Reflecting on my 20 years in the wine industry is bitter-sweet. My interest in wine began during the height of Cigar Aficionado’s celebrity-endorsed covers, helping a young college student like myself navigate the varied types of cigars produced. A habit I had picked up after reading Langston Hughe’s memoir ‘The Big Sea,’ where he retells his time working on an Oceanline as a deckhand before learning about the cigar trade in Cuba. I have gained much inspiration from Langston Hughes, cigars being the first. One particular article I was drawn to about cigars featured Bonny Doon’s Le Cigar Volante. The article’s premise laid out perfect pairings for cigars and wine, which made perfect sense at the time to pair these polar opposites of subtle and robust flavors together and couldn’t have been a clever marketing strategy by a publication that also owned Wine Spectator. The term “Le Cigare Volant” refers to the crazy ordinance adopted in 1954 in a village in Châteauneuf de Papé, in the Rhoñe Valley of France, which by decree prohibited UFOs from landing in their vineyards. (“Flying cigars” being the French term for cylindrically shaped unidentified flying objects.) The Owner of Bonny Doon, Randall Grahm’s ironic yet contemporary label, mixed the classic design of the french chateau wine label with his own sense of humor. The wine began as a homage to the Rhoñe Wine blend of Grenache Syrah and Mourvedre. Wines from California using these varietals from the Rhoñe region were quickly dubbed “The Rhoñe Rangers.” Producers like Randall Grahm were given their 15 minutes of fame before the flavor profiles of California’s Cabernet and Chardonnay wines put a stranglehold on the palates of many wine drinkers. Many of us who started in the wine industry during this time will point to Le Cigare Volante as their epiphany wine and have a bit of guilt for not being able to sell this wine to a fickle public who latches on to keywords and have never fully subscribed to the value of the varietals that encompass the region of the Rhoñe Valley. But I digress.
Like many, I started my wine career waiting tables at a Fine Dining Restaurant, where I learned the etiquette of service and applied the terminology that encompasses the wine world to up sale my tables to my favorite wines we carried. The chef who made the wine list sold bottles at cost to the waitstaff, and he became my first tutor in wine. For a young man in his twenties, I felt like Tony Montana from the movie ‘Scarface’ making more money than I had ever seen and blowing it all just as quickly. Lavish nights at Michel Richards Citronelle, where the menu options included a three-course Prix fix at $105 or the nine-course Promenade Gourmande at $190 (plus $90 for wine). Nights that setback quite a bit back then with a date. Of course, the bottle of Champagne and my favorite Oregon Pinot Noir did some damage too. Citronelle was still one of the best dining experiences I have ever had.
Langston Hughes’s second influence on me was the travel bug, and I had grown restless in the DC metro area and decided to trade it in for South Beach, Florida. I suggest every young person lives in New York or Miami in their twenties, and being broke is part of the charm. I also recommend only staying for a short time and leaving before the dirt and the grime of life in Miami has a chance to stain. During this time, I gave up cigars to roll my cigarettes because I am that guy, and I took my first job selling wine. A precursor to selling wine, I sold encyclopedias door to door. A position I proudly hold on my resume as an experience ripe with knowledge about the universe and invaluable for the lessons on influencing people. If you can sell a set of encyclopedias with the bonus child development learning pack and DVDrom in the late 1990s to random people whose door you happened to knock on, you can sell anything.
So taking on my first wine sales job I thought would be a cinch. It turned out the person dynamic I was used to was slightly different when you are selling wine over the phone. Compiled by the fact my employer was a little less reputable than my previous “Family Learning Center” employer had been previously, I ended up being less successful than I had imagined when taking the job. That is not to say that I did not sell any wine, in fact, I sold a bunch of wine the first few weeks, cases to random people on my employer’s list of numbers that were obtained in less than honorable ways. I even sold a case of Icewine at $80 a bottle, which was pre-2005 before the prices of wine skyrocketed. The sales pitch I used at the brokerage was we were a broker who bought wine from wineries worldwide that could not sell all of a vintage themselves. The brokerage bought whatever was left at a drastically reduced price and then passed the savings on to our best clients. The premise was ingenious, but the execution left much to be desired, and after a year of selling the same ten wines, I knew it was time for a change.
Following in Langston’s footsteps once again, I made the ocean my new home waiting tables on a cruise ship line based in Hawaii. Learning from my first foray into waiting tables, I did not spend all of my nights in the crew bar. Instead, I devoted my wages to traveling and managed to put together a decent savings account. The term “Work Hard, Play Hard” sums up life on a cruise ship where most of the staff live below the waterline and work up to 70 hours a week. It is an experience I would not trade for the world, and if I had life to do over again or were put in charge of the learning system in America, I would encourage everyone to do something similar before college as their first microcosm of the world.
