Peddling cases of product for a distributor isn’t a siren call for everybody in the wine industry. For many, the idea conjures up complicated portfolios, large restaurant and retailer cattle calls for new, inexpensive finds, and a constant renegotiation of commission rates. But when the fit is right, the experience can be much the opposite.
Sommelier Mariel Wega recently made the jump from restaurant floor to distribution. The former wine director of modern Philadelphia bistro a.kitchen+bar—whose colorful yet cost-effective wine list earned her a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s Best New Sommelier list in 2016—joined Skurnik Wines just a few months ago as their Pennsylvania sales lead.
Wega had always been intrigued by the other side of the industry aisle and had been buying from Skurnik on behalf of the restaurant for some time. When she heard Skurnik was looking for local representation, she talked to her restaurant rep about the opportunity and then approached Skurnik. Adding context to the move was a rapidly emerging Pennsylvania market.
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“I’m based in Philly,” Wega says, “and I’ve seen the wine scene here grow tremendously in the last five-plus years—it’s happening all over the state. I loved being a part of that development on the restaurant side, and now I feel that I can spread the enthusiasm and support for these great wines and winemakers we work with on a different scale.”
Long-awaited legislation allowing grocery stores in Pennsylvania to sell wine passed in August of 2016, creating a new model for both distributors and retailers. It’s a small reason that Skurnik, a family-run distributorship founded on Long Island, New York, in 1987, has swelled to 112 staff members nationwide, and a big reason it now has a growing presence in the Keystone State.
Wega, a native of Rochester, New York, first became interested in wine when she was a student at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. She took an Intro to Wines course that included weekly tastings of at least half a dozen wines. Students also watched videos of the esteemed wine critic Jancis Robinson interviewing winemakers around the world.
After having a tough time finding work in her area of study, restaurant design, postgraduation, Wega bounced from Thailand to Barcelona, where she fell for Spanish reds. On returning to the States, she managed the Tria Wine Room, a wine, cheese, and beer shop in Philadelphia. She then specialized in small-batch wine sales at Moore Brothers, just across the state border in Township, New Jersey, before becoming the wine director at a.kitchen+bar.
From the Floor to Distribution
Skurnik’s portfolio is centered on European wines, with a few selections from rising outliers like Israel and Hungary. There are many names Wega is excited to represent, including Mosel Rieslings from Johannes Selbach and grower Champagne from Chartogne-Taillet.
“I think it’s a huge advantage to be coming to this from a sommelier or wine director role,” Wega says, “because you know a buyer’s needs and limitations and can relate and be helpful in that way. A lot of the skills are transferrable, too. The best reps I’ve worked with have a hospitality-first mentality.”
Drawing additional parallels to her restaurant work, Wega says that when problems arise, she takes responsibility, whether she’s at fault or not. Learning how to roll with the punches is essential. She credits the pace and pressure of the floor with giving her a thick skin as well as the innovative problem-solving skills she employs on the sales side.
Wega contends that the move from the floor to distribution is a quite natural, albeit dramatic shift, one that may not be for everyone. “You need to be flexible [and be] both a morning and night person,” she says. “There’s always something to do, but you have to be self-motivated and organized. You get your nights and weekends back, theoretically, but you have to always be available.”
In her new role, Wega enjoys perks like getting access to amazing wines, as well as many opportunities to meet winemakers and to travel and dine out. “But there are also endless behind-the-scenes moments and details that go into making it all possible,” she says, including setting up appointments, fetching wines, sitting down with beverage directors, and crafting mutually beneficial industry relationships—“just like in a restaurant.”
Finally, Wega highlights the importance of being able to read people and anticipate their needs, a near-clairvoyant trait that floor veterans spend years mastering. First impressions are huge, she says. In the end, it’s all about providing the best product and service to the customer. “And it’s a small world,” Wega says. “Be nice to everyone, even your competition.”
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Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon, who is now based there. He spent a decade making, selling, and cleaning up wine in the Willamette Valley in between penning stories for a host of regional and national outlets. He adores Iceland, brown trout, aquavit, and grunge rock.