In our series In the Bag, wine and spirits sales reps discuss the bottles they’re tasting with customers today.
For many in the industry, a job in wine sales is a temporary or transitional step toward the next phase of a wine-focused career. Long hours, along with the constant need to be available and provide continuous customer service, can wear down even the thickest-skinned of wine-loving workaholics. For some, though, all it takes to make a commitment for the long term is finding that perfect little company—and the rest is history. Even better is a job with a managerial role written into it, as was the case for Ashley Hall of Atlanta with Quality Wine & Spirits.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Hall was first bitten by the wine bug while working as a hostess at a small Italian restaurant, Bottega Favorita, just after completing her undergraduate degree in her native city. “I guess I was kind of in that typical lost, postcollege phase,” she says. “I was trying to figure out my future, and I just remember being intrigued that people were ‘wine professionals’—that that’s what they did all day. It seemed too good to be true.” After contemplating the idea for a bit, she decided against it and completely switched gears, enrolling in a master’s degree program in journalism at New York University. After graduating, she returned to the Birmingham area, where she took a position at a local newspaper, the Anniston Star, though she couldn’t entirely shake the idea of working with wine.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our newsletter—delivered to your inbox twice a week.
Hall decided to investigate the possibility of a career change and sought the advice of local wine industry connections—Jerry Neff, a former importer for Vineyard Brands, who happened to live in her parents’ neighborhood, and Frank Stitt, Bottega Favorita’s owner. Neff connected Hall with a retail opportunity at Classic Wine Company in Birmingham, where she gained more hands-on wine experience with the company’s owner, Tony Myer. “He [Myer] was a huge influence,” she says. “I was lucky because he very much has an Old World wine palate; he really was a teacher, as well as a boss, and he was very much a Kermit Lynch–style, Burgundy-loving Old World aficionado and kind of trained me in that direction.” After working with Myer, Hall took a sales representative position at Quality Wine & Spirits in 2003 and relocated to Atlanta.
In 2006, Myer’s Kermit Lynch–like influence on Hall came full circle when he introduced her to Lynch’s national sales director, Bruce Neyers. The meeting led to an interview with Lynch himself—and a new job. Hall left Quality to take a regional sales director position in the South with Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. She then spent four years managing direct import sales in nine southeastern and midwestern states for the Berkeley, California–based company. In November 2014 she returned to Quality Wine & Spirits, which had come under the ownership of the larger Winebow Group, and became the company’s district sales manager.
Today, Hall’s daily life is more hectic than ever. The alarm goes off at 6 am, and she tries to make the most of the next hour or so, which she says is really the only time she has for herself to “read, get ready, and enjoy some peace and quiet.” Her four-year-old son gets up soon after. Once she gets him off to school, Hall heads to the office, arriving around 8:30 or 9, and organizes her plan for the day.
“One reason that I really love this job is that there are actually five ‘typical’ days,” Hall says, explaining that each day holds its own set of responsibilities. “One day, I’ll be entirely on the street; the next day, not at all. Some days I’m with a supplier; some days I’m at the office all day, stacked with meetings and admin.” She says that the variety, including the different pace each day, is what keeps her going. Two or three nights a week, after picking up her son around 6 pm, she heads back out to check on accounts, attend events, or visit buyers. In the rare free time that she does have, Hall enjoys entertaining, cooking, and spending time with her son. “We just got new cats today!” she exclaims, and says that acclimating them to their new home will take up the bulk of her weekend.
Quality Wine & Spirits has always maintained a small, craft focus on the wine and spirits brands that it imports, including after its acquisition by Winebow. Hall explains that wine in the portfolio “far outdoes spirits,” making up about 75 percent of the company’s business. For Hall in particular, on-premise accounts typically dominate her route, though every employee at the company has a client list stocked with both. “We specialize in fine wine,” she says of Quality, “meaning not huge commercial brands, although we do try to have things at a great value at every price point. We try very hard to have customer service be the driver of what we do, because in fine wine, our customers offer that to their customers, so they expect the same for themselves—as they should.”
