Sunday, December 01, 2013

From the Cellar of a North Texas Gentleman

Imagine if you will, the autumn of 1981, when I got my first job in the wine distribution industry. I had a young son and needed to be home during normal hours. I left the restaurant side and came over to the wholesale world. One of my first managers, an old guy (probably younger than I am now), his name was Lee High. He was a by-the-book sales manager, had seen it all. A pretty nice guy and very well experienced in the business. He told me a couple of things I never forgot. The first one was that this business was cyclical and as the year unfolded there would be sequences that one could see and these patterns would pretty well much replay every year. More or less. The other thing he told me was that December 1 was traditionally the busiest billing day of the year for wholesale.

We were a small company but we had grand wines: DRC, Gaja, Heitz, Schramsberg, great German wines from the Mosel, like JJ Prum, wonderful Burgundies, most of the classified Bordeaux wines, and Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino. Even Alice's beloved Scanavino. These are the ones I remember. We had other wines to sell as well, but these were amazing wines, then and now.

Today is December 1, 32 years later. It’s a Sunday, so tomorrow, Monday, might be the biggest billing day. I now work for a much larger company, so on any given day there will be thousands of cases leaving the many warehouses. I read in blogs that large companies, in the opinion of some bloggers, can be bad, because they monopolize what wines get to the market. Little producers, the mantra goes, don't have a chance. The rise of smaller companies is supposed to help that. In reality, the circumstances are these: Large or small, we all go out and try to get wine shops and restaurants to buy our wines. Period.Yes there are more wines being made and more people looking for them. But the situation is the same as it ever was.

There is no vast cabal by the large distributors to prevent anyone’s wines from getting into the market. They have other fish to fry. It's true a large company cannot lift everyone. I have plenty of winemaker friends whom I cannot help to grow their business in my world. We are full. And I often recommend they look elsewhere and to make sure they get represented fairly (and paid in a timely manner). I cannot imagine having the attitude of not wanting all wines from all places to flourish. That is part of being a slave to the wine god. If there might be a plan somewhere like the conspiracy bloggers and p.r. pitch men so often like to chant, I don’t see it. I just see a lot of us in the trenches trying to bring wines to winelovers.

What I do see is this: Every one of us in the wine business has to stand in front of the buyer, one on one, and make our best pitch. Over and over and over again. If the price is good, if the wine is sound, if the relationship is solid, then it can work. Over and over and over again. That's the ideal. It is also the great leveler. I have clients who I have known for a long time and occasionally they will give me a “gimme,” that is to say they will take my word for it. But more often than not, even after all these years, they want the deal, the good wines, the dependability. They want someone to be honest and reliable. A flat screen TV gets old, wine buckets rust, all the dealer-loaders and gimmicks to grab the business are short term fixes. What is long term is the relationship.

The day after Thanksgiving I took my annual trek out to see an old client north of Dallas. He’s my age and has been in business as long or longer than I. He has an excellent feel for wine, and for years he has bought wine not just to sell right away. He fashioned a wine cellar in the back of his store and he put all kinds of things in it, only to pull out a wine when he thought it was ready to drink. There have been a few wines in the cellar that I sold him over the years, especially in the beginning of my career.

When we went back this time, I saw a 2nd growth Bordeaux I sold him from the 70’s, some Burgundy from the 60’s and a few other gems on the lay-down shelves. I remember one time I went to see him; it was December 31, 1981. I drove up to get a year-end order and to buy some wines. I bought some San Martin Petit Sirah from the 60’s (1968) and a bunch of other wines. I remember that day because when I got home, someone had broken into our apartment, stolen a couple of cameras, and it motivated me to buy my first house. At the time the interest rates on a home were around 16%. But I was driven to move. It was a good move. I found a place with enough room to grow, my son and my wine collection.

This last time when we went up there, I noticed his selection was sparse. “What’s up?” I asked my friend. “How’s the business?” He’s a calm fellow, easy-going, a good ‘ol boy. “The big box places have taken a lot of the traffic.” We hear that from the independent wine shops a lot. “What about your cellar, what have you got in there these days?” I asked him. His answer shocked me, “I sold most of it recently. Sotheby’s. That case of Heitz Martha’s '74, remember? It went for $10,000. Those Bordeaux wines, the ’82, and the others, they went for a pretty penny. I did alright.” There was a gleam in his eye but I also sensed a twinge of melancholy. Those were his babies. Our babies. And they went out into the greater world. New York, London, Hong Kong, after slumbering for three decades in "the cellar of a North Texas gentleman," as the Sotheby’s catalogue characterized it.

I found a couple of old soldiers left, some older Petite Sirah (for the nostalgia) and a few bottles from Italy and California, even one bottle from the High Plains of Texas. We’ll try them out soon.

My takeaway in all of this is that I never thought of myself as a small distributor or a large one. I was one person with some wines made by people and often those people became my friends. Whether it was Gaja or Giacosa, Giacomo or Aldo Conterno, Antinori or Biondi-Santi, Illuminati or Valentini, they were and are living things made by (then and now) living beings. Nobody cares if they are in a large warehouse or a small one. Nobody cares if they are delivered in a 40-foot truck or a step van (as long as it is temperature controlled.) There is no scheme to rob people of wonderful wines. There is competition and economic challenges, just like there was 30 years ago. Fortunately now one can borrow money on a house for less than 4%, not 16%. And there is an even greater selection of wines available than there was in 1981.

I love the process of wine. I connect with the people who make the wine and try my best to transmit that energy to the people in the shops and restaurants that are willing to listen to me. I love all wine and know that I have to champion all the great wines from Italy (or anywhere). The god of wine has a canon, not a conspiracy. I enlisted in this happy crusade many years ago, willingly, and now I am a veteran.

Submitted for your approval by this happy warrior.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


jack said...

This type of post is exactly why i read your blog almost exclusively. Veteran wisdom.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Jack!

Marco Don Bosco said...

We met by chance in the fall of 2007 at a restaurant on the LES of NYC. It was very fortunate for me and Kathy. You listened while I spoke of our travels in Sicily, but not so much in Calabria. You knew we had the same DNA, as you like to you say. You encouraged us to dig deeper into Calabria. I understand still and I hope to go as soon as I am able. You had 25+ years in the wine biz but you sensed that I, though a neophyte, knew what I liked and had the wine & food daemon working its way within us. I am grateful for your patience with my ignorance and your sense of humor. This is why I read your blog.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Grazie, Marco..kindred souls sharing similar DNA...I can't tell you how much it mean s to me that you're still here....thank you

Marco Moscato di Passito said...

Blame it on Italian wine and the boss nova.

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