Wine Talk

Snooth User: Michael Bennett

From a winemakers point of view.

Original post by Michael Bennett, Mar 11, 2013.

Before I retired I did a stint as chairman of Hawkes Bay Vintners (all the wineries in Hawkes Bay) and was asked to write a short article for the local newspaper. All the wineries offered tasting of most of their wines and sometimes I felt, the public didn't really understand how enthusiastic winemakers were about their product.

"Lets do the wineries this weekend!"

A phrase to make the most hardened winemaker cringe! In the 60's and 70's the phrase meant just that and the winemakers didn't object too much because sherry and port were the order of the day and not much reference to grapes was required. We could make more sherry from a ton of grapes than God could put into them! Customers would sit in the cellar's convivial atmosphere and tipple for an hour or two before wending their way home with enough under their arm to last until next time. It was a way of life in Auckland's western suburbs and to a lesser extent , in Hawkes Bay, but times were to change.

Someone noticed that the climate of Hawkes Bay was not too different from that of Bordeaux and winemakers arrived from other parts of New Zealand as well as Australia and France and their interests were in quality table wines . In the late 70's and early 80's wines were produced on a small scale which astonished overseas experts with their ripe fruit character and long lingering finish.. In the early 80's regulations were installed that forbade the addition of water to 'stretch' wine quantities, and , wonder of wonders, it tasted better!

The people of Hawkes Bay are fortunate. They have on their doorstep, the opportunity to aquire some of the finest wines in the world; not only that, but frequently the chance to taste before they purchase. What other business does this as a matter of course, (except for cheese- another fine art!) . No winemaker that I know will expect you to buy a wine that you dislike, but all would like to think that you will buy it if you like it. The intention is the crucial issue. Bear in mind that the winemaker, or his staff, know his wines well and can guide you in the logical sequence of tasting. He or she may ask questions regarding your preferences, not to be nosey, but to avoid assaulting your palate with a wine style which you may find unpleasant. Not only will your palate be offended but an automatic Government "donation" will be involved in the form of excise tax, as well as the commercial cost to the winemaker. The taster who asks to try the 'Chardon' will be told that Chardonnay is not Chardon, and with all due respects to Penfolds Wines both wines are unlikely to be appreciated by the same palate!

Only the consumer can tell a good wine. To paraphrase the poet, beauty is in the mouth of the beholder, and this is how it should be. A dusty bottle of Chateau Petrus may set you back a small fortune, but to one who dislikes a dry red wine it is a 'bad' wine, best taken to the nearest Hawkes Bay winemaker, who will probably give you a half a dozen bottles of anything you like to make you feel better! French champagne makers, when not sueing Antipodean bubbly makers, produce a wine considered over rated or even unpleasant by some, but fortunately there is still a hardy band of us who would drink enough to float the Rainbow Warrior if the opportunity is offered.

When next you visit a Hawkes Bay Winery, spare a thought for the winemaker. He loves his product and wants you to love it too but does not expect miracles. He frequently lives in the winery during vintage, when his hands are stained purple and grapes won't stop fermenting because it's Sunday, he labours at the mercy of the weather , like any farmer, the government does not love him and never has. Even after all this, he will try to recommend another winery, if you don't like ANY of his wines, but he may cry after you have gone!

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 17, 2013.

GregT has been known to put things in a provocative way, but he's sadly right that the skills needed to sell wine to a lot of folks who start out knowing little but what they liked one time probably don't involve lots of wine knowledge.  But if you start with some knowledge and you go to a smaller shop where the owner is on-site, or go to a specialist like K&L, chances are the folks do know what they are talking about.  They mostly aren't feeding you rubbish, but since taste is subjective, that doesn't always mean they will make perfect recommendations.

As for getting that retail experience, I applied at the Gap when I was in high school and didn't hear for ages--probably close to six months.  I got hired for back to school and days later was offered an early admit to college, which caused some problems because I didn't tell them until two weeks before I left. They liked my work and we talked about transferring me to the college town, but then things didn't really work out--my store manager was not thrilled to recommend me to another store based on my short time there, even though she was going to offer me a permanent job.  Fast forward ten years, and Gap corporate hires me to screen candidates for retail district management positions!  Later, they transferred me to NYC where I recruited advertising, design, and junior buyers. 

There's a ton of turnover in retail, so showing a willingness to put up with what GregT talked about, plus the irregularity of scheduling and the (usually) low pay are things retailers look at.  Just being personable in the interview is not a great indicator of how you'll do when you deal with potentially hundreds of people a day.  That said, I would think that turnover would be lower if they hired folks with an actual interest in the merchandise; that would help employees to weather the downsides of retail, knowing that they were themselves learning about the subject and the business.  Still, it didn't help when I was in publishing sales that I was much more interested in the authors of our books than the consumers. 

Reply by penguinoid, Mar 18, 2013.

Yes, true. Some of the things GregT mentions with regards to "attitude", ie not alienating customers, not talking on the phone whilst serving them, not rolling your eyes at customers, etc, I'd just regard as normal good manners. But how do you get that across during an interview? And how does the employer tell? Quite a lot of people with actual retail experience would fail that one ...