Hall points out that her role as district sales manager is slightly different from those of Quality’s sales reps. “I’m pulled into projects at the office, so I don’t taste with customers every day,” she explains. On the days she does make it out into the market, she generally focuses on showing bottles that are new to the book, as well as seasonal priorities or “products that may need a little extra love and attention.” When she hasn’t been tasked with a particular “mission,” she prefers to show products that she personally loves and is proud of, which enables her to demonstrate how diverse and impressive the Quality book really is. (She has a particular passion for French and Old World wines in general.) “[It’s] fun for me and our buyers,” she says. “I always learn a lot from their feedback, and they get introduced to something new. Even if the buyer doesn’t happen to buy one of these products, inevitably it will start a conversation that leads to another sale. Sometimes, it’s fun when your bag is all over the place.”
Here are the six bottles Hall is tasting with buyers today. (The prices listed are Quality Wine & Spirits’ suggested retail prices for the Atlanta market.)
Bottle 1: Dewatsuru Sakura Emaki, Akita, Japan; $15.99
This wine-like rosé sake is made from an ancient heirloom purple rice strain found in an archaeological excavation. “The pink hue is completely natural,” Hall says, adding that the texture of the sake is both soft and clean, and that it’s full of fruit-forward flavors of berries and apple. “It’s a sake with a wide variety of applications, not just Japanese restaurants.”
Bottle 2: Alain Chavy Bourgogne Blanc, Burgundy, France 2015; $23.99
Hall describes 2015 Burgundies as “so fun” to sell, explaining that they’re serious and delicious and that they fully deliver on all the hype they’ve been given. “A lot of heralded vintages need time to show their potential,” she says. “But these are immediately appealing.” Chavy is new to the Quality book, hailing from the renowned appellation of Puligny-Montrachet. “This Bourgogne Blanc is a great introduction to the producer,” Hall says. The wine is made from young-vine Puligny, with a touch of new oak. “It’s the most sophisticated Bourgogne Blanc I’ve had in a long time.”
Bottle 3: Marchesi di Grésy Barbaresco Martinenga, Barbaresco, Italy 2013; $46.99
“I’ll use any excuse to pull Nebbiolo,” says Hall, “and this is one of my favorites.” The wine is produced by a family that previously sold grapes to larger producers but began making their own wine and estate bottling it back in the 1960s. The di Grésy family now owns four estates. Hall says she finds herself most drawn to the wines from the Martinenga vineyard. “The di Grésys grow several varieties here, but [this vineyard] produces some of the most rewarding, classic Nebbiolo I’ve had”—bright, juicy, and brimming with grip.
Bottle 4: Arterberry Maresh Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon 2015; $25.99
Delicious wines are always a no-brainer—though a delicious wine with a cool story makes for an even more interesting wine. “This tiny producer happens to own the fifth-oldest vineyard in Oregon,” says Hall, explaining that the historical Maresh (pronounced marsh) vineyard, which was planted in 1970, is where the grapes for this wine were grown. She describes the wine as pale in color and rich in berry fruit, with dusty edges and supporting acidity—seamless and subtle.
Bottle 5: ArteNOM Tequila, Selección de 1579 Blanco, Jesús María, Mexico; $54.99
After an informative spirits seminar held by Jake Lustig of Haas Brothers last week, Hall found herself drawn to the ArteNOM line of tequilas, specifically because of the efforts the Haas Brothers are making to bring smaller, single-origin, grower tequilas to consumers. “Not only are these products incredibly pure and delicious,” she says, “but I think somms and mixologists alike will really dig the pedigree.”
Bottle 6: Cappelletti Pasubio Amaro, Trentino, Italy; $20.99
“I get excited by anything from Haus Alpenz,” Hall says, emphasizing that the importer is an amazing source for vermouth and aromatized wines and spirits, especially liqueurs. “This is a 100-year-old recipe from Cappelletti—Marsala-based, with wild blueberry, rhubarb, and pine, among other things.” She describes the palate as “walking a razor’s edge between bitter and fruity, with detailed and rewarding flavors.”
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.