Editor’s Note: Over the years, we’ve always wondered what the real skinny is behind the title “Wine Export Manager”? Though the title doesn’t sound especially glamorous, to see their status updates from fabulous locations around the world makes you raise an eyebrow and consider a quick revamp of your resume. But before you jump to quickly spruce up your LinkedIn profile, we’d like to invite John Perry to Catavino, an Export Manager out of Rioja who has kindly offered his expertise in sorting through the glam to the real nugget of truth behind his job.
“Wow… You’re so lucky! You get to travel around the world and drink wine for a living!” This is what I usually hear when I tell people I work exporting Spanish wines around the world. Most of the time, I smile and confidently speak about the perks of my job: all-expenses-paid trips around Europe, America and Asia; dinners with clients in top restaurants from Shanghai to San Juan; the privilege of having the possibility to build my own wine collection while I meet winemakers and producers from the most renown wine regions in industry events.
What I don’t usually talk about is what life as a Wine Export Manager really feels like sometimes: “Fasten your seatbelt. Wake up in Munich, Singapore, SFO, LAX… Wait for an hour on the tarmac in La Guardia. Your flight is delayed. Gain six hours, lose six hours; wake up in a different place, at a different time. This is life, and you feel like it’s passing you by one minute at a time”. No, I won’t be found in a Fight Club like Tyler Durden, but I do sometimes wish I worked a 9 to 5 as a bank teller.
The winery I represent is present in over 50 markets worldwide. That means, I’m the connection between the trade and the winery in each of these. So, naturally, there’s a lot of travel involved. This doesn’t mean I have a free ticket to see the world! My job is very methodical. Each business trip is the culmination of weeks of planning and long hours of preparation; the export manager must understand the psychographics and and demographics of the target consumer in each market. This means no business trip is ever the same and the roles I play vary. I’m the face of the winery around the world, a wine ambassador; I work as a wine rep or an educator, performing all these aspects of the job during the course of doing business. There’s no time for sightseeing! Moreover, at the hotel, after a hard day’s work, I still have to stay in touch with the rest of my clients. Hey, it’s 9 am somewhere, right?
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job! There are times when I’m able to explain exactly what happened during the year when the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining, if it rained or hailed. I can speak of the people who tended the vineyards and picked the grapes; what an oak barrel brings into the equation; how wine is a living thing and continues to evolve; how a bottle of wine gains complexity with time. The list is endless. On the other hand, there are times when I’ll spend eight straight hours on my feet pouring wines for consumers who don’t care if what I’m serving –and they’re chugging- is an aged Pedro Ximenez Sherry or a crisp young Rueda. Still, I find myself trying to hold their attention and have them bond with my brands. That’s when I truly understand why having a true passion for wine is essential for this job.
Ours is ghostly work; of the behind the scenes kind. An export manager looks for partners in potential new markets, negotiates the introduction of his products, devises strategies to raise brand awareness, helps partners expand their distribution. This very same person holds staff educationals and does the rounds with local wine reps helping them add a certain wine to a restaurant’s list or close a deal with an important buyer for a retail chain. Most of our time is spent building interest, planting the seeds that will generate buzz -first for the country of origin as a category, then for the region, and finally for the brand itself- and have to wait years to see the results. Today, as I sit six thousand miles away from home, I see a young couple sip a bottle of my Rioja Reserva at the hotel lounge and I remember my first trip to Beijing in early 2010. How I spent days waiting for hours in a taxi in the traffic-jammed ring roads of the city with a case of samples in the trunk and a folder full of prospect importers under my arm. I can only smile to myself for the achievement, but I won’t be expecting any pats on my back.
There is something magical about wine: about how it’s made, the history of the wineries, vineyards and winemakers themselves. People think it differs from other fast moving consumer goods; it has a certain patina of glamour. It seems like everything that has to do with wine – be it producing, selling or drinking it- is fashionable.
The reality is that we are employed to sell a product and, like any other salesperson, our job is judged based primarily on sales figures.
Understanding this is hard for the newbie, especially at a time when the global wine market is saturated and export competition is very intense, when there are thousands of wineries and millions of labels. Sometimes I’ll work for weeks to no avail. I’ve had to