Size Matters – The Death of Relationship Marketing in the Wine Business

Saturday the 21st of February of 2009 started off as, and held all the promise of continuing on as, one of the more promising days in the history of my now 10 year old wine shop.  I had been invited to speak on a live radio program, a radio program with a listenership and recent ratings rivaled by few in its genre and time slot as of late, so, naturally, I was stoked.  “Finally”, I thought, “a chance to tell the ‘every-man’s’ story”

My hostess for the day, as jovial and engaging as her former guests that I shared a friendship with had described her, coaxed her listeners into partaking of the day’s call-in portion of the show.  She described the day’s prizes, gift cards from hip local eateries, with such gusto that the phone lines immediately began to light up.  As she acknowledged the Christmas tree effect of the phone bank before her to the listening public, she took matters one step further.  With added fervor, she began to describe the day’s Grand Prize, the Roll’s Royce of saucepans, as she precisely described this piece of culinary perfection, and with that she unveiled the day’s questions.  The phone lines were packed!

One by one, as my hostess for the day took answers from eager callers, callers burdened with only one task before they retrieved their precious gift of the day, these unprovoked callers, as if former lovers forgotten in time, lovingly spoke of my wine shop as their destination of choice for their wine purchases.  My hostess, with eyebrows raised, was both shocked and seemingly impressed.  These responses from her callers had in no way been coerced. These callers, speaking on their cell phones or from home, hoping to win a dinner or sauce pan were innocently plugging MY wine shop.  I was proud, I was actually more stunned than my hostess.  Throughout the rest of the show, even through the full five or more minutes she allowed me to speak without interruption towards the end of her program, those words from those initial callers gave me more hope for the future than any I have encountered over the past 10 years.  I was as giddy as a lad at Christmas.

That buoyancy carried my right out into the pouring rain.  I looked right up into the downpour, fully dressed for work, and with outstretched hands, resembling some campy movie-set scene; I very nearly wept.  Could this be my moment in this decade-long uphill battle against Goliath? Could this be the ripple in the lake that becomes the tide to sway?  Could this be the moment I’ve waited for since I so innocently set out to save the world from corrupt commercialism?  Could this be?

I arrived to work, disheveled and soaked, but pumped and ready for the day.  After settling in and making a fresh pot of coffee, I set about performing my favorite task of the day: writing about wine.  I decided to write about one of my old favorites, Domaine Maume on that Saturday.  Maume has long-been one of my favorites, going back as far as I’ve been legal to drink wine.  I drank the Father’s version and today I drink the son’s.  It seemed fitting to author my thoughts on Maume on that particular Saturday, as I have hopes of one day turning over a successful wine business to MY offspring.  And just as the offspring at Maume has lovingly out-shined the Father, I sincerely hope my daughter will too completely outshine dear ol’ Dad – IF she so selects to carry on the torch.

Before I introduce the “Brit”, I’d like to talk a moment about the meaning of relationships in the wine business, or at least the meaning of relationships as they ONCE applied to my line of work.  I began in the wine business, not so long ago it seems, but truly in another world and time compared to today, when allocations and a wine-maker’s finest and most-prized releases were destined for the hands of the people who proved commitments over many years.  Today’s old timers – people like Wasserman, Weygandt, Dressner and the like – continue to perform, well, as we old timers always have.  Importers who represent the finest Burgundy estates, or any other of the world’s finest estates, also including Rosenthal, are set in their ways.  Once a merchant establishes a pattern of supporting every vintage, the sublime AND not so critically acclaimed, that merchant is in line for the best the importer has to offer.

Some in the world of wine have attempted to circumvent this brotherhood.  These vultures are known as grey-marketers.  They arrive in un-air-conditioned Renaults to the finest Burgundy or Rhone estates, wine magazines in the glove box, misrepresenting themselves as Michelin-rated restaurant wine list buyers.  Once a few cases are secured and loaded into the trunk, it’s off to a steel shed in Beaune, also un-air-conditioned to await a large enough collection of these fine samples for a boat to America.  Months, or perhaps years later, these grey-marketed wines, shipped, stored and handled with ZERO thoughts of provenance or temperature control, arrive to pre-determined shops, primarily on the West Coast.  From there, these wines end up in the wine cellars of folks all across America. 

