If You Have Sold Wine Through A Distributor, You Have Been On The Blind Date “Ride With”

By Dennis Carroll, Head Hooligan

Disclaimer: this rant will only be meaningful to wine industry insiders. However, it’s one of the best examples of why selling wine in the United States is one of the strangest, most archaic, socially awkward, humiliating and straight up funny experiences anyone can have while trying to build a wine brand.

Both the economic realities of building national brands and the individual state laws imposed on alcohol sales require wineries to use distributors to sell wine in the United States.  My customers are the distributors I have contracted with around the country and in some cases around the world.  However, distributors are not really “customers” in the typical vendor/customer sense of the word.  Wineries, or as we are typically called in the industry, “suppliers” and distributors are partners in the effort of selling and building brands in the United States.  Distributors are the entities that actually send sales reps out into the market to sell the supplier’s wine to retailers and restaurants. 

Distributors take care of the logistics to accept, process and deliver the wine to their accounts.  The distributor also extends credit and collects from the thousands of accounts they do business with in their respective markets.  Distributors perform these services for multiple suppliers with multiple brands. Distribution is every bit as tough a business as the winery business, but both have their own unique set of issues ranging from capital requirements, risk profile, personnel challenges, etc.

Both suppliers and distributors want the same result: successful brands.  However, there is a built-in conflict between supplier and distributor in getting to that end goal. Whereas the supplier is only concerned about their products, the distributor has to be concerned with many products from many suppliers.  As I have been told by some distributors, “my job is to keep the majority of suppliers only mildly disappointed”.  Suppliers are always trying to figure out how to become the “favorite” child of the distributor and garner more attention, hopefully translating into successful brands.

Somewhere in the history of the supplier/distributor relationship, the “ride with” was born.  In some office, in some city, someone came up with the idea that a supplier should come into a market to “work” with some of the distributor’s sales reps in order to build a bridge between supplier and distributor, help the distributor’s sales team understand the wines, introduce the supplier to some key accounts and ultimately sell some wine in the market. 

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

All of those reasons sound logical and worthy of dedicating time and money for market visits.  And remember, most suppliers will do almost anything to get any incremental attention from a distributor.  On the whole, the “ride with” provides the supplier an opportunity to get exposed to the market and a small sample of retailers and restaurants.  The supplier can also build rapport with individual distributor sales reps during the time they spend with them riding or walking around to accounts.  If the sales reps take a liking to your brands, you have a better chance for success.

Sounds good, right?  Well… nothing is quite what it appears to be.  I have been on hundreds of “ride withs” over the years and they range from incredibly productive to hysterical wastes of time.  Here’s a blow by blow on how a “ride with” works and some of the dark humor I have observed in various markets across the country:

The scheduling aspect of the “ride with” is partnering up a sales rep with a supplier representative (owner, supplier regional manager, etc.)., and these appointments are generally set months ahead of time.  Why?  Every supplier, regardless of past “ride with” success, wants to be on the calendar in hopes that the magic will happen and your brands will take quantum leaps in distributor awareness and sales based on the latest “ride with”.  Regardless of how many all-out busts I have been on, I go into the next appointment thinking this is going to be a magical one!

Once the appointment is set, contact is made between supplier and sales rep.  Travel plans are made by the supplier and we soldier into the market to spend a day with the sales rep where we hope to educate, sell, and build a bond.  You will spend the day with someone you have never met and who may or may not be familiar with your products.

Now, wait a minute… didn’t I just say the distributors are partners in trying to build the brands?  Don’t sales people know what they are selling?  The answer is… yes and no.  That sales rep is tasked with selling hundreds of brands.  If your brands are new or if you’re not a “big” supplier there is a good chance the rep has never tasted your wines.  It took me a long time to not be offended that the rep had not even tasted the wines we would be presenting to accounts.  The reality is these young sales reps have so much to do and they don’t have time to become intimate with every single brand…especially small ones.  Going into every “ride with” I assume the rep will not know anything about me, the brands, or what our sales proposition is going to be.  It’s up to me to educate, sell and inspire this young person to become part of “Hooligan Nation”.

