Sunday, November 03, 2019

5 Italian Wine Buyers (that I wanted to challenge, gag and thank)

Over the length of my career in the fine wine distribution channel, I encountered a few wine buyers that “took the cake,” and I mean that in every sense. In sales, as in service, the customer is king. So, I had to learn to accept, reflect and occasionally deflect. It wasn’t all half-glass stuff, though. There truly were (and hopefully still are) some exemplary buyers of Italian wine in restaurants and fine wine shops. The following five are examples of archetypal Italian wine buyers - the good, the bad and the ugly - that I had close encounters with on the wine trail in Italy.

Nero was right off the boat, landed in America in the 1980s in his 20s. America was like an all-you-can-eat oyster buffet to him. He took it all in, having spent his childhood and school years in an impoverished and backwater part of Italy. Let’s just say he was part of a very isolated tribe, and that’s the way they liked it. However, now he was in America and working his way through the Italian restaurants.

He was brash, he was hungry for praise, and he was pretty damn cocky. He was popular with the ladies, sometimes a little too popular. He broke a few hearts, had his heart broken a time or two. He upended a few lives, some pretty drastically. But to him, it was like taking a shower. Dry off, suit up and get back in the game!

When it came to wine, I found out early if it wasn’t his idea, I wasn’t going to sell him anything. He was very narrow in his view of Italian wines, and it didn’t always jive with the clientele. But he was a "real Italian" and he knew better. He was going to show them a thing or two! And so, he did.

I finally gave up. All the great wines I showed him, he always had to tear them down. His modus operandi was to be as judgmental as possible about any wine I was showing him if he didn’t know the wine.

Funny story. Years after I’d given up on him, I happened upon a food and wine event Nero was participating in. He called me over and asked me to try one of his new discoveries. It was a Piedmont red blend, and he was so proud of his discovery. I didn’t have the heart, or the interest anymore, to tell him I’d brought that wine into town 30 years before and knew the winemaker quite well. It wouldn’t have taken anyway, because then it wouldn’t have been all about him.

GianFranco was like someone out of central casting. In fact, in the 1960’s he rolled with the rich and famous and never stopped. He knew Paul McCartney, and he even had a bit part in a famous movie by Vincent Minelli. GianFranco had a sunny disposition and brighter than life personality, and he exuded charm and grace.

And he knew wine. And he knew that I too, knew wine. So, when I went to see him, it was a conversation, a dialogue among equals. And If I happened to suggest some new wine, make a recommendation, he’d always listen, always taste and often buy, on the spot. He respected the hours and hours I put into my work. And always remembered to ask me, a single dad, about my son. “How is the young lion?” he’d always ask. I loved making presentations to GianFranco, and I loved to eat in his restaurant. He made life and working in the wine trade a pleasurable experience.

Diego – the name fit him well. For he was the quintessential supplanter. I’d known him around the industry for years, he was always in the back ground. He appeared to be of diminutive status (in one form or another). And I think it gave him a bit of a Napoléon complex. He was a terrible communicator, and his palate, well let’s just say the visible wavelength on which he operated was pretty narrow. He liked what he liked, and he expected his customers to like those wines. Period. Oh, and they had to be pricey, in order to imbue the list with the status he so wanted to convey. And on top of that, he had loads of “discoveries” on the list, which were often marked up 5-7-10 times. They usually were closeouts.

I remember going in one time, and he poured me a white wine, which in color was dark golden, almost brown. It was wine, I’ll give him that. But it wasn’t very good. He’d bought it for $3 a bottle and was selling it for $12 a glass. He was so proud, levitating around the dining room with that bottle. It was the helium to his Hindenburg.

I gave up on Diego. I think the first straw was when he took off a wine by the glass that I’d sold him, when it was going gangbusters. He said he just wanted to change things up. I told him he made over $18,000 gross profit on that wine alone – it wasn’t broken – suggested he find some other category to “fix.” He replied, “People come here for me and my recommendations, not yours. They buy what I tell them to buy – not what you beg me to buy.” That should have been the last straw. But I was a never-say-never kind of guy. Eventually I lost interest in that Sisyphean task and found other people to show wines to who appreciated my finds and respected my palate. Last time I heard, Diego was waiting tables in a pizzeria. Oh, and he was also “doing” the wine list. And, if you want to place a wine by the glass, I’m told you need to bring your credit card and "run it" – I think they call that pay-to-play. My response is an unqualified and resolute one - “Adios Mofo.”

Pete – Pete liked pizza, and we all know wine is the best thing to go with pizza. Not beer, not Coke. Wine. Not Lambrusco, not a light Sangiovese. But big wines like Barolo, Brunello, Super Tuscans, Amarone, even Cabernet and Pinot Noir, as long as they were Italian ones. But Pete also had a narrow set of rules. No wine in any retail stores. Not just supermarkets, not chain retail stores, not big box stores. Yeah, they all disqualified the wine from his consideration. But also, the small fine wine stores, the specialty stores. ANY PLACE! Period. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe he wanted to mark it up higher? Maybe he wanted to be the person who made the wine famous? Maybe it’s like he’s Christopher Columbus and he’s got these three boats, see? And he wants to sail the across the world and discover India. You got it?

I remember he was selling a wine and going through hundreds of cases. I mean, he was the largest customer for this wine in the United States. He was making a killing! And then he saw it in a store about 15 miles from his restaurant. And he threatened to pull the wine if the store didn’t take it off the shelf. Yeah, you heard me. Are you getting a better understanding to why I am blissfully and ecstatically set to be out of the wine business? At least that part of it? I can’t make this shit up, folks.

Sam – he and his brother Frank run this little store in an old neighborhood, you know like the kind they have in St. Louis on “The Hill.” And people come from all over to get their Italian fix. I love this place, love to go get my eggplant and mushrooms, my fresh ricotta and my finely sliced mortadella. For years I sold wine to these guys, and we’re still friends. Now, that’s one for the books. Someone who still likes me, after taking years of pushing and prodding and cajoling from me.

Yeah, I made them some money. And I made some needed numbers. But at the base of all this was they trusted me to do the right thing – for them, for their customers, for the winemakers and ultimately for Italy. Yeah, like me, they’re Italian-Americans - working stiffs. And like me, they got their piece of the American dream. But it’s damn hard work.

I never tallied it up, but probably something like a half a million bottles worked their way through Sam and Frank’s place during my tenure. And we never had to chase them down for money, never had to do a pay-to-play and never ever had to feel diminished in any way. They acted and still act like gentlemen. They know they are the front-line and the end-of-the-line for those grapes that were hanging on the vine a few months ago. And I like to think they feel the responsibility to give back to Italy and to the Italian wine community their support and allegiance. One word – Respect.

So, there you have it. There are more – but these, like I said, took the cake.

And to borrow a phrase from one of the songs in the movie that GianFranco was in, all those years ago, “I'm so glad that I'm not young anymore.”

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
[photos from the Library of Congress, National Geographic archives and from film stills]


Marco said...

Great stories amico. They all took the cake!

Matt Paul said...

Alfonso, how on earth did those 5 buyers end up on my customer list in Australia ?

Alfonso Cevola said...

it's a small world after all...the archetypes are everywhere...

Denise Ehrlich said...

It's always amazing to me that as much as things change in our industry, buyer characteristics and behaviors stay the same.

Tom Maresca said...

I've never been on the business end of the wine world, but even as a journalist I can confirm how accurately you described those wine types, both the decent ones and the noxious ones. I've been lucky enough to deal more often with devoted, passionate wine makers than with some of the massive egos I know are out there, and I salute you for your patience and perseverance over all these years.
All best, Tom

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