How It Works: Being a Retail Wine Buyer

  • Posted on

People often walk into the wine shop while I’m meeting with a salesperson, tasting samples of a half-dozen wines or spirits at one in the afternoon, and say half-jokingly, “I’d love to have your job…” And it’s truly a great job to have if you love what you’re doing, as I do. Not because I spend all day tipsy, but because I get to put on a wine show in the store, casting my favorite bottles in their roles and hoping the critics—that is, the customers—love the show. I have a small wine collection at home, but the store is my own personal gigantic wine collection that I get to share with anyone who’s interested.

 

How does it all happen? There’s a lot that seems glamorous (and occasionally it actually is). And much more that’s just like everyone else’s job: unexciting, necessary, a little dull sometimes. It starts with finding your philosophy and choosing your suppliers. In the U.S., wine and spirits for the most part have to be ordered through a middle party, because of a structure that was set up after Prohibition to discourage conflicts of interest and ensure the state and federal governments receive the various taxes due to them. Setting aside the stew of opinions about the system, it means that stores generally have to work with importers and distributors rather than ordering directly from wineries. Individual wineries contract to work with specific importers and distributors in each state, usually on an exclusive basis, but often only in a few states (a tiny distributor may only have a license to distribute in two or three states, which is why that wine you had at a restaurant in New York may not be available at all in Texas or Maryland). The distributor takes a cut of the price in return for dealing with regulations and paperwork, the cost of warehousing and shipping, and applying their marketing and sales forces to selling the products. Importers and distributors run from tiny to huge in size; some specialize in one country’s wines, some just in spirits, some in natural wine, and some attract the big, branded wines. Each importer or distributor has its own image and taste that a retailer picks up through reputation or experience. If you have a certain philosophy on what kinds of wine and spirits you want to sell, you can choose to work with suppliers that seem to share it. In the end, I work with an evolving list of about 75 distributors.

 

Knowing what we need requires a little knowledge about wine grapes, wine regions, what’s classic and what’s popular. The wine shop that didn’t carry the super-popular grapes like Pinot Grigio, Cabernet, and Pinot Noir—or forgot about Burgundy, Sancerre, or Prosecco—would soon fail. Shops also need to cater to different budgets. Young professionals probably don’t want to spend $50 on a Monday-night bottle, but at other times, like during the holidays, everyone wants a special-occasion wine or spirit. A range of prices is best for the popular, everyday categories, whereas the classics (Barolo, Burgundy, Champagne, etc.) can go higher. The most fun for me is finding grapes I’ve never tried before, from countries people don’t think of for wine. I choose those wines at prices that I hope will allow more people to try something new.

 

A few favorites among unusual grapes: Pignoletto (Italian, like a more tasty Prosecco), Clairette (French, a little salty, as the label suggests), St. Laurent (Czech, in the spirit of Pinot Noir), and Rufete (Spanish, but related to Pinot Noir).

 

 

It’s not hard to find someone who wants to sell me wine—there are hundreds of distributors out there, each with salespeople who are out looking for a new opportunity. If someone from a company that seems to share my philosophy asks for an appointment, we’ll set up a meeting where they come to taste a selection of their wine with me.

 

 The elements of a productive tasting: an enthusiastic sales rep, an interesting lineup, price list, and spit bucket.

 

I may have as many as 15 of these meetings each week, and taste between 4 and 10 wines and spirits per meeting—60 to 150 products per week. These are the meetings that look like so much fun—and often they are, if the salesperson is knowledgeable about his or her products. Or maybe they’ve brought me something really interesting to try, because they’ve gotten to know my tastes. Sometimes there’s a hole I’m trying to fill in the store (for instance: CA Chardonnay over $35) and I’ve requested a specific bottle to taste after searching the industry database of who carries what.

 

Tasting is probably the most interesting part of being a buyer, but it doesn’t mean we spend our days half-pickled! Those of us who care for our liver always use a spit bucket, so that much less alcohol is absorbed into our system. Even at wine lunches (which range from casual to luxurious and are sponsored by a winery or industry group to promote certain wines) I ask for a cup to spit into. And so does anyone else who has to get work done later!

 

Wine lunches let you meet far-flung colleagues, chat with winemakers, learn something new, enjoy some great food. But beware the post-prandial coma!

 

 

Another way to taste wine is at big tastings put on once or twice each year by the distributors or marketing groups. At these, I can taste hundreds of wines (really about 60, before my head starts spinning), as a way of educating myself or to find specific wines I need for the shop, or to see if I might want to work with a certain distributor. It’s a much faster way to get things done than tasting six wines at a time in meetings with my sales rep. Another benefit of the big tastings is getting to meet the winemakers and ask any questions I may have.

 

If tastings and trade shows and the occasional wine trip are the fun parts, they’re balanced by the day-to-day of receiving deliveries, lugging cases of wine, counting inventory, and paying the bills. (See? You’re already bored.) An important part of this basic work involves monitoring sales—we need to know what sells in order to offer the perfect mix of best-sellers and nerdy treats to appeal to most customers. Occasionally a wine will disappear and be replaced by another—usually because people have become bored with the wine, if it’s been in the shop for a while, or because it never caught people’s eye, or because the distributor or winery ran out of it. In the latter case, there may be a gap of a month or two before the wine is available again. In the meantime, I’ll try to find a similar wine to fill the hole, and often the replacement is well received and the original may not return at all.

 

And that’s most of the guts of it. Upsides: weird grapes from out-of-the-way places, rosé season, geeking out, awesome staff, putting on a wine show. Downsides: paying bills, trying to lift cases of wine above my head, the occasional 12-hour day, tequila-tasting at ten in the morning, and again, bills. For me, the scale tips well in favor of the upsides!

 

 A sense of adventure makes wine more fun—for both seller and buyer!