THE BUSINESS OF RELATIONSHIPS
Despite the somewhat nonchalant persona I may portray from time to time, I can and do have 'serious face' moments. You can't help it running your own business, you have to; in fact they're an essential requirement. As a result, I do a bit of reading, researching and watching of various commentators on their approach to business, marketing and branding, all in the aim of not only finding inspiration but also some guidance in what is at present, a highly competitive and challenging market place. Have I found all the answers? No, most certainly not. And let's face it, who really has?
Sometime back, I was watching a key note speech by author Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do?
, Public Parts
) where the question posed to the audience (whilst appearing simple in its asking, is complex in its answering) was 'what is the business you're in?' Well, the obvious answer for me was 'wine', wasn't it? Or was it?
It got me (slash us) thinking. What is the one asset paramount to our business, across all aspects, we literally cannot function without? And as cliché as it may sound, it's our 'network'. Wine may be the commodity, the passion, our expertise, but without our 'network' our business fails to function, whilst also failing to return on the investment our clients make in us. What's the business we're in Ben? The 'network' business Dan.
A diverse and valuable network does not simply happen overnight. They take time and, occasionally, money to build, develop and grow. They also need nurturing. Paramount to any successful network is the strength of the relationships made within. You really can't have one without the other, nor would want one without it. In this 'Game of Wine' (ahem) where so many of us play, the 'relationships' we forge are so very very important. And whether we like it or not, are the key to our success (and stress). What is the business we're in Ben? The 'relationship' business Dan.
So where is this going? Is this yet another one of my seemingly endless soapbox rants? Perhaps.
I was reminded of the importance of all this at a recent tasting where a high profile producer - showcasing their new releases - had just changed from a local to national distributor. Such decisions are not, nor should, ever be taken lightly and are a fine balancing act between 'commercial reality' and, again, whether we like it or not 'relationships'. That is indeed a gross oversimplification of a highly stressful and complex decision making process, but I think in essence, you see where I'm coming from.
Wine, when it all comes down to it, is so much about relationships. Our relationship with the distributor, the PR agency, the winemaker/producer and finally the relationship to the wine. Yes, 'wine' should of course be the most important, and sit first in the hierarchy, but in the cold hard light of reality, it often isn't. No, it's not always just about the wine and everybody knows it.The Relationship with the Distributor
Distributors are the intermediaries between the wine/producer and the buyer, and with what seems such saturation in the current market place, those who have built, over time, strong relationships/networks with sommeliers will undoubtedly have a much greater chance of listing the products they represent. Simple.
There are innumerable reasons why sommeliers buy the wines they do, and yes, quality of product is a given, but other considerations also must be taken into account. How many other wines do I buy from this distributor? What other options do I have at this price point? How easy is it to buy wine from them? Do they fuck up orders? The list goes on. All elements must be taken in to consideration and, speaking from personal experience, there are times when you love the wine but quite simply won't buy it from the distributor solely based on principal. This is usually due to their poor customer service and or poor handling of the relationship you have/had with them. There is no better way to make a point than ceasing all trade with a company; is there not? What was that about the cold, hard light of reality?
However, and on a more positive note, those who build strong relationships can reap the benefits. The proof is in the high profile listings and subsequent volume sales. Sure, a distributor may cost the producer plenty, but get the right one and ultimately they all win. From buyer, distributor and producer the perfect end game is a win, win, win. Unfortunately this is not the case often enough. The Relationship with the Producer/winemaker
Any distributor will tell you they sell more wine when the winemaker is in the room. And why wouldn't they? Who best to sell a product than the maker of it?
The producer/winemaker is charged with creating the wine/product itself and really the inherent responsibility to eventually sell it. We can talk of premium terroir from single vineyard estates and wine making processes (natural or not) till the biodynamic cows come home, but there is a commercial reality to everything, and wine is no exception. What use is any product if people aren't going to buy it?
There are a multitude of options available to producers to get their wine to market, though 'the right way' is a decision only 'they' can make and often change as they grow. As production/growth increases, the resultant financial investment can add significant pressures on their business. Can 'their' current distribution situation sustain growth, or is a move necessary?
So, the move to a single national distributor has significant appeal as surely one relationship is easier to manage than many? As a buyer, and consultant, I can relate to that; less can indeed be more, not only for buyers but also businesses. But the checks and balances, pros and cons must all be weighed as the ramifications can indeed be dire. Sometimes, the larger the distribution business the less 'personal' the service can be, and as a result one time strong 'relationships' - between sommelier and producer - can be tried and tested to the absolute limit. Can't the same be said for any large company?
Back to my example earlier of the producer who had changed distribution. Yes, some sommeliers had refused to deal with their new representative as a result of 'their' own previously poor relationships with the new wholesaler; a difficult situation indeed. However, the broader and wider (national) network had introduced their wines to a much larger and newer consumer base. This can't be that bad, can it?
A sommelier's refusal to purchase equates to losses in sales, and whilst any buyer is within their right to make such a brutal point, in the end it directly hurts the producer. What was that about the pros and cons?
These such decisions are critical for any producer. The balance of commercial reality and 'keeping everyone happy' is a fine and stressful line; relationships are often far from easy.The Relationship with the Wine
In the perfect Utopian world of purchasing wine, the quality of the wine should always be the most important consideration. It would be nice, wouldn't it? But in reality, you have to get past the PR people, the spin, the distributors, the producers et al, before finally getting to taste the product of their labours. Yet when you forge a strong relationship to the wine, where quality is king, it can trump all before it. You may not be able to tolerate those who come between you and the wine (or what you have to do to get it) but when the wine is 'that' good, you will do almost anything to have it. Wine can indeed be a stern mistress.
The quality of any wine is always paramount, and so it should be. But what if it's under cork? How consistent is it? What's the