any natural wines from that region...would you be interested in having a natural Tempranillo on your shelf?!"..."Yeah, ok, great. When is the best time for me to stop by again, and I will bring some for you to try, as it just so happens that I'm a rep..."
After you’ve made the connection and gotten to the point where you were able to show them your book, with a little luck there just might be something in your portfolio that has caught their eye. Set up a good time for a sample taste. For good measure, bring a couple of other choices as well, because you never know. Maybe they were thinking Chinon, but now that they see you have a tasty Gigondas with you as well, they want to put in a three case order for that, too, because the price is right, and the weather is getting chillier.
Once you put the order in, set up a time to do another sample tasting for the customers. Then, as I said, remember to follow up, because in this line of work, repeat business/recurring accounts are your lifeblood. Bring by a couple of other varietals based on the wine that was already ordered. Maybe throw in a wild card, something the buyer never would have thought of—“…I know, Mr. or Ms. Buyer, you probably wouldn’t believe they make Viogner in Virginia, but you’ve got to try this. It will literally leap off your fall menu… “
And before you know it, BOOM. You’ve made another sale. And that brings us to...
So, you've decided to make the leap, and now you want to jump in there and start pushing juice—great. But you're also wondering how much money you can realistically make. Aaah. Of course, because, no matter how much you love wine, or even the idea of selling wine, deep down, what really is driving you is the freedom to buy (and drink!) more wine for yourself and/or your special sweetie, not to mention, getting the rent paid, and the occassional meal or two out on the town.
According to the job site Indeed.com, on average, the first year salary for a wine rep is around $48,000.00. Take into consideration that most wine rep positions are paid out on a commission only basis. However, it is not impossible to find a company that is willing to offer some type of basic salary or draw as compensation until the rep has managed to establish a foothold in a given territory and build up a book of business. Once these relationships have been cemented, moving into year two, a rep can easily look at potentially doubling, or even tripling their earnings from these recurring accounts. (Like I said, repeat business will be your lifeblood and is an absolutely essential and vital component to whether or not you can succeed in this line of work).
Some employers also offer bonuses for exceeding sales targets. Even sponsored trips to wine meccas such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Australia, Argentina, etc, or to places right here in the good old USA, such as California, Oregon, New York...
Suffice it to say that it can vary greatly from company to company, and even from city to city. The compensation for selling wine in a super-saturated market like NYC or San Francisco is certainly not going to be the same as selling the same wine in a small market. Because of this the commissions can also vary, starting out at anywhere from 6% to 8% on the low side, and moving up to 10 to 12% on the high side, depending on factors other than geography as well, such as whether or not you are already walking in with a book of business in tow, or not. A good outfit might even set you up with some accounts that are already open just to get you going. But truth be told, my experience was quite the opposite, as I was basically thrown to the dogs with nothing but a three-ring binder of my company's portfolio and some generic business cards. "Now, get out there and sell, man!" was my boss' battle cry.
Some of the more established companies, the ones that are generally quite difficult to get with, but not impossible, say the Louis Dressners, or the T. Edwards, or the folks over at WineBow or Wildman may be even willing to offer you a basic salary, to sustain yourself in this, the crucial "sink or swim" first year. And they may even be willing to offer health and/or dental insurance and other benefits to boot, though again, this was not my experience. And then there are the really big companies like Southern or Empire, who are in another league altogether, and they might offer the full gamut—a base, fulll benefits, expense account, etc.
Do your research and explore which company might be the best fit for both you as well as your prospective market that you'll be selling in. Some companies might carry very inexpensive, mainstream wines that the general consuming public lap up, and your commissions on these sales could be low, but you could get a higher volume in orders to make up the difference. Other companies might have a small niche book of small producers and that might go over well to a more elite set—the farm-to-table crowd, and cases of these bottles might be more expensive, but your commission on sales might be higher.
But basically, if you are seriously interested in being a rep as your vocation, and you don't have any prior experience in the business, in all liklihood, you will probably be wanting to start out at a smaller, more personal company, and you willl most likely have to have a second (or even third) job to get by your first year. Like with real estate, it's quite fair to say that 90% of the money is being made by 10% of the reps. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and who knows, you just might be the one.
What, you mean besides getting to learn about and drink some fantastic wine?! Well, there's that, but if you can get past the initial growing pains, it's also kind of a fantastic way to make a living: you get to be outside and not stuck in an office...you get to meet a ton of interesting people...you get to be a part of something that is artful and timeless...and yes, if you are good at it—and this make take a lot of hard work and that P word again—being PERSISTENT—you have the potential to make a lot of money.
Now, as my old boss used to say, "Get out there and sell, man!"
...Then celebrate the closing of your first account with a glass!
Peter "Blue" Zusman is an artist and wine & spirits enthusiast living in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He places equal importance to both a finely-aged single malt, as well as a medium bodied, earthy red. Examples of his artwork can be seen on Instagram/@pzblue.