Personally, I'd be willing to put up with all that for a bit extra pocket money and staff discount on wine ;-). The one thing I'd be uncertain about is how to deal with people attempting to steal the merchandise. But I'd hope there'd be at least some training, and that would be covered by that.

When I was looking for retail work, I tended to mostly ignore fashion shops. They seem to prefer to employ people who look at least remotely fashionable, which I don't. I really don't think I'd be a good fit for that sort of work...

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 18, 2013.

All true, Penguinoid.  The funny thing is that I'm not at all fashionable these days, since my time gets spent in other ways, and I never was, strictly speaking, a fan of fashion.  I wanted to work at the Gap because it beat the hell out of fast food work, you got to meet girls, and you got the discount.  But I also had a reputation for always dressing for the occasion:  I'd never wear sneakers to a restaurant, or a ball cap indoors even as a teen, and I didn't buy anything that was cut poorly for my type.  Combine that with being the exact size of the sample clothes/fit models (men's clothing is designed in 15 1/2-34 shirts and 32" waist pants and sized up and down from there; shoes are 9 1/2 which I haven't worn since I was a kid, but no one looks at your feet until later and big extremities are an advantage, not a curse) and it was easy to seem as if I had style--my size predisposed folks to think my clothes looked as they should.

Whatever I do when my current career is over, it's going to involve getting discounts on wine, although I will start having to be realistic about buying things that won't mature before I expire.  I'm already severely cutting back on Baroli!

Reply by penguinoid, Mar 20, 2013.

Where I was living until fairly recently, if you dressed neatly and wore well-made clothes, that alone would mark you out as unfashionable...

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 20, 2013.

Brooklyn?  Oakland?  No, Adelaide!

Penguinoid, that just proves your neighborhood is hip and "Artisanal."  Here in the US the current fashion is to wear a shirt that's too small and looks like it came from a thrift store (but, oddly, with a penguin from the old Munsingwear days) for which you pay a lot, absurdly expensive jeans that will be outpriced and outtrended by some other jeans whose logo is indicipherable or some high-water khakis that, again, look like a thrift store reject.  Sneakers or faux work shoes, never polished, a messenger bag and lots of electronics are the accessories of choice.  Oh, and you must show your non-conformal nature by growing some facial hair and getting a tattoo. 

Of course, our parents thought we were going to the devil because we didn't always wear ties at work (well, I do now--courtrooms are very stodgy places) and wore sneakers and jeans to school, so I shouldn't really poke fun, but the effort folks put into looking bohemian as they pay small fortunes for small houses in my neighborhood--with large amounts of monetary help from mom and dad--amazes me.

Reply by EMark, Mar 20, 2013.

Observation from a college friend that was more insightful than I'd ever previously credited him:

     You non-conformists are all alike.

Reply by GregT, Mar 20, 2013.

Some of the things GregT mentions with regards to "attitude", ie not alienating customers, not talking on the phone whilst serving them, not rolling your eyes at customers, etc, I'd just regard as normal good manners.

Penguin - I'd hire you in a heartbeat. Which, given recent circumstances, is saying something. But good manners? I completely agree with you but it's like people don't care at all any more. They say, "I'm all about XXX," or "I have a downtown attitude" or whatever. It's childish and to me, the result of being indulged their entire lives. I was really excited when a good coffee shop opened near my work place and I'd stop in for fresh and pretty decent coffee in the AM. Then they got a new guy who'd kind of saunter over, put his finger in the cup, flip it up, fill it and once in a while take a call an talk about some event he was involved in so I'd know that he wasn't really a coffee guy, he was a super-cool musician. Finally one day I told him not to ever put his finger in my cup again.

Manners are by the wayside these days. It's impossible to tell how someone will work out from an interview, that's why people look for prior work experience and even that is hard to qualify sometimes. IMO, you're allowed to be nervous, you're allowed to be confident, you're allowed to be enthusiastic, you're allowed to be honest and say you're just looking for a paycheck, you're NOT allowed to be too cool for words. And BTW - you're not allowed to chew gum around me. Ever. Seems like an epidemic of bovine-looking, gum-chewing people are clacking and snapping everywhere around me these days. And with their mouths open no less!!!!

Sorry - I'm just on a rant because I just had 3 of my last four hires turn out badly. I even asked one if she chewed gum. "No," she said. A week later I walk by and hear the mucus, spit, and saliva. So maybe I don't know what the hell I'm doing.

Anyway, I'd probably even hire someone who could demonstrate passion and interest over someone who could demonstrate retail experience. Sufficient interest can make people put up with a lot, even with rude customers. Sorry I can't help. If you were in NYC I'd talk to whoever I could.

Maybe one thing to do is simply ask if you can work one day a week only for a discount because you want to learn. If you get the right people, telling them you want to learn will get their attention.

Best of luck!



Reply by penguinoid, Mar 21, 2013.

Foxall -- actually, I was thinking about the Gold Coast, Queensland where "beach fashion" is in. I've just moved back to Adelaide after being away for a while...

GregT -- I completely agree with you, and thanks for the encouraging comments. Pity I'm not in NYC!

