Meeting with sommeliers, restaurant wine buyers, and retail shop owners to taste through your company’s portfolio and convince them why they deserve space on their shelves or their list is the core undertaking of the wine sales rep. It’s a role that requires commitment and working often unconventional hours.
“Understand that as a distributor rep you will be working nights and weekends to drive sales numbers and earn a reasonable living,” says Joshua Blissett, the portfolio manager for Winebow, who has 13 years of industry experience. “No good sales rep ever created success sitting at home on their computer. Sales are done face-to-face.”
But before the networking, educating, and selling can begin, you need to secure a role with an importer or distributor—a process that involves careful logistical considerations. SevenFifty Daily asked four salespeople with decades of experience for their advice and best practices on getting what you want—and need—to succeed and thrive as a sales rep in the wine industry.
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The Benefits—and Drawbacks—of Different Compensation Models
Sales reps with a traditional commission-only pay model have the potential, at least in theory, for limitless income, if they are willing to hustle. But Glenn Jaggard, the mid-Atlantic regional sales manager for Cline Cellars, who has spent almost three decades in the industry, questions if that’s personally (and professionally) sustainable. “Sometimes there’s a perception of ‘my distributor will only let me get so big,’ and the accounts get horse-traded amongst other reps, demotivating some of the top salespeople,” he says.
On the flip side, reps in commission-only positions—especially newer, less established employees—may be vulnerable to market downturns, according to Michelle Moreno, the area manager for Texas for Winesellers Ltd., who has ten years in the industry. And the salary-only model may imbue mediocrity, attracting “order takers,” in her words. “You just look at what needs to be refilled and do not focus really on upsells or new products; there is no motivation to grow.”
Balanced models that encompass a stable salary and the opportunity to earn more based on performance or a percentage of sales may be more attractive to potential reps. James Charles Cardinell, the national sales director (West) for New Frontier Wine Company, who has been selling wine since 2007, believes this model, accompanied by some level of company-reimbursed travel and entertainment expenses, provides the ideal trifecta: a guaranteed minimum income; a “carrot” to motivate reps to hit their sales targets; and fewer out-of-pocket costs for wooing decision-makers at dinners.
Jaggard also sees this model as the most attractive, although it’s becoming more challenging. “Unfortunately, the wine industry has had a slight decline in the past few years, and we’re not seeing the revenues and bonuses we once became used to hitting, or at least feeling like they were achievable,” he says.
Target a Model That Fits Your Lifestyle and Personality
As a product, wine attracts professionals drawn to its romantic nature and ability to provide pleasure the way not many other commodities can. Blissett believes employers know that those with a passion for wine will do the work for less money, so it’s crucial to decide where you fit on the passion-versus-income continuum. “Smaller companies that sell a portfolio of ‘wines of passion’ often offer commission-based pay,” he says. “The companies that offer salary-based pay are typically the larger companies who have big pressure to move boxes.” You might make $60,000 to $80,000 selling bottles with a story that stir you, Blissett explains, or $100,000 to $140,000 in a salary-based role for a big brand; the choice is one of priorities.
But Cardinell says compensation shouldn’t be the defining factor in selecting an employment offer. “It’s as much about the portfolio and company culture as it is about the payout.” Being highly motivated and drawn to a commission-only role only goes so far if the company isn’t responsive with samples and fulfillment, and their products don’t spark interest. “There are some companies that offer 15 percent commission but don’t have an anchor brand in the book to drive face time with buyers,” says Cardinell.
And then there’s that elusive work-life balance, which can take a hit if you’re continuously striving to earn more, says Jaggard. Moreno agrees, citing that the traits paramount for success—among them an extreme level of organization and a thick-skinned and tenacious nature—can be at odds with the realities of people with families, especially for reps who are just entering the field. “I find reps with smaller children tend to have issues getting started in this industry because of the time and dedication it takes to get yourself and your relationships with accounts established,” she says. Something of which to stay mindful when weighing roles with varying compensation structures.
Ask for Benefits
Potential perks may vary depending on the size of the company and the compensation type—but it never hurts to ask. Cardinell believes the most important additional benefit is health insurance. “This seems like nothing until you need it, and then it quickly becomes everything,” he says.
Moreno says that travel and expenses incurred during travel should be reimbursed (or paid for via a company credit card), as well as costs for your personal vehicle, phone, and home office wifi; if you’re interviewing for a full-time position, ask for 401K or stock options. Though company cars are rare these days due to liabilities, Jaggard believes asking for a $600 to $1,000 monthly car allowance will offset all the driving you’ll be doing in your sales territory.
Arm Yourself with Negotiating Tactics
After receiving an offer letter for a salaried position, Cardinell recommends countering at a figure that’s 10 percent higher; the uptick might end up being worth it to the employer versus starting from scratch or settling on an unqualified second-tier candidate they’ll just have to quickly replace. “It also gives insight into both the value they place on the position (and your potential fulfillment of it) and how they negotiate as a company,” says Cardinell. If you hold industry certifications, use them to request higher compensation; a WSET Diploma can add as much as $10,000 to an offer.
If you have experience on- and off-premise, like Jaggard, spotlight that. “Learning and working on both makes my position of negotiating more plausible to the employer-to-be,” he says. And interview your potential employer as judiciously as they interview you, Blissett says. “Ask all the questions you can about company culture, what happened to the person who was in the role you’re applying for, goal setting strategy, support availability, and the definitions of success.” He also urges negotiating for as high a salary as possible at the onset, since after you’re hired you’ll only be able to expect four percent or five percent annual bumps.
But in the end, Cardinell says that the one thing that you can’t negotiate for is using your time wisely while arming yourself with knowledge. “Study the wines you’re showing, become an expert, get good at tasting,” he says. “It becomes the basis of what you take with you to offer the next step in your journey.”
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Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits, travel, and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area who holds the WSET Diploma. You can reach her on her website, kellymagyarics.com and on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.