Usually you arrange to meet the rep at a coffee shop somewhere close to the first account you will be visiting on their route. With the exception of Manhattan, you are typically riding around in a car, thus the “ride with” tag.  This is your first physical contact with the sales rep.  If there ever has been a situation where first impressions are meaningful this is it.

Personal note- I am the product of a German mother who maintained our house at museum-level organization at all times… 24x7!  She cleaned behind the refrigerator on a weekly basis.  Who does that?  Needless to say, I was conditioned to like clean and organized, unlike my brother who would have made a good sales rep.   

The sales rep’s car nine times out of ten is a mess.  Is it petty on my part? Probably.  Since most of the sales reps are about the age of my kids it takes all my self-restraint to not smack them on the side of the head and tell them to clean the car before I get in.  But, they are not my kids and I need them a lot more than they need me.  So, I move the papers, food wrappers, cans, etc. and take my seat in the car.

Now begins what is perhaps the most awkward personal interaction situation in the business world.  Someone has to break the ice.  Given I am usually the oldest person in the car, I do the icebreaking.  The best way to describe this situation is a “blind date”.  Two people who know nothing about each other are going to spend the day together selling wine, driving for hours in a car and most likely having lunch together… what could possibly go wrong?  

In my personal life, I never went on a blind date (I took the high school sweetheart-to-wife of 33 years route).  In my professional wine selling life I have gone on hundreds of these blind dates.  I have developed great empathy for people who have had to go on blind dates in hopes that one will be worthy of a second date.  Sometimes you can tell that the distributor’s management has “forced” you on the sales rep for the day when there is a late substitution.  I imagine the rep being told at the last minute that they will have to take this Wine Hooligan guy out for the day.  There is nothing quite like feeling you are the fat cousin of the distributor who couldn’t get their own date.

During the get-to-know-you phase, the sales rep goes over the account list we are going to see.  It’s usually a combination of retailers and restaurants where we will be presenting the wines.  Once the route is set, I ask the standard question: “Have you tasted the wines?”  More often than not, I get the deer in the headlights look from the rep.  “Habada de habada. Well er, no, I didn’t have time, got samples late, dog ate my homework…” I get it, you didn’t taste the wines.  I try to put them at ease. “No big deal. Taste through the line at the first stop and listen to how I describe the wines and pitch them to the store or restaurant.”

Now that the elephant in the car has been addressed, we can start our day selling wine at the retailers and restaurants where we have appointments set up.  It’s what I like to call entering the Twilight Zone.  My blind date and I are about to engage in trying to sell products in one of the few remaining highly fragmented consumer product categories in the United States.  How many items in a store are sold by sales reps item by item, store by store and restaurant by restaurant… not many.

Over the years, I have broken down the Twilight Zone into the following zones:

Retail Store “Zone”

In general you are going into retail stores when they are open for business.  The people you are meeting are trying to conduct business while you are presenting your wines.  Servicing customers, taking inventory and answering the phone all continue to go on as you are pitching your heart out for a wine you have brought to life over a two-year period.  To say it is not an optimal setting is like saying it’s probably not a good idea to keep the football game going on TV when your wife says she wants to discuss something important: she probably doesn’t have your full attention.  Nonetheless, you keep pitching.  You keep trying to explain the wine and why you think it will do well in the store. 

The retail stores break into three general categories:

1. Small Wine Shop

This is generally a local wine shop, staffed with a knowledgeable team who offer a fair assessment of your wines based on tasting through the portfolio.  Sometimes you will get a buyer at one of these stores who just wants to talk… about anything.  Although interesting to talk with, you have to keep the day moving.  The sales are tough and the shelf space is tight.  Of course, shelf space can open up depending on how good the deal is for the wine.

2. Multi Location Retailer

Size and wine knowledge are all over the board with these retailers.  Most of the wine is corporate-mandated, but sometimes the store can make independent buys.  The stores are busy and distractions are high.  What should take 10 minutes can take an hour.  There is lots of looking around the store and trying to kill time while waiting for an opportunity to present.  If I am with a sales rep who doesn’t really want to be on a blind date with me I notice they are taking down orders for other brands, fielding phone calls from the office, or talking with other supplier reps milling around the store.  It’s like watching one of those sappy movies where one person on the blind date doesn’t really want to be there and will find any distraction to avoid conversation with their “date”. 

