Transitioning from the Floor


Moving from the sommelier world to the supply side.

When Matt (Stamp) asked me to write this article, my gut reaction was: “Sure, no problem.” Why?  Because that’s my general response to things in my life in the distribution of beverage alcohol. Call it wine, call it liquor, call it saké—whatever you want to call it, in distribution it’s all beverage alcohol. And it’s my job to distribute it. What follows won’t answer every question about how to successfully transition from the floor to the wholesale world, nor will it guarantee an interview. But I do hope to show how I got my foot in the door of distribution—and how I was able to take that small opening and capitalize on it. I can tell you what traits I look for (and what I don’t) when I’m hiring. And I can tell you the realities of a life in distribution—the work load, the hours, and the stress. Of course this is just one point of view, as seen from inside the world of one of the largest beverage alcohol distributors in the United States.

The question begs: why did I leave the floor? I’ll start at the beginning. Right out of college, I took a sales position in a different industry, where—amidst an otherwise awful experience—I gained key knowledge in business and sales. My first wine job came a few years later, and I started at the bottom, stacking boxes for a great retail wine shop. For two and a half years. But during this period I learned how to sell wine to consumers and how to buy wine for the shop. I learned to negotiate with distributors and suppliers while deepening my understanding of the sell-side of the business. I started developing relationships with the people that sold wine to me—the importers, the distributors, the winemakers, the owners—everyone I worked with. I met a Master Sommelier in my market for the first time. I learned a tremendous amount about wine in those years—I soaked up producers, labels, varieties, regions… all the little details that made wine cool and amazing and limitless.  I probably learned more about the world of wine in that period than at any other point in my wine life. I caught the bug.

With that experience (and a decent result at a sommelier competition), I transitioned into the restaurant world. I started out as an Assistant Sommelier (read: cellar rat) at a flagship fine-dining restaurant, and through good luck, fortune, and hard work I was out on the floor fairly quickly. I spent over three years as the Head Sommelier, and in that position I continued to develop new relationships and entrenched the ones I had—with distributors, suppliers, customers, anyone buying wine from me or selling it to me. Building positive relationships with the people you buy and sell from pays dividends, now and down the road. In fact, the real value of my efforts here would become much clearer only after my tenure as Sommelier ended. In the meantime, I was fortunate to pass the CMS Advanced and Master Sommelier Exams while working the floor, and I continued to work for the company for nearly two years after achieving the MS diploma. But life, as it often does, got in the way. My wife and I were blessed with a beautiful child, and the work demands of a floor position left little time for my family. I wanted to be home, to be around on the weekend, to spend the holidays with my family. I wanted to see my child grow up. All those things you tend to lose out on in the restaurant business.  

I took a position in education—decent pay, great hours, plenty of time off. But for reasons beyond my control, things didn’t pan out. Frankly, all hell broke loose. I was in need of a job. Quick. So I looked back to all those relationships I had cultivated in almost seven years in the wine business. When things started to disintegrate, I called three people. All three had one thing in common: none currently worked in restaurants. (I was dead-set against going back to the floor.) Each worked in distribution or as a supplier. These were people I had made a point of getting to know well. My end of the conversation went something like: “Hi. I need a job.”  And upon hearing my story, one of them (a distributor) said, “let’s talk.” Now this was in 2009—the economy was tanking, and no one was creating new positions. Yet this company did just that. I drove down to meet with the Executive Vice President, and a few days later I got a call: they wanted to bring me on. They had no idea what I was going to do, but they knew they wanted me to work for them. It was up to me to figure out what I could do for this distributor. It’s the old Harvard thought process: any job worth having is one that has to be created for you.  

I knew a few things. I knew a little bit about selling, and I knew a little bit about wine and spirits. I knew I could create a kick-ass PowerPoint. And I knew something about the way business works. I didn’t know the first thing about distribution, but business? Sure.

