The below post was my contribution to Cory Cartwright's 32 Days of Natural Wine series.
When I was out selling wine last week and I was waiting on a wine buyer, a young woman behind the bar asked me how I got into the wine business.
I said, "Well, it all started with lots of house music and late nights".
I had escaped the NY winter blues to visit friends in Oz. Money was running low after a few months of being a beach bum and I somehow scammed myself a bartending job at one of the hottest nightclubs in the city. My first night they threw me behind the bar, we had over a thousand thirsty clubbers. I did not understand a word they said between the pounding house music and their thick Aussie accents. We closed the bar down at 8 am. I had a blast. But I also knew I could make something more interesting than a rum and coke.
Over time I became a beverage manager for a hospitality group that owned a restaurant, a bar bistro and a huge nightclub. I began incorporating elixirs like Aperol and Averna, I started muddling fresh fruit, herbs and ginger into my cocktails. I called myself a mixologist because bartender did not seem to cover it anymore. Although I was not entirely certain what that term meant or where it came from. This was 1997.
At the same time, I started working on the wine lists for the restaurant and bistro. I was what the big wine distributors gleefully refer to as fresh meat. I did not even realize that I was supposed to spit or take notes during a tasting.
So I started tasting (and spitting) as many wines as possible, visiting wineries and reading every wine book I could get my hands on. And I fell in love, head over heels. Wine was about travel, history, romance and food. Sign me up.
I was tired of working nights and knew that I wanted to focus on wine exclusively, rather than continue on the path of restaurant or beverage management. So with a quick continent jump and a huge drop in pay, I became a wine distributor sales rep. A sure path towards cultivating compassion for others if there ever was one.
I was back in North America and knew close to nothing about North American wines, having spent the previous seven years tasting and learning about primarily Aussie and European wines. I missed the crisp semillons, verdelhos and rieslings I had grown to love in Oz.
I went to work for a small distributor that primarily sold imports (Charles Neal Selections) and a few domestics like Edmunds St John. The owner was a man of passion and was a mentor for me in many ways. He picked wines by his palate, and not always his business sense.
When that company folded due to lack of capital, I went to work in the fine wine division of one of the big distributors. I learned how the big boys work and it was an invaluable experience but corporate life is not for me.
Then I spent a few years as a national accounts manager for a couple of importers. Traveling the country, a new city almost every week. I remember sitting on a rental car shuttle and the guy next to me asked where I was headed, I had to pause for several seconds before I could remember where I was going to next. It was time for a change.
Okay, so by now I knew a thing or two about selling wine. But over the past few years my personal wine palate had changed. I could no longer stomach the big, oaky wines that so many new world producers were making. I read Alice Feiring's 'The Battle For Wine and Love', which has been an eye-opener for many wine lovers seeking more authentic wines. I started seeking out these wines that had been less chemically manipulated, both for the flavors and aromas but also because of a philosophical synergy.
At the same time, I was shopping at farmers markets in Los Angeles. I went out of my way to buy only organic fruit and vegetables.
I found that my passion for both drinking and selling wine was re-awakened.
So it made sense to take the plunge and sell only the wines I loved. I sunk my tiny little nest egg into purchasing wines from importers like Savio Soares as well as domestic producers like La Clarine Farm and Donkey & Goat, and representing them in the California market. Virtually all of the wines I sell are 'hand-sell' wines from small producers, and yes many of them farm organically and use very minimal intervention in the cellar. I literally put my money where my mouth is.
Scary? Hell yes. But I wouldn't have it any other way.