Sunday, February 12, 2012

So you want to sell wine to a Sommelier, huh?

Last Friday night I was trolling around the GuildSomm website when I encountered a discussion topic titled "How to sell to a Somm."  By the time I encountered the discussion, there had been 42 posts containing, in my view, a wealth of information on key marketing success factors for account managers who sell to sommeliers.  The participants in the discussion were primarily working sommeliers with four or five appearing to be on the distribution side of the business. As an exercise I aggregated and categorized the responses and I will share my analysis with you in this post.

The steps in developing a classical account management strategy is to first do a needs assessment, then follow up with an assessment of your organization's skills and capabilities vis a vis those needs and, finally, to deliver a solution that meets the identified customer needs. In that classical schema, all of the information provided in the discussion on the GuildSomm site would fall into the customer needs category.

But even within the "user-needs" area, there are further subsets; as I found out while reviewing the data.  Based on what the data were telling me, I allocated the responses into the following user-need categories:

  • Know us (know me, know our business, know our market)
  • Know your product
  • Good business practices
In the Know Us category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Map offerings to our menu       18 mentions
  2. Read your customer                    3 mentions
  3. Track order history/trends           2 mentions
  4. No junk wine                              1 mentions
In this category the Sommeliers are asking that the salesperson demonstrate knowledge of the account, its business, and the Somm sitting across the table from them.  One respondent said that if she were to become a salesperson tomorrow, she would go to every one of her customers and take their menus and use them as guides for product presentation.  Further, do not bring a $10 bottle of wine if the establishment projects an exclusive image and do not bring a wine that the customer will encounter in a nearby supermarket.

In the Know your product category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Speak confidently about the wines that you are selling    14 mentions
  2. Communicate the story behind the wine                            6 mentions
  3. No scores or reviews                                                         4 mentions
  4. Do not wear fragrances                                                     1 mention
  5. Wines at proper temperature                                              1 mention
A consistent refrain was that a Somm on the floor is expected to know his/her wines and they expect a salesperson to be similarly equipped.  The salesperson should know whether the wine is a blend or not, the varieties in the blend, the region, and, especially, the story behind the wine.  The story is especially beneficial in aiding the Somm in his/her sell cycle with the end user.  A salesperson who knows the wine does not have to stoop to citing scores and expert reviews, a practice looked upon with disdain by the discussion participants.

In the Good business practice category, the responses were as follows:
  1. Show up on time for appointments          14 mentions
  2. Make an appointment                                6 mentions
  3. Service                                                       3 mentions
  4. Proper attire                                                2 mentions
  5. In and Out                                                  2 mentions
  6. Know how to open a wine bottle                1 mention
  7. No hard sell                                                1 mention
  8. Check product before tasting                      1 mention
  9. Honesty                                                      1 mention
All of the responses are self-explanatory with the exception of service.  The sommeliers want to know ahead of time when vintage changes are going to happen, when deals are in the offing -- especially for by-the-glass offers -- and product should be delivered when promised.

Looking over the three categories, it seems that sommeliers are most concerned that sales people: present wines that are relevant to their menus; speak confidently about the wines that they are presenting; show up on time for made appointments; and know and tell the stories behind the wines.

The needs, as expressed by the sommeliers, match up very well with the selling strategy of Liz Willette of Grand Cru Selections as described in her 12/16/2011 post on Crushpad.  Liz worked for many years as a Somm before getting into the distribution side of the business with her own firm, Willette Wines, which she eventually merged with Grand Cru Selections.  Liz exhorts the account manager to:

  • Bring great wines
  • Be passionate about the wines you are selling
  • Tell the story behind the wine
  • Bring wines that complement the food that the restaurant sells
  • Research the restaurant's menu and wine list before you solicit
  • Turn the sommeliers on to new things
  • Build relationships.

So you want to sell wine to a sommelier, huh?  Well the foregoing provides some tools.  If you are not currently calling on Somms, the material provided above could serve as the needs assessment input for your account management strategy.  If you are currently calling on Somms, the material could be used to fine tune your approach.

Happy selling.


  1. Great post. I am in the boat of resto sommeliers who have made the jump to distribution and see this kind of stuff all of the time. Honesty seems to be the big one for me. I think when the sommelier/wine director is sitting down with me, they assume I am not going to sell them plonk. Perhaps a professional courtesy thing??

    1. It was interesting that participants did not say here are my needs and my sales rep is doing a great job of meeting them. The discussion seemed, for the most part, to be raising issues re unmet needs.