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Sales Strategies from a Top New York City Rep

Joel Schott of Skurnik Wines shares his tip for landing—and keeping—prestige accounts

Left: Raúl Pérez, winemaker from Galicia, Spain. Right: Joel Schott. Photo courtesy of Steven Van Haren.

It took years of working in front-of-house jobs and sommelier positions, and doing multiple stints in restaurants around the globe, for Joel Schott to build the foundation that landed him a sales rep position with Skurnik Wines in New York, where he’s worked since 2007. Now, with more than 10 years of sales experience under his belt, Schott has become one of New York City’s most successful wine reps, with a list of clients—including The Modern, Jean Georges, and Charlie Bird—that any rep would kill to call their own.

Building a Foundation

Schott is a born traveler and networker. Born in Minneapolis, Schott moved throughout the United States as a child because of his father’s consulting job, then spent his twenties hopping around the globe, working restaurant jobs in Spain, Greece, Italy, and Austria. In 1995, he returned to the U.S., settling in San Francisco working at La Pasta restaurant in a variety of roles, including captain, chef de partie, and manager. At the time, he felt that the overall restaurant community in the Bay Area was lacking in wine mastery, and he saw it as a niche he could fill. He began reading countless books and studying wine lists, and eventually he began purchasing wines for La Pasta. His first purchase, in 1997, was a Bartolo Mascarello 1989 Barolo.

Schott left the U.S. once again, in 1998, to travel and work at restaurants in Thailand, China, and Mendoza, Argentina. In 2004, Schott settled in Brooklyn, taking a position as a server at the prestigious Manhattan restaurant Per Se. He moved up the ranks and became a captain and, in December 2005, a sommelier. But he was also working 80-hour weeks and had a baby on the way, so he took advantage of an opportunity that came through a former Per Se colleague who by then was working for Skurnik. By February 2007, Schott had a new baby—and a new job.

Cultivating Relationships

When seeking to create meaningful relationships with buyers, Schott says that having past industry experience, whether restaurant or retail, under your belt is extremely helpful because it helps you understand the demands, stresses, and varying daily schedules of buyers. An understanding of the different perspectives from various parts of the industry can also help you become a better sales rep. For example, Scott points out that the ability to write a beverage list is a great asset for reps with an on-premise focus.

Skurnik itself, which began as a business with 35 employees, now boasts over 100, thanks to the way Michael and Harmon Skurnik grew the company organically. Skurnik remains a family business, with family members making up 5 to 10 percent of its staff. The company represents an array of wine, spirits, sake, and soju. Schott, however, considers the company’s specialty to be grower Champagne and domestic—California, in particular—selections.

“Joel is more than a sales rep for us—he is intimately involved in many areas of the business, and has become a creative consultant to both his customers, and to us,” says Harmon Skurnik, enumerating Schott’s strengths, including a willingness to give advice and analyze what’s happening in the marketplace, as well as a work-hard mentality. “He has what’s necessary to be successful in this business: a real passion for what he does, and a never ending desire to succeed and help his customers succeed.”

Approximately 99 percent of Schott’s clients are on-premise, mainly in Manhattan, and their venues range from small dining rooms to high-profile, two- and three-Michelin-starred establishments. Schott says that it took time and hard work to get the recommendations from sommeliers and bartenders that helped him develop his enviable account list. “I began like most representatives,” he says, “with a very small, and perhaps unimpressive, list of accounts.” He credits the economic recession of 2008, as well as the responsibilities of a new family, for his fierce commitment to succeed at the job. To this day, he treats each bottle, account, and sale seriously—and takes nothing for granted.

“Joel is first and foremost an honest genuine person, with a lot of color,” says Arvid Rosengren, wine director of newly opened Midtown hotspot, Legacy Records. “I consider Joel a friend, even though he sells me wine,” he says, noting that Schott never really tries to “sell.” Instead, Schott has a more strategic approach: He keeps track of Rosengren’s likes and dislikes, proposing things that should be in Rosengren’s radar and keeping him updated about new arrivals. “There’s never a negotiation, never any push, just information and opportunities. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect approach for a wine salesman!”

“Like the company,” Schott says, “I’ve built my list of accounts the old-fashioned way—day by day, visit by visit, and bottle by bottle. There was no sudden boom; it’s been a methodical, slow road.” But Schott never walks into accounts randomly to make sales. He says that walking in strategically is a totally different game, one that requires homework. “I’d never just randomly walk in and throw wines up against the wall, seeing if anything sticks,” he says. “[The buyer’s] time—and mine—is far too valuable to be wasted.” Rather, he treats all accounts the same, regardless of their size or perceived prestige.

“Joel is the type of person you’d want by your side in battle,” says Brandon Borcoman, sommelier at SoHo’s trendy Charlie Bird restaurant. “He is fiercely loyal, tremendously hard-working, and, overall, the person who is continually looking out for you,” explains Borcoman. He also highlights Schott’s mastery of focused suggestions and understanding of wine programs as Schott’s top asset.

Left: Francesc Escala, partner in the Can Sumoi winery. Right: Joel Schott.

Staying Focused on the Big Picture

“It’s never about me,” Schott says. “It’s first and foremost about helping my accounts achieve their goals in financially prudent ways, given the various tools at my disposal.” By tools, he means an excellent portfolio, a trusted team, and the confidence to engage in professional conversation. “I am mindful and grateful for any minute any member of an account might allocate to me,” he says, “whether in person or email.”

Schott’s advice for new reps looking to break into esteemed accounts is simple: Put your head down and do the work—results will follow. He also points out the importance of appreciating all business received and realizing that no account is too small. Providing a tailored experience is also key.

“My outlook and goal with all of my accounts,” Schott says, “is to [develop] a collaborative relationship with them, where we have shared, albeit indirect, mutual goals.” He notes that follow-through after a sale is just as important. It helps ensure that deliveries get processed and executed in a timely manner. “This is the part of my job where I lose the most sleep,” he says, pointing out that much of this process is beyond his control. “One of the biggest factors in maintaining and growing great relationships is owning problems when they do occur, independent of the source.” Schott maintains a “whatever it takes” attitude toward problem solving at all times.

Trust is also crucial. Schott asks that his clients be transparent with him, and give him information about precise budgets and timelines. That helps him provide the best quality and most efficient service. According to Schott, the ideal sales rep finds the perfect balance between being out on the street showing wines and remaining 100 percent available through technology, answering queries (by phone or email) as quickly and accurately as possible.

Putting It All Together

Schott also believes that “work with” days, when he brings producers to visit buyers out in the market, play a critical role in cultivating strong relationships. “It’s by far the most challenging yet my favorite part of my job,” he says, noting that knowing your buyers, their schedules, and their lists makes building a solid work-with schedule very simple. He makes matches between work-withs and buyers to provide a productive day for everyone involved. He views these days as an opportunity to get to know a winemaker and his or her product better, which ultimately makes it easier for him to sell the producer’s wines in the future. On average, Schott works with one visiting winemaker a week.

Working with people and products you believe in is not only the key to happiness and success, says Schott, it’s a responsibility. “We represent the work of many people,” he says, “often generations—their very livelihood, in an important market.” He points out that many producers have made great gambles to do what they do, and some are still at the level of subsistence. “They have entrusted me and my colleagues,” he says, “with bringing their work closer to its point of finality and representing it on their behalf, as they would do it themselves.” It’s this responsibility and passion that have contributed to Schott’s success.

What’s next for Schott? Brazil, perhaps. He sees himself at Skurnik for at least another 10 years—after that, he might be interested in heading to South America. “I love cachaça,” he says. “I’d love to go down there and make one.”

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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