The Romance of Searching for New Wines or “Not!”

(Originally published April 2004)

The famous wine importer Kermit Lynch once wrote a book about traveling through Europe to visit wineries and meet with wine producers. In homage to Adventures on the Wine Route here is Hanes's own reflections on these sort of experiences.

The point of such trips is fairly simple. You want to meet the winemakers and other interested parties to put a human face on things and cement a meaningful relationship and dialogue in person. It's hard to develop trust and understanding from afar. As the potential importer or distributor of the wines you are in the position of supplicant, trying to convince the producer that you can adroitly bring his/her wines to market in a desirable manner. You go to them, they don't have to come to you.

In large part the importer visits the producer because that's where the operation is and you as importer should want to see things firsthand and understand what they are doing. This means touring the vineyards and facilities in an effort to see how they approach the whole winemaking thing, from growing the grapes to final bottling of the wine. The other major task at hand when visiting a winery is to taste samples of the wines, especially those that are not yet released. These tastings guide future purchases and are an essential element of the wine trade. As many of the wines remain still in barrel and often in a delicate state that precludes travel you need to go to the wine instead of having the wine sent to you.

So, yeah, the rationale behind the visits is straightforward. As Hanes is fond of saying, it ain't brain surgery. Sounds exciting and fun, right? The interesting part is how all this cashes out in reality.

"Adventuring on the wine route" is kind of like this. Imagine doing 10 pushups every five minutes all day. At first it seems like nothing. Then it starts to get a bit fatiguing. By the end of the day your arms and body are numb and you can't recall when they ever felt sensation. Visiting wineries professionally is almost always educational, interesting and challenging. It is not always fun.

It starts with the flight to wherever. Keeping costs low is usually a business priority. So, you wait until the last minute to fly somewhere. This more often than not means a "red eye" overnight flight. Do you get sleep? Not! But, of course, you "hit the ground running" the next morning and start keeping appointments as if you slept ten hours in the comfort of your own bed.

That leads to the appointments issue. There's always lots of people to see and so little time to see them in. As a result, every day overflows with appointments. This is a necessary thing. After all, you are there on business not on vacation. You need to see existing clients and also make time to beat the bushes for new product. One of the great things about working in the wine trade is that the vast majority of winemakers and winery owners are really cool people. They are passionate about wine and could sit with you and talk about the subject all day. In fact they try to while you still have five more appointments to keep that day! Their hospitality is fantastic with meals provided for free and enough wine samples poured to keep you liquored up for weeks. What they don't always realize is that you just want to sleep! Naturally, you are very grateful for their efforts and want to convey this fact. But at the same time you also sometimes wish it was possible to slip off to take a nap rather than hear another story or see another row of grapevines.

Hanes, you insufferable ingrate! Are we truly forced to listen to you whine about receiving free food and wine?

Now, now. Let's not get so testy. As Hanes said, it cannot be overstated how much there is to learn in these visits. For example, when you go to a wine exposition in France and get to taste the wines of over 20 Alsatian producers at once you learn a great deal through these immediate comparisons than if you tasted these wines over the course of weeks or even days. It really helps you focus and forces you to ask with clarity what you like or don't like in the wines. It also helps your clarity if you spit!

Another couple of examples come from a trip Hanes made to Austria. In the various vineyards Hanes collected rock samples. When you see the soils and how different they are it really drives home why the resultant wines taste so differently even if the grapes grown are the same. Or why certain grapes grow well in one area but not in another. One area has more schist and loess, another lots of slate without much topsoil, while another has more clay and richer soil. The soil compositions, the angle of the terraces, all this makes for huge differences in grape growing. In the Wachau region Hanes visited a steep southeastern facing vineyard. This vineyard was the northernmost place grapes could grow while taking advantage of the warm winds from Hungary. Just around the bend north of this microclimate were rows and rows of abandoned terraces. You could see that generations tried to grow grapes there but they were unsuccessful. The cold Czech winds came down just there to prevent full ripening. You literally were standing on the dividing line between where grapes could grow and where they could not. Fascinating stuff, yo. And you can't experience these things sitting at home in your underwear surrounded by 40 sample bottles of wine.

Serendipity also comes into play too. You may be in France to visit Producer A and Producer B. In the course of traveling you stop in for a quick dinner and order a bottle of wine from an unknown producer. It tastes great and as of yet isn't imported into the United States. You scribble down the name and address from the bottle and, voila, you may have another wine for your portfolio. This couldn't have happened had you stayed back in the U.S.

This goes the same for "networking" — broadening a portfolio often derives superior results via trusted recommendations. When you are out on the road you get exposed to wines recommended by producers already in your portfolio. While not every "friend of a friend's" wine turns out to be stellar or, more importantly, saleable back in the States, it is still often the case that these friends will share an approach to wine with the producer you admire and represent. This is better than random shots in the dark.

Despite these benefits one of the frustrating elements of traveling abroad to visit producers is that in many respects you really haven't left home at all. That is, the day-to-day concerns and problems of running a business come with you, especially if you are a smaller business or start-up. When your responsibilities include not only sourcing the product but also selling it, sales can effectively grind to a halt while you are in Germany or Spain traveling the wine route. This is not a good thing. Other aspects of business may also be impaired including billing, responding to professional inquiries, processing label approvals, receiving wine deliveries and making sure your accountant is staying within "commonly accepted accounting practices." So, while you are out securing future profit you may be losing present profit. Hence, another reason for the swift, business-like nature of these visits.

In a very pertinent and direct manner, adventuring on the wine route raises the paramount question of why one is in the wine trade to begin with. If one is in the trade because of an abiding passion for wine then gettng out into the field and visiting wineries and vineyards and trade shows should be at the core of what you love about your profession. You cannot "commune" with the total experience of wine enjoyment much better. Yet, as with most anything, once paying your rent or your kid's college tuition depends on selecting the most saleable Argentinean Malbec or Australian Shiraz a whole lot of the enjoyment gets sucked out of it. It becomes a job like most any other. This is the greatest risk to a wine lover working in the trade — how to stay excited about wine when it becomes a business in your day-to-day life. If you are sitting in a restaurant and another customer (knowing you are a winemaker or importer) asks for a wine recommendation off the wine list, do you recommend your own wine or the wine you love best? Or, given limited financial resources, how do you pass up representing a killer Jurançon in favor of a pedestrian Haut-Médoc because you know the latter will sell better?

Regardless of all the romantic poesies associated with working in the wine business, it remains at the end of the day a business. This fact ineluctably presents itself no matter how one strives to avoid it. This may be the most valuable lesson of traveling the wine route — everyone you meet is trying to eke out a little profit for themselves in whatever small or large way they can. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hanes just wishes they would let him take more naps.