Sunday, February 03, 2019

A brief history of a working father in the wine industry

Regular readers of this blog have known for some time that I am retired from a working life. What many do not know, are the details of a life that arrived to this point. And specifically of a working father, a single father, in the wine trade in America.

While it is fashionable these days, with influencer marketing, to dump on established channels (and institutions) of wine commerce in the US, there were, and still are, many people who are simple, honest working folk. They just happen to be slinging Chardonnay or Vodka to the local restaurants and retail establishments, rather than coat hangars or auto parts. The notion of progress, not perfection, becomes readily identifiable once one has an extra mouth to feed, a mortgage and a car payment.

As a single dad and devoted to being the best dad I could be in a family-fractured world, I was also wrestling with the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” notion. However, I figured adaptation along with a measure of resilience would probably see me safely for a few years of adjusting to a more extroverted life. After all, selling isn’t for the shy. And lots of rejection. By then, I hoped I’d be “all grown up.”

Failed marriage will get one up to speed in the rejection department pretty fast. As for resilience, one must have the luck of the genes along with an attitude that looks forward, not back, and tries to have as little or no regrets as possible. Onward through the fog!

A word about selling wine to supermarkets. If you are a current consumer, and go into a supermarket these days, it is a shock of another kind. But in 1985, it was a freer, more relaxed time. There wasn’t a lot of expectation for having “everything under the sun,” so espoused by today’s influential caste. Although, pondering my label box, it appears we had a hell of a lot to sell. And supermarkets were unencumbered by chain-logistic managers, who eat corn out of a can and think the lettuce on a burger is a vegetable.

People were happy to try something, anything, new. And $10 a bottle, heck in some of those Dallas neighborhoods, even $15-20 a bottle wasn’t a big stretch. The maids were coming in with a list. If they wanted Sonoma-Cutrer, they got all they wanted.

Now there are more SKU’s on the shelf of the mega-sized markets (national chain supermarkets or large regional ones as well) today than in 1985. The difference then, everything on the shelves was just a little bit different than the others. Today, the control by a handful of large wine companies makes a wine from the same vat(s) with 7-15 different labels. Essentially a carbon copy with just another pretty label. It is pretty daunting to go into a supermarket and try and find a bottle to take home or to one of your wine geek friends. I wrote a piece about that last year. Actually, I was heartened to see a few cracks in the darkness. But, in my dotage, I am going deeper down the river of wine, whether looking for the origin of Primitivo, or Gamay, it makes no difference. I want no middle-of-the-road beverage; the calories are too dear.

Anyway, I pushed wine and whatever I sold, I stocked. I had bad knees, hemorrhoids, cuts on my hand (some needing stitches) and what seemed like a perennially sore back. And I wasn’t yet 40. It was nothing to lift 3,000 pounds (30 pounds at a time) in a day’s work. But I had a family, albeit a small one, just the two of us.

My son remarked to me the other day that he thinks part of his work ethic, especially in regards to design and setting up a showroom/showcase situation, came from the many nights I’d take him on my stocking run. Or when I had to help the display department build a large wine display. I'd drop a sleeping bag next to the deli and he would watch (and do homework) as long as he could and then surrender to sleep, under the fluorescent lights. We’d still have three or four more hours to go. Pure evil, we were, little devils. Bringing Trebbiano to University Park.

I’m glad my son saw a positive in those experiences. I felt a little guilty taking him, especially on Sundays, to two or three of my in-town supermarkets. I could get the order, get out in front of the week (in case I was needed to coach soccer, a sport which I knew nothing about), get there before the competition, outwork them, make sure they hadn’t buried my placements (or displays, which from time to time they would do. The Gallo boys had to sell their Ballatore Gran Spumante or their 1978 Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon) It took a few years off me. But I read the manual too. Work harder than the competition, be there before them and after them. Be all over them. Sans relâche.

I gave service to my client and commitment to my family. The store directors knew it, saw it, and responded. It was rare for a man to be doing that. A few other colleagues of mine were in the same boat. This was way before #MeToo. We were just trying to feed our kids, be better dads and sell a little wine along the way. I guess that led to the evil mess we’re all in now, where no one can find what they want when they want it. Yeah, pretty tough wearing the elite tastemaker's shoes these days. Nothing’s ever right.

So how about that tasting note?

Really enjoyed the Skerlj Malvasia. I know Ian D’Agata has a bit of a mania for this grape and I’ve been lucky enough to sit near him as he waxed poetic (and prolific) about Malvasia when we were in Basilicata. So, it was historical as well as enlightening. The Skerlj, from way up north in Friuli not far from the Slovenian border, when opened, was bright and electric. The aromas were flashy, a bit savory, with the tiniest hint of salinity. Bone dry, no Sicilian sun-drenched olfactory bomb here. But nice.

An hour or so later, with the opened bottle, I noticed a slight drop-off in the brightness of the wine, as if it had just run 400 years at full-speed and was doing a cool-down. Still nice, but the fireworks show was past us at that point.

There you have it. I did not want to write a blog post today. Blogs are so démodé these days. But I also realize this is a record, a log. So here’s another one for the fire.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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