Sometimes you get some interest with the presentation, and sometimes you get a sale.  Usually store people are positive about the wines but over the years I have learned to separate “positive” from “likely to buy”.  I can tell you from body language if they will buy the wines.  My date, if it’s going well, will be in close proximity to the presentation. If it’s not, they are conveniently on the phone.

3. Big Single Store

These are large single location wine, spirits and beer stores that typically have been around for many, many years in a market.  The managers have also been there for many, many years.  The stores are big accounts and very important to the sales reps.  I can’t tell you how many times I have driven up to one of these stores with a rep and have them tell me, “just to let you know Bill/Betty is a tough person to deal with.  I am not sure how this is going to go.”  These types of appointments have yielded the strangest results of all the “ride withs” I have been on over the years.  They range from managers telling me and the rep that they don’t have time to talk today (even though an appointment was set up and the store is dead) to being ignored by the store manager for up to an hour.  It’s part of the beautiful mosaic of selling wine in the three-tier system.  Some of the store managers like to haze the reps the minute we get in the door.  It is tantamount to a football locker room where you can’t quite tell if they are kidding or are pissed.  The manager complains about orders, pricing, quality, disruption of the visit (even though they agreed to the appointment), and more.  From California to Boston, the scene plays out to the same script almost every time.

After 35 years in business, it’s impossible for anyone to insult me.  In my younger days I was all about passion.  Passion to get the job done whatever the obstacle, and a very short fuse for bad manners.  After 35 years I am far more interested in compassion.  I try to connect with these managers in the brief time I am in their stores and let them know I was once a retailer and I understand their issues.  If you deal directly with the public in a store for decades, trust me you won’t be sunshine and rainbows every day.  Usually that works and I walk out of these stores feeling better than when we walked in.  Most of the time my blind date is happy with me. 

As the day goes on I try to get to know my blind date.  We have made a few stops, presented the wines at some retailers with varying success and they have listened to the presentation a few times.  I have also tried to tell them about Wine Hooligans.  I want them to understand what we are trying to do and why they are critical to our success.  I want them to see us as more than another wine they have to sell.  I want them to feel that they are a part of building something.  Sometimes that connection is made and sometimes it isn’t.  When it does happen, you can see the rep getting involved in the company’s story

.…..the day goes on.  

We are now entering the Restaurant "Zone":

These appointments usually come later in the day, simply because restaurants open later.  Unfortunately, that compresses the time restaurants have for appointments and leads to the dreaded “flight deck” syndrome.  This is where you may have eight other reps in front of you waiting to present their wines to the restaurant.  I feel like I am on the tarmac of an airport sitting in an airplane for an hour waiting to take off.  All of the reps are fighting for the same thing… a by-the-glass placement on the restaurant’s wine list.  After a couple of these stops, you wonder why you are in the wine business.  But it has to be done and it’s a critical, albeit a painful and expensive way to build your brands.  At this point there is nothing to do but talk to my date some more.

After a few restaurant calls are made, the day is finished.  Did we sell any wine?  It’s hard to tell as very few accounts order on the spot.  Did we make an apostle out of the rep?  Maybe.  I hope so.  Is there any option to participating in the “ride with”?  Not when you are starting brands, there isn’t.

Here’s a secret: Although strange considering all of the above reasons, and perhaps not very economically prudent, I have come to love the “ride with”.  I like meeting the reps, I like being in the market and talking to the store and restaurant people, and most of all I like telling the Wine Hooligans story and what we are doing with our brands.  It doesn’t resonate with all parties, but what the hell?  When compassion and curiosity are part of your everyday life, it makes for an interesting journey. 

To all the reps I have ever worked with and all the store/restaurant people I have met… thanks for your time.  That even goes for those of you that thought I was the fat cousin of the distributor’s owner!  Someday I will go on the perfect “ride with” where everyone loves the wines and buys them on the spot.  Then I will get on my Unicorn and fly home.