Sunday, July 04, 2021

Open Letter to Graduates: The Wine Trade Could be Injurious to Your Health

…with apologies for length 

Dear Grad,

Greetings! I’ve been meaning to write this for awhile. But you know how it goes, one gets busy and forgets about things. Oh, and the last 16 months or so have been extraordinary. I’ve dusted off my notes and am now sending this long overdue letter. Feel free to share it publicly with any potential (or current) members of the wine trade. It might save them a lot of time and trouble.

Where to begin? How about in the beginning? You saw those folks at that fancy Italian restaurant, having a leisurely lunch with several bottles, talking to the wine buyer and tasting, clinking glasses, in what looks like a scene where everybody is having a good time? Well, looks can be deceiving. Let’s dig in.

Eating and drinking

I was recently at one of those lunches with active folks in the trade. It was end of month. Meaning, numbers still needing to be made. One of the people, a manager, was on the phone, and the tablet, trying to close out the month. “This is hell,” I hear them say, as they juggle their phone, their tablet and a skewer of arrosticini, all the while gulping down precious pulls of an Italian rosa. “I don’t know how much longer they can take this,” I think to myself. “They’re going to have a heart attack before they’re 50.”

Nearby, a table of three are splayed, also in the supplier side of the business. They’re enjoying a lavish lunch. There must not have been a manager at that table, as they all clearly had gotten through the month and were into a long-playing lunch.

A few weeks earlier I met a supplier at a restaurant. They wanted to give me some Italian wine samples to try. I walked into the dining room and recognized maybe two people at a large table. It was a Thursday; the place was closed to the public. This was a group of suppliers, reps, wine trade folk, enjoying a long lunch with loads of cool and groovy wines to go with the smoked meats the proprietor was showcasing. It was a feast. And after the last few months, who could blame ‘em?

This might sound deliriously delicious, to take a couple of hours and decompress over Barolo and barbecue.

I look at friends of mine who followed that route, the ones who are still with us, and wonder how they have been able to do it for so long. In reality it takes a toll. Lots of food, all of it irresistible, coupled with great wines. Alcohol and fat, in a sedentary position. Sounds like a Roman feast. Well, we know now what happened to the Roman Empire, don’t we?

To one of the folks that have taken this journey with me, over the past years I’d say to them, “So, if one gains a pound or two every year, for 30 or 40 years, what might that look like?” “Probably like me,” they say. [Note to self: prepare another eulogy, just in case.]

The maxim: There is no free lunch.


Travel – Cars and planes

When you first start out, you get a route. With it goes finding a way to make the most efficient way of going through one’s urban, suburban or rural territory. Originally my route was all of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including North Texas. I did a lot of driving. And that was before we had cell phones, GPS and Soundcloud. My advice, if applicable, is to plan an economical way to get from account to account, efficiently. Gas is expensive, and so is the wear and tear on a car. If you live in a dense urban area and rely upon a motor scooter, a bike, a subway or Lyft, likewise, it’s equally important to gauge your time with regards to travel. Why? Because time slips away pretty fast and before you know it, you’re 50. Or 60. And who wants memories of all the cars and tollways one has traveled?

I was a planner, during my route days. I got my business done, in and out. Had to, being a single dad. I always had somewhere else to be, someone else depending on me to be there. I didn’t have the luxury of hanging out. It served me well. My accounts didn’t get too sick of me (at least not for that reason). It isn’t glamorous, driving around in 100⁰F weather in July in places like Houston, New Orleans or Fort Worth. Air conditioning is wonderful. But in and out of the car, it takes a toll. Your dry cleaning and laundry bill for one. Your body. Your sanity. It’s hard work. It’s relentless.

Now, planes, that’s a whole ‘nother level of crazy. Delays. Arriving early. Getting good seats. Making the connection. And that’s before you even think about ground transportation, hotels, dinner, breakfast and safety. Top it off with the demand in travel in the last 20 years, the cost of flying (and the cost of rental cars!) as well as hotels? It’s not romantic. I remember more than once, sitting at a bar and another person looking at me like I had just won the lottery. “Your business looks so cool. How could I get into it?” And no, that wasn’t a come-on line (as far as I could tell). They really wanted to be in my shoes.

I’ll just say this: It always looks better when you’re staring into the window from the outside. You’re getting a narrow view of the life. Yes, there are all kinds of rewards in the wine trade. But travel is a beat down, even going to the office for a sales meeting. Maybe now in the Zoom era, a lot of the useless travel can be eliminated. If so, good for everyone! That’s progress.

The maxim: A life journey doesn’t always require a seat assignment, but an upgrade helps.


The wine - the liquor - the beer - the exhilaration

Oh, free access to alcohol! Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? If you aren’t prone to habitual or addictive behaviors. Most folks in the trade enjoy alcohol. Maybe a little too much. I lived next door to an alcoholic. As a kid. I got to know him well. He taught me a lot of the reveals that one who is overly inclined to liking alcohol presents.

The sales rep who likes to have a gin and tonic before wine? The PR person who has to have a glass (or two) of wine, as an aperitivo, before the bottles are opened? The vice president, who must order a glass of single malt scotch, for everyone at the table, because the company expects them to support their big suppliers? No one likes to drink alone.

Alcohol is addictive. Alcohol is poisonous. It kills brain cells and human beings. You must treat it with respect and not let it control your life. I know way too many people in the business who shouldn’t be in it, because they are alcoholics. They’re easy to spot – they’re usually the ones deflecting with how much they love orange wine or Japanese whisky or Barbera D’Asti, or whatever, when in reality they’re hooked. They’re addicts. And because the goods flow freely and cheaply (often gratis, via the expense account), they think they’re getting around it. Long ago, they struck a deal with their inner demons.

