In The Bag

A Somm’s Approach to Selling Wine for a Major Distributor

Former buyer Cat Nguyen relies on her hospitality skills to close deals

Cat Nguyen
Cat Nguyen. Courtesy Cat Nguyen.

Born in Southern California and brought up in Houston, Cat Nguyen was waiting tables in 2005 at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grill, an upscale chops and seafood joint outside Houston in Sugar Land, Texas, when her interest in wine was first piqued. She went on to become a certified sommelier, as well as a sake specialist, and spent 10 years buying wine and building wine lists for Perry’s and other Houston restaurants, like El Meson and Mark’s American Cuisine.

Nguyen became interested in learning about a different side of the industry. In March 2015, she transitioned into sales at Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC). While RNDC is one of the largest national distributors of wine and spirits in the U.S., with more than 16,000 SKUs, Nguyen works in Houston for Vanguard, a smaller sector of the company that specializes in fine wine and sommelier-driven accounts. “It’s like working for a smaller company,” she says, “[that’s] operating under a larger company’s umbrella.”

Part of what appealed to Nguyen about the sales rep position with Vanguard was that it offered a “good balance between structure and freedom.” She was also attracted to Vanguard’s team philosophy. “The philosophy is about building brands and growing business organically,” she says. “It’s about relationships. We strategically place the right wines in the right places to create organic and sustainable growth.”

Nguyen started at Vanguard with about 30 accounts, and is now responsible for more than 70 independent buyers that range from neighborhood bars to fine-dining establishments. “We call on accounts that don’t normally do a lot of business with larger companies, and focus on brands that often get lost in larger portfolios,” she says. Her sales strategy focuses on treating her buyers with an attitude of hospitality similar to the way she treated her guests when she was working the floor. In fact, she doesn’t really think of herself as a sales rep at all. “I think of myself as more of a consultant for each account,” she says. When considering her clients’ needs, she asks herself: “What would I buy if I were running that wine program?”

Nguyen adds that she also looks at accounts as partners rather than clients. “When you have your account’s best interest at heart,” she says, “it’s easy to build strong relationships.” Nguyen stocks her bag each day according to whom she’s visiting—or the mapped-out schedule she has in place. “Some days I build my bag around my day, and some days I build my day around my bag,” she says. “It’s responsible management of time and samples.”

Here are the six bottles Nguyen is tasting with buyers today. (The prices listed are Vanguard’s suggested retail prices for the Houston market.)

Bottle 1: La Guita Manzanilla Sherry, Jerez, Spain; $10

Nguyen describes La Guita Manzanilla Sherry as “cheap and cheerful,” which she says works well with a variety of accounts. “It’s super affordable, so I can [also] pitch it to my beer and wine accounts for use in nondistilled cocktail programs.”

Bottle 2: Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava, Catalonia, Spain 2010; $46

Fruit for Gramona III Lustros comes from some of the oldest Xarel-lo and Macabeo vines in La Plana vineyard; the wine is aged on its lees for 96 months. Riddling and disgorgement are done manually, and the Cava is finished without dosage. “Gramona is known for being a Cava house with one of the longest, if not the longest, aging regimens,” says Nguyen. Wine from “any Champagne house with the same regimen would be three times as expensive.”

Bottle 3: Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Roche Calcaire, Alsace, France 2015; $43

Zind-Humbrecht has an impressive, unbroken winemaking lineage dating to 1620, and its vineyards stretch across some of the greatest growing sites in Alsace. “The expression of terroir is conveyed through cultivating the vines organically,” says Nguyen, citing Zind-Humbrecht’s use of biodynamics as well as the vines’ long ripening cycle. “This [cycle] makes for ripe, broad wine with firm acidity … which makes it deliciously chuggable with food.”

Bottle 4: Maison Roche de Bellene Savigny-lès-Beaune Vieilles Vignes, Côte de Beaune, France 2014; $36

His father’s death, along with the loss of the family winery, pushed Nicolas Potel to begin his own Domaine de Bellene, and the négociant business Maison Roche de Bellene, in 2005. “I love the Cinderella story here,” says Nguyen. “Even after losing everything, Nicolas was able to start over, thanks to his deep ties to his community.”

Bottle 5: Donatella Cinelli Colombini Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy 2015; $29

“Donatella has been running these two historic estates [Casato Prime Donne in Montalcino, and Fattoria del Colle in Trequanda] since 1998,” says Nguyen. “And today she leads a full-time enological team composed solely of women.” Nguyen says that Colombini creates wines that she personally finds both “delicious and affordable.”

Bottle 6: Château Coutet Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France 2014; $34

With a history dating to the early 1600s, Château Coutet has roots that run deep. The fruit, grown in a combination of sand, clay, and limestone soils, is farmed organically. The wines are vinified in cement and oak. “I fell in love with this wine on my last trip to Bordeaux,” says Nguyen. “It has been one of my dark knights ever since!”

Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.

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