When Fred Dexheimer says he grew up in a video arcade, he’s not making a joke about a childhood spent glued to a screen playing Pac-Man. The master sommelier, food and beverage entrepreneur, and now national director of wine education, based in the New York office of Winebow Group, began his journey in his family’s multiconcept business in Central Pennsylvania that did indeed include a video arcade, and a miniature-golf course, Go-Kart track, pizza oven, burger joint, and—yes—a VHS store.
“I was always around customers and staff, 24 hours a day. It helped me be customer service- and team-oriented,” Dexheimer says, recalling tasks such as counting arcade tokens, flipping burgers, and taking apart Go-Karts. Learning to sort the 5,000-plus video titles in the store, he says, was a skill he later used to catalog wines.
That quirky beginning was the first of many stamps in Dexheimer’s food and beverage passport: stints in California and Vermont, on Nantucket, in Jackson Hole,Wyoming, and then in New York City for 15 years. He picked up his Master Sommelier credential while working for restaurants such as Daniel, Gramercy Tavern, and Jean-Georges, as well as for Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Restaurant Group. Brand ambassadorships for Wines of Chile USA and Wines of Southwest France conferred on him the role of educator.
Dexheimer then took a three-year segue detour into the North Carolina Triangle area, where he returned to the multiconcept fray, running or co-operating three businesses: RxLab, a wine bar and wine education center; Black House, a fine-dining restaurant with a coffee shop, wine bar, and juice bar; and Standard Foods, a butcher, grocery, and farm-to-table restaurant.
Since February, the 40-year-old has melded his multifaceted experiences, varied interests, and seemingly boundless energy into one position, at one company. And yet the Winebow Group, he says, is anything but one thing. “It’s a huge family tree [with] over 26 member companies,” he says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”
And that’s just fine for the sommelier, known professionally as Fred Dex. In his newly created position to serve the national sales offices, Dexheimer describes himself as something of a detective discovering the personalities and needs of the various portfolios under the umbrella group, which distributes in 21 states. Winebow president and CEO David Townsend notes Dexheimer’s “open-mindedness, together with his vast knowledge and industry experience,” as key for evolving the company’s role as an educator.
Dexheimer describes his new adventure with awe and a little bit of “I can’t believe I’m here” incredulousness. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store,” he says. “We have almost every single wine in the world … every producer or brand covered by one company or another.”
Harnessing that information in evocative ways for the sales force is chief among his tasks. One such approach is an education initiative on volcanic wines—a project he describes with no less enthusiasm than if he were opening a bottle of first-growth wine, or hopping a plane to Chile. “It’s pretty exciting as a company-wide initiative,” Dexheimer says. “And no pun intended, it’s going to be explosive, and hopefully will ignite passion with our salespeople.”
Lori Tieszen, who hired Dexheimer for his Chile brand ambassadorship, said it was his combination of relatability, operational experience, and “great energy and passion” that helped realign Chilean wines with trade and consumers. “Some MS’s can be so pretentious, and he isn’t,” she says. “Fred can relate to all levels, including low- and high-end consumers, bartenders, somms, and students.”
The Message Is the Medium
As he’s building and standardizing institutional knowledge for the many markets Winebow covers, Dexheimer says he leans on the brand storytellers—“the [people] who tell the best stories … that’s what we really want to know.”
His first task was to pick the brains of company stakeholders across the county. “I synthesized that information almost into a word cloud and looked at the [various] successes, given the cultures of these companies,” Dexheimer says. “Then we identified the topics that needed the most attention—categories that need love and attention or have to overcome a stigma.”
Dexheimer and his team of two created a program of 360-degree messaging built around the topics identified from his survey. For the volcanic wines, they pulled together tasting samples, regional facts, history, climate, and terroir. They used Google Earth and maps to build interactive presentations, homing in on the specifics of places like Soave, Mount Etna, and others. “It’s not just rote information,” he says. “We’ll tell the story of volcanic wines that supports not only this geeky story of the soil and wines, [but also] specific regions that help our people on the street with the messaging.”
He’s using the same tactic to plan programs for classic regions like Burgundy, where the company recently acquired a new portfolio of producers. The challenge is to create context beyond the tech sheets. “So how do we present that information?” Dexheimer says. “It goes back to storytelling—these producers are doing something profound, and that’s what we have to find out. With Burgundy, it was, What’s the style of this guy versus that guy? Who are they next to? How are they farming?”
From Restaurant Floor to Corporate Floor
While his background might have made him a no-brainer for the job, Dexheimer’s transition from restaurant to office comes with some nostalgia for life on the floor. “I enjoy being around people and serving people,” he says. “I enjoy changing someone’s perception of wine. When you turn a guest onto something … that’s where the magic happens.”
But for those who may be thinking of making the transition from service to office, Dexheimer says there is no road map. “If you’re a sommelier, I can say, Learn to wait and bus tables, learn to bartend, read books, taste x amount of wine, evaluate yourself,” he advises. “But to come into a company like this, to have so much wine—where do you start?”
Orienting his compass was one test; finding his pace was another. “You have to prepare not to have the instant gratification of selling a bottle of wine at the table and walking away with a success,” Dexheimer says. “But in this job I learned to slow down, and to [realize] every day we make progress on something that’s huge.”
He also learned to ask for help, noting that sommeliers typically suffer from an I-can-do-it-myself attitude. “Asking for help isn’t one of the strengths of being in a restaurant. And if you do, it’s kind of like you suck,” he says, with a laugh. “But here, what we’re trying to achieve is being the nucleus. We can’t do it all, but we can say, This is what you can expect from us.”
Lana Bortolot has written on food and wine for Dow Jones, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and other magazines of the wine and spirits trade. She reported on community development and arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post and on design for Entrepreneur magazine. She holds the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Level 3 Advanced Certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking to add a new wine-stained stamp to her passport.