Look, I’m not saying to not get into the wine (or adult beverage) business because you hate the stuff. No, we need the passionate ambassadors. But we need them to be sober and healthy. Each individual has to be mindful of the risks. If not, the rest of us will just shake our heads and say “It was a real shame about…” at their funeral, and move on. I have a list (yes, Michael, an Excel sheet) of all the people I know in the wine trade who died before their time. Some of them were tragic. But some of them were because of alcohol. Don’t treat this lightly.

The maxim: if it seems too good to be true, there’s probably a hidden price to pay.


OK, but…

I know, I hear you saying it inside my head. “Is there anything redeemable about a lifelong pursuit of livelihood in the wine trade?"

Sure, there are all kinds of upside. I spent more years with small, artisanal distributors and importers than with the big guys. I’d probably take the same trajectory; start out with the small fine wine companies. And then try and figure out how to keep from getting swallowed up in the corporate M&A mania that has ravaged the profession for the last 35 years.  My young friend, at month’s end, is a sign that things in the megacorp aren’t a viable path for those who want to stay closer to the winemaker, the grower and the wine lover. Oh, sure it’s possible, but looking at it from the outside, there’s no way I’d get back into that mess. It’s a game for owners and CEO’s looking to make mega bucks.

Looking back, there were great times. I remember once, my boss got ahold of me (must have paged me on my beeper). It was lunch time and I was throwing boxes at a Safeway. I know it sounds weird. But the buyer was enlightened and he gave the little guys room for their Trebbianos, their Cotes de Bergerac and their boutique California wines at the time. Anyway, my boss asks me what I’m doing for lunch and says if I don’t have any plans to come to the nearby hotel and have lunch with a winemaker. I was sweaty, and the restaurant was a coat and tie kind of place (5-star, upscale southwestern cuisine). When I was seated, there was Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar, whom we represented. An afternoon that was unforgettable. The year was 1983, and Serge had just emerged as a winemaking hero, having braved it through a war during harvest.

To prove that lightning does strike in the same spot twice, it happened again. Same scenario (my boss was a benevolent prankster). This time I was ready with my sport jacket in the car. Same place, this time the owner of Chateau Petrus, Jean-Pierre Moueix. For a 30-something, it was like being invited inside, the other side of the window. And it was good stuff. The food, the wine, the conversation, a seat at the table. I know now, having a seat at the table is a privilege and something that more young people, especially BIPOC, must be given more of. My only claim to minority status at the time was that I was a single dad. I was also in debt (not poor, but teetering on the ledge) and trying to come back from a devastating personal loss.

At an auction in Chicago in 1985, I stood next to Michael Broadbent, as he described where the 1959 Château Mouton Rothschild was in its evolution. He’d tasted it a few times. It was drinking absolutely fabulous at the time.

At a lunch at our warehouse, our owner hosted Robert Parker, who at the time was on his ascension to being the world’s most influential wine critic. We tasted, we talked, we broke bread. I was sopping up all the sauce at that table, a human scarpetta. Yeah, it was heady stuff, before I headed out to literally throw a ton (50+ cases) of wine at a local upscale food store.

The maxim: Choose your path carefully and always be prepared for those “Eureka” moments.


In conclusion

I hear you asking, “If there were so many risks in the wine business, why did it take you so long to get out of it?”

The truth is, I thought I was in the right place at the time. I enjoyed my work, which, up to that moment, I hadn’t experienced joy. I had freedom, didn’t have to punch a time clock, wasn’t tied to an office or a desk. It was difficult, because I am an introvert, and being in the trade means having to put oneself out there. But I figured that part out. And I thought it was a livelihood that celebrated the growing and making of things that brings joy into other peoples lives. In other words, it wasn’t part of the War Machine. And coming from the Vietnam era during college time, that was important. And it gave me a richer bond with the country of my origin, Italy. I got to spend lots of time in Italy, making friendships and memories that are fond and deep. I also was able to support myself and my family and save enough to retire, when I was ready, and pursue other interests. Like photography. So, it all worked out. But I would have never known it would, back when a manager from a small wholesaler said to me, “Hey, you’d do really well in our company.” I had no idea a career even existed in places like that. We didn’t learn that in college. Now all that has changed, you’ll be recruited by the wine trade now. Just know that all that glitters isn’t…well, you know the rest. Just go into it with eyes wide open, and know about the pitfalls. It isn’t for everyone. I had no idea it was for me. But, looking back, I have no regrets. And if there is one thing I would advise you about living your life, it would be to live a life with no regrets.

There you go – it’s all yours. Congratulations. Over and out.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Unknown said...

Alfonso, you won. Something that is said far too little within the corporate jungle. You walked away when you were ready, when you were financially set, when you still had your health and well before you were no longer at the top of your game. Well done!

That said, I fear ( already see) people with a true passion for life in general and are naturally curious and well rounded people no longer engaging or seeking a career within your past field of work. I was always surprised, pleasantly I might add at the wide range of backgrounds and educational training so many within the wine world had. Degrees in arts & letters, science, engineering, philosophy, et al, and often at every level of the trade itself. There was a time I could easily name a dozen wine shops and name the people working there and even tell you something about them. We broke bread together, shared tips of where to go for dinner or travel, and could always count on getting sage advice and the opening of doors when traveling to wine regions anywhere in the world. Today I couldn’t name a dozen wine shops as they no longer exist and the ones ( always exceptions) that do exist rarely have the same people working as your last visit. I can’t even imagine the look or response one might get walking into these big box wine stores or grocery chains and saying I’m going to Champagne and Burgundy in three months and would like recommendations for wineries, restaurants and hotels! 🙃

I will close where I began; You won!


Tony Laveglia said...


You just wrote about my life too…..

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