Manners do seem to be a disappearing commodity, though I do vaguely remember reading a quote from a Roman author saying pretty much the sam thing about that time ... I don't chew gum at all, so would gain extra points with you for that, though I don't have anything that much against others doing so, I've just never wanted to.

I don't mind the rant. I can see why employers are quite conservative in chosing staff -- I've never actually had to employ anyone but I can guess it'd be a headache and getting the wrong person could be quite a problem. I'm just not sure I agree with the way they think is "safe" -- ie, only hiring people with prior experience -- but not too much experience, as then they'd have to pay them more!

I'm back studying at the moment, and have a studentship, so don't need the work right now. Still, having work a morning or so a week would be helpful if just to get experience.

Reply by GregT, Mar 21, 2013.

Yeah. Experience is increasingly hard to come by and it puts people in a bind. Get some experience, i.e. internship, work/study, summer job, etc., while in undergrad school so you can have a rounder resume for grad school. Get experience while in grad school so you can get a good job when you come out. Get experience while in law school so you can be hired when you come out.

I hired 2 attorneys within a few weeks of each other. Both fresh out of law school, one with zero experience and the other with 10 years of experience in management, but none as a lawyer. Neither could get a job because they didn't have legal experience as interns or something. I told the one to go back to management rather than law, because the experience provided an edge. Finally happened but there's still that small matter of overwhelming debt for that degree. . .

You're going into a field that interests you and you're passionate about it, so those are clear positives. People generally don't get into wine haphazardly. You gotta be realistic tho - it's one of those fields that  is considered rather glamorous so people are willing to work for peanuts. That drives salaries way down until you've established some kind of a reputation. It's like publishing or fashion or TV - the people at the top make zillions but they have armies of drones who are willing to take all kinds of crap just to be associated.  Actually, law is very much like that too - ask anyone who's put in time in a big firm. I have a few friends who did that, made a lot of money but worked 12 hour days. After a few years they couldn't take it so they chucked it and went into the wine business.  I guess I kind of did that too although I wasn't at a big firm.

Still, expressing your interest might help. I'd give it a shot. When I was in grad school, they'd set up these interviews with recruiters. There was a complicated formula for who got what, but the recruiters were there all day long interviewing one person after another and pretty much every young, bright, ambitious MBA student would feed them the same line of BS while wearing the same navy blue suit.

There was a company that syndicated real estate and I told my buddy about them - he'd never heard of them but was always looking for a way to make a few extra dollars. He signed up to interview with them and showed up in the late afternoon dressed pretty casually. I don't remember if he had just come from the gym or not but he was a power lifter and a huge guy. The recruiter looks up and asks him, "So why do you want to come to work at X?"

"I don't."

Now the recruiter is interested. He looks up and says, "Then why are you here?"

"I just want to pick your brain," my friend replied and sat down.

The recruiter says "Wow. That's the most interest I've heard all day!"

They talked for an hour, my friend asking the guy if he ever got a piece of the syndicate deals, about different types of property and depreciation in different areas of the country, etc. The recruiter was willing to offer him a job but my buddy wasn't particularly interested in working for them, just in knowing their business. He's a wealthy man these days, which was his goal, but I never forgot that story. I have other stories about him, some of them hilarious but the point of this one is that showing genuine and serious interest in someone's field or business can actually be a brilliant strategy, in part because it's not just an obvious strategy.

Reply by JonDerry, Mar 22, 2013.

I remember having all kinds of trouble grabbing a job when I was younger, though I wanted to work. Strangely, I wanted to be in an office since I was more of a numbers guy. Had to settle for being a caddy toward the end of high school, I was a golfer so it wasn't too bad. But then a foursome of women hired me one day, who didn't know how to play and went out with carts. It was a big cluster ____ . Anyway I quit after that crappy day, tired of that "servant" type of work. In college I got the easiest sort of job, a security guard, except it paid minimum and they'd try and cheat you on overtime, well they did actually. I did some Padre games, Del Mar fair stuff (furlong gate!), the odd high school graduation stuff (guarding campus overnight was the worst), and some open air concerts at SDSU (those were great). At least, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers put on a great show, this was in the early 00's. Then luckily my folks invested in a start-up skin care company and ten years in I'm still doing that. It's been rewarding to see it grow steadily over the years, but I always wonder where I'd be had I just entered the business world conventionally. There's still work to be done, but I dream of getting in to the wine industry like most of us. Would love to buy some land that could produce good fruit, just not sure where.

Reply by penguinoid, Mar 23, 2013.

GregT -- thanks for the advice. I always try to show interest in the field when I go for jobs -- not hard, as I genuinely do find wine fascinating. I'm already in grad school -- I didn't realise the importance of getting work experience when I was doing my undergrad. I don't think they offer any formalised work placements, but I should keep looking around for part time work, especially in retail. I find it harder to show enthusiasm for the employer, though I know that's probably a good idea. I try to, the hard bit can be remembering enough key points to show that you know who they are and what they do.

I've joked that once I've finished my course here, I'll go from companies telling me "I'm sorry, we can't employ you, you're underqualified" to "I'm sorry, we can't employ you, you're overqualified".

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