The (often) overlooked way to make money in wine

It seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning – to make money, you have to make sales. And yet, says Robert Joseph, the wine trade rarely thinks about who is doing the selling.

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Ice cream on a beach. Umbrellas on a rainy day. Toilet rolls. All of these products sell themselves.

Except, of course, they don’t.

Ultimately, almost everything needs to be sold by someone. In the case of well-branded products – cars, toilet rolls and Champagne – much of that responsibility is shouldered by the brand owner, who will spend a lot of money on marketing. But, even after the automobile industry collectively spent over $35bn globally on TV advertising, as it did in 2018, there still comes a moment where the customer has to be persuaded by the silver-tongued sales professional in the showroom.

Almost every corner of the wine industry desperately needs highly skilled sales staff, particularly right now. Unfortunately, the words ‘wine’ and ‘selling’ are heard far less often than ‘wine’ and ‘appreciation’ or ‘wine’ and ‘education’. The implication is always that consumers should develop their own ability to select the ‘correct’ bottle – ideally with the help of a well-informed wine writer.

In reality, however, the wine industry relies as much as any other sector on men and women who spend their days lugging samples and an order book from one prospective customer to another.

What makes a good wine salesperson?

Many people would respond ‘likeable personality and a good knowledge of the subject’.

When a young Dan Jago, who went on to run Tesco’s global wine department and Berry Bros & Rudd, first asked that question, he recalls being told: “As long as you’ve got an ego and a pair of shoes, you’ll be fine”.

Jago, whose father both loved fine wine and created commercial wine brands, undoubtedly started out with some wine knowledge. He probably, however, didn’t have as much as Ronan Sayburn MS, who briefly switched from working in restaurants to knocking on their doors with samples.

Yet as Sayburn admitted in an interview for Meininger’s Wine Business International, he wasn’t a very successful salesman; he was “too much of a sommelier. I'd sit down and taste all the wines and say ‘they’re all a bit closed and mean at the moment… How much do you want to buy?’”

What the research says

According to David Mayer and Herbert M. Greenberg, authors of a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, research into 7,000 salespeople in a wide range of sectors suggests that product knowledge is not what sets ‘A grade’ sales staff apart from the rest.

They maintain that, “Sales ability is fundamental, more so than the product being sold.” Mayer and Greenberg believe that while champion sales staff benefit from training, they generally start out with a combination of two separate characteristics that they’ve either been born with or picked up as children.

First, echoing Jago’s boss, there’s ego, in the shape of a “particular kind of ego drive that makes [the salesman] want and need to make the sale in a personal or ego way, not merely for the money to be gained”. They need to take an order in the same way as a professional tennis player needs to win a match. (I remember being told that playing competitive team sports was a prerequisite for anyone who applied for a job at Gallo.)

A great salesperson also needs empathy: the ability to understand the way another person is thinking. But the authors take pains to point out that empathy is not the same as sympathy – even when successful salespeople understand that the potential buyer may not be able to afford it, they keep trying to make the sale.

Setting aside Sayburn’s experience working for a wine merchant, I reckon that all top sommeliers fit at least part of the ego-and-empathy criteria extraordinarily well. Watch them prepare for competitions or qualifications, and you’ll be left in no doubt of their competitive spirit. Watch them at work, discerning whether the customer on table seven is on a first date or looking to impress a client, and you’ll get an eyeful of commercial empathy. The top sommeliers are not unsympathetic target-focused obsessives; far from it. They want happy customers who keep coming back for more. They also know how to sell, because it’s part of what they do.

That’s not the case for students who follow WSET or MW courses. If they get far enough up those ladders, they’ll all receive instruction on how to train a vine, even if most of them will never need to do so. But they won’t learn how to persuade a customer to buy the liquid that vine will produce. And the same is true of far too many wine courses: selling is always somebody else’s responsibility.

That wouldn’t be a problem if producers invested in hiring salespeople or even in offering sales training to existing staff. Unfortunately, too many companies don’t.

Far too many wine producers still rely on their wines to sell themselves – or on giving the customer lots of product knowledge, rather than a reason to buy.

And it’s why the ones who take sales seriously are such glaringly successful exceptions.

Robert Joseph

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