So, thousands of hours and five-plus years later, I run a 30-person division that handles both importing and the wholesale distribution of beverage alcohol. We develop budgets, make deals, help bring in new brands, drive case goals, run a good number of consumer events, train a lot of resort and restaurant staff members—all with an employer that understands what the Court and the Guild means to me personally and to the buyers, suppliers and consumers. They took a chance on me, and I hope they are happy.

Are you considering a similar transition off the floor? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The myths about distribution:

  •  “All distributors do all day is eat, taste, and talk.”
  • “It’s so great—I’ll be home by 5 pm every day and have my nights and weekends free.”
  • “There’s no way I’ll be working as much as I did on the floor."
  •  “All you do is taste cool wine.”

The facts about distribution: 

  • Every meal out is work. Every taste of wine or spirit is work. Every discussion is work.
  • I would guess that the average Sales Associate (sales rep) works around 60 hours a week, and often puts in seven days a week during the busy seasons. Conference calls begin at 8 am, paperwork and orders that didn’t get filled keep you at the desk until 10 am. Hit the street until 6 pm. Meet a supplier/boss/buyer(s) until 9 or 10 pm. Meet with a tasting group until 1 am.  Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
  • Depending on your territory, you can put 20-30,000 miles a year on your car. Most companies don’t reimburse your mileage.
  • I hear a lot of sommeliers want to get into education on the distribution or supplier side. Most of these positions are held by veteran and very successful former sales persons and managers. After all, education in distribution is primarily focused on selling techniques, not the soils of Alsace.
  • You sell what needs to be sold and what your buyers want to buy. These are not always the same thing.
  • It’s a very different line of work than what most expect. More hours, more stress.
  • Goals are an everyday stress, but they also provide job security.
  • Buyers can be very difficult (yes, you).
  • You repeatedly talk about a specific group of wines, not the world of wine.
  • There is always work to be done and precious little separation between work and home—you work out of your house and your car most of the time.

The highlights of a career in distribution:

  • You generally get out what you put in, and then some.
  • There is no set schedule.
  • You are on the dining side of the table, even if it is work.
  • You get to experience a wide variety of food and beverage.
  • You do get a good number of “normal” weekends off. And holidays!
  • The opportunity for growth—both personally and professionally—is huge.
  • You get to meet—and spend significant time with—really fascinating individuals, amazing winemakers, and different people from all corners of the industry.

Is it for you? Well, this is what I look for when I’m hiring someone:

  1. Attitude
  2. Sales Ability
  3. Sales Ability
  4. Sales Ability
  5. Relationship-building skills. Reading people is especially key and really impacts Sales Ability.
  6. Ability to juggle many different things at once.
  7. Business Skills
  8. Overall Knowledge

The truth is that you can teach someone everything they need to know to sell wine. You can’t teach passion. You can help passion bloom, but if someone doesn’t have the desire to learn, you can’t teach it.  I look for individuals who understand they know very little, but crave to constantly grow. I look for people who love the wine and spirits business. I look for people who know that every wine has a place somewhere—arrogance in distribution doesn’t work. Quality is subjective.

A sales rep for a distributor is a sales person, a confidant, a delivery person, a telemarketer, a business consultant, an analyst, an encyclopedia, a negotiator, a debt collector. In short, a sales rep is a problem solver. 

Many of these traits are already in a good sommelier’s repertoire. You already demonstrate sales ability. You can juggle many multiple tasks (i.e., tables) at once. You can read the guest. A savvy buyer can negotiate deals and quickly find holes (opportunities) in a list. Heck, you can probably even expertly sell wines you don’t personally relate to—talking up a bottle as the best thing ever just because you need to move through a million cases in inventory that your predecessor saddled you with. If you are thinking about transitioning from the floor to the warehouse, take honest stock of your own skill set. Take a good look at how well you understand the buying and selling of beverage alcohol, and remember: build those relationships! You never know when someone across the aisle is going to save your ass.

The writer of this story prefers to remain anonymous.