I would probably be out at sea to this day if one of life’s curve balls hadn’t gotten in the way. I had been all set to take up yachting and had applied and been accepted into a course in Annapolis, Maryland, to become a captain and learn how to navigate a yacht. At the time, there were only a few schools in the world where you could learn the trade for the size boats I wanted to sail. While I had stacked up some cheddar working on the cruise ship, it was barely enough for the courses in Maryland and not close enough for some of the schools in other places. So, when I was informed by the school that the next semester had been canceled because the instructor was stuck in the Virgin Islands with a staph infection in both legs, I had to make other plans for a while. This event restarted my work in the wine industry when I got a job working as a wine associate for a big box retailer that at the time had just added their 13th store.
My intention was to stay at the retailer for a year before resuming my goal of a life at sea, but another urge soon took over, and my seagoing life has been on pause ever since. Until this point, I had failed to mention my wife was the Bonny to my Clyde during most of these adventures. When we got off the cruise ship, we had spent some time traveling by Chevy Trailblazer across the West, visiting National Parks. Loaded with cases of 2 Buck Chuck, we made our way to my hometown of Colorado from LA. Sleeping in the car during the cold nights of March on Dantes Peak and not sleeping a wink in a trailer home converted motel in the Four Corners area was just another day in our life. Seeing the snow-capped, bright orange, and light tan fine-grained sedimentary rocks of the Claron Formation that make up the distinctive Hoodoos in Bryce National Park inspired me to want to return someday with my children. This notion did not coincide with the jet-setting lifestyle I was trying to obtain.
A set of promotions for both my wife and I had sealed the deal, and before we knew it, we were a family with a boy and girl twins. I worked at the big box retailer during an interesting time in the wine world where anything was possible, including wine from a paint can. Just before the growth in the Asian markets for Bordeaux, the height of wine magazine subscriptions, during the housing crisis of 2008 (The Greatest Generation are still the OG’s, but Generation X’ers have seen their fair share). Anyway, those were exciting times of overnight drastic price changes, scarcity due to a great review from a publication, and one minute your best customer is buying cases of Bordeaux then overnight buying bottles instead of cases and looking for a case of Malbec to drink during the week were all commonplace back then. Even the Aussies had their moment as leaders of the pact, but much of the wine industry is built on fads and as the saying goes, “Easy come easy go.” The company I worked for was relatively small at that point compared to today, and as a Wine Manager, it was back-breaking but fun days of selling an era of wine with some of the best wines ever made and having a lot of autonomy to do so. I was fortunate to have my first trade trip to California’s premiere wine regions and another trip to France, Italy, and Spain during that time. These were my first glimpse into the regions, wineries, and people who produced my favorite elixirs and influenced what was important to me in my own buying habits. I would make the wineshop circuit around the DC area finding hidden gems and bargains on wines that were not the darling of the moment but were just as good or better than whatever was being hyped at the moment.
One of the perks of working in the wine business is some free wine you will receive from time to time, but my Economics class taught me that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Every opportunity has a cost, and the long hours on your feet working retail was the cost. About the time when my body couldn’t handle much more, another opportunity came my way, and after several interviews and being passed for another candidate, I was hired by a Wine Distributor. Going from a Wine Manager at some of the most profitable outlets in the company to a starter route filled with ghost accounts was a huge transition. Luckily, I had gotten the job during an era where salespeople actually sold wine and were not beholden to supplier goals, and portfolio managers brought in a winery’s whole lineup and not just their best sellers. Not to mention sampling budgets were not as scrutinized, so you could take a risk and bring your customer’s oddball wines and sometimes hit a home run in the market. I could sniff out the best of our portfolio but then also collect my competitor’s wines from the same regions I fell in love with while tasting my own portfolio. Gave me a better understanding of who was making great wines and not drinking the company’s Kool-Aid.
Another perk of the wine business is the trips to wine regions. Many of the trips as a salesperson are based on your sales. I went on many trips (Me brushing the dirt off my shoulder). Not to sound spoiled; however, I must add that the first couple of times visiting a wine region is great, but you are with your co-workers, and while co-workers were awesome, the downfall is you are not on your own schedule and not necessarily visiting your favorite wineries to put things into context. When I was promoted to a Wine Specialist with my distributor, I even had the chance to take a client on a trip after winning a sales contest, which was one of the highlights of my career with the distributor. My favorite part of the position was working with the ambassadors, winemakers, and owners whose dedication is inspiring, and getting to know the people behind the wines is still my favorite part of being a wine enthusiast.
Now, as a writer, my concentration is on fiction, mainly wine murder mystery and crime suspense thrillers. My first novel comes from the Serial Killer genre and is a wine-themed play on the serial killer trope called “Somm Killer.” A quick synopsis is:
Restauranteurs, Chefs, and Critics are all fighting to discover the next hottest trend, but nothing compares to the competition between “want to be celebrity” Sommeliers. Now, an unknown Sommelier has come back to the city where it all began for him. LA sparked his love for wine, which quickly metamorphosed into a far deadlier pursuit. Sylus Cargill is the embodiment of a man pushed too far, whose vengeance is procured through a collection like no other. Will Hunter Grey and Susan Gladford be able to solve the case before becoming part of Sylus’s collection?