By Jonathan Feiler
I have had the unique opportunity to be both a wine buyer and a wine distributor. I have been a professional sommelier, wine buyer and beverage director for the past 18 years. I have worked in this role in three different markets and at varying levels of service and volume. I thought I was an educated, smart and decisive buyer until I switched sides a few years ago to work with a wine distributor. My amazing, yet brief, time in that role gave me an education in a world that I thought I understood but did not fully appreciate the full scope of the business.
While I was coming up in the service industry, I would watch owners, buyers and chefs treat their various reps terribly – yelling at them, putting them down, swearing and, overall, just not being nice. I never understood that type of behavior and used to think, “Well, you definitely aren’t getting what you need now!” after each berating. As I rose through the ranks and became a wine buyer, I told myself I would never act that way; having an open conversation is always the best practice versus a screaming match where no one wins.
I believe that I have always had a good relationship with my distributor reps and felt that I treated them fairly, honestly and didn’t hold them over the coals too much for better pricing, access or service. In return, I felt that I got the products I needed and the service I required. I never understood the back side of what my requests were actually asking and what processes had to take place to get me those asks.
About three years ago, I decided to make the jump to distribution. I was fortunate to work for an amazing company and an incredibly professional and passionate team. It was the perfect pivot from the company I had been working for. When I started my new position as fine wine business development manager, I thought I knew exactly what the job was and how to maneuver in that space. I was wrong. I figured I would drive around to each account, dragging my bag along with me, and be greeted with open arms as a peer.
This was not the case. While many of the buyers I knew from my previous life and it was great to see them, I didn’t know the rest, and to them I was the enemy. Another salesman knocking on their door selling my wares and stopping them from doing their actual jobs. I felt their pain more than they knew.
I spent a few sleepless nights trying to figure out how I could better serve them and make their lives easier. Then it came to me: the Golden Rule, treat others how you like to be treated. I would service them with respect and thoughtfulness. I would try not to do cold calls; I would send detailed emails targeting their business needs and limit how many times I would bring them a “ride with.” This was a bit easier said than done as I still didn’t fully grasp the totality of the business. I had no idea what products were in the same family category for mixing and matching, what the “DA” was on any of the brands, what was allowed to be sold off-premise, what wines were part of which supplier and who their brand manager was. I still thought a “GSM” was Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and was curious on why we had one on Friday mornings at 9 a.m. … this is not a breakfast wine!
Once I was able to figure most of the distributor lingo out, how to use Driver and really drill down on what my accounts wanted and needed, the focus of the job became clear. It’s all about relationships. The rest of the knowledge is important, but making a true connection and really understanding each individual business was the true Rosetta stone.
While I was only on the distribution side for about 11 months, the relationships I made with other beverage professionals in the state and how they operated their programs made me respect the wine and beverage business even more. There are a lot of aspects that go into purchasing decisions and sales that many people outside the business do not fully understand and each program is different.
Today, three years after that experience, I still use the education I received from the buyers, salespeople, GMs, supplier representatives, and brand managers and it’s priceless. As a wine director for multiple properties that each have their own identity, I feel that I have a much better appreciation for my distributor partners and their support teams. They have a difficult job negotiating the terrain and all of the personalities and politics that come with the job. I got a glimpse into their world and know what it takes for them to be successful. I also now work closer with the brands and distributors that fill my service needs and work hard to understand my business. Now, where is my allocation at?!
Jonathan Feiler is Group Director of Wine for Ocean House Management Collection, including the Forbes Five-Star Ocean House, the award-winning Weekapaug Inn, the Watch Hill Inn and the Inn at Hastings Park, where he oversees the wine and beverage program and practices a wine philosophy centered on versatility and approachability. He also is responsible for a full program of beverage education classes for individuals and groups.