These grey-marketers were the first evidence of the death of relationship marketing in the wine business.  The importers I’ve mentioned above, and many others, spent their lives ferreting about the back roads of France and Italy to discover, face-to-face, the world’s artisanal wine-maker’s.  With passionate prose and the cost of thousands of samples nearly breaking their bank accounts, these importers flew coast to coast, showing their discoveries to like-minded folks with boutique wine shops and fine dining establishments.  The big discount liquor stores and giant discount wine chains couldn’t be bothered, though.  “It’s not a national brand, get out.”

If all of this sounds as if your author speaks from first hand knowledge, that is because I do.  As an importer of one wine in particular, I was determined to make my voice heard.  I followed the advice of my import brethren at that time and submitted the wine for sampling to two major wine publications.  The scores came out and my humble farming couple, who spoke not 1 word of English, had suddenly received 93 points!  I sold every bottle.  And you guessed it, a couple of years later, in a large wine shop I had never visited, my precious farming couple’s labels were right there for me to witness; under someone else’s import strip!

Today, for the initiated wine buyer, for those wishing to avoid heat damaged highly-rated wines from the best importers, there is a solution.  The best importers have implemented a numerical inventory system; a system for tracking the wine’s voyage.  Folks who purchase wine simply based on a review do have some security. Now this purchasing simply based on a review is something I am strongly against, as the history and the relationship with the winery are far more important than a numerical score.  However, the goal here is to protect those who have spent time building relationships, so I’ll save that speech for another day.

The registered importers for these highly sought after producers will have their own import strip on the back of every bottle, that part should be obvious.  When you read these glowing reviews from whomever, pay close attention to the designated importer.  If your reviewer is not designating the importer, my position is that your reviewer is not concerned with the relationship the importer has with his clients nor the winery.  Once you know the registered importer, you know full well the 1 person saddled with the responsibility of shipping the wine properly.  If you buy a single bottle of wine without the proper import strip, you get what you deserve. 

These registered importers also now include on the front label a tracking number; that’s the inventory system I made mention of a moment ago.  When Weygandt walks into my shop, he can pick up a bottle of Clos Saint Jean Cuvee Deus Ex Machina and know, with absolute certainty, that it is the genuine article and in pristine condition.  If you bought this wine from a giant package store, without Weygandt’s back strip and inventory tracking number, you get what you deserve.

Returning to the “Brit” now, I was having a grand day; the radio show had gone swimmingly, folks were picking up cases of wine, the rain had passed and the sun was beginning to shine.  From across the shop, all 1,500 square feet of it, stocked with names to include the best from Wasserman, Weygandt, Ideal, Corso, Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch – you get the picture – I’m approached by a 5 foot 7 inch tall man with a decidedly British accent.  Missing a finger on his right hand, but with a full smile, without hesitation he blurts out, with complete disgust in his voice “Man, you really have a small selection and a small store here.”  It was as if I had been hit in the gut by a heavy weight boxer.

From the moment I entered this city, Houston, I have set about to preach the importance of building relationships in the wine business.  You’ll never find the vast majority of my selections offered for sale on the shelves of an 80,000 square foot liquor store.  Why?  Because the importers remember.  They remember how they’ve been treated by the buyers at these places.  They remember how these same types of places in other markets treat them.  They remember how these same stores will turn to grey-marketers once the wines (wines these same buyers shunned as not being national brands) hit the pages of major wine magazines. 

But most of all, the importers and their representatives remember that the little shop now back in the Village HAS supported their brands for a decade now.  They know that the little shop in the Village, with its (sadly) ever dwindling list of clients, still believes in the relationship.  The little wine shop in the Village – the ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND IN THE ENTIRE CITY – still holds out hope for the return to relationship marketing in the wine business.

The “Brit” left empty handed that day, no bottles of Maume, Perrot Minot, Lamy, Rossignol, Deus Ex, Combe des Fous or anything else in his hands.  No relationship was built on that day.  He asked directions to Costco, however.  And with saddened heart, but resolve, I offered directions to not only that establishment, but to the 80,000 square foot Goliath as well. 

And then I closed early for the day and went home to play with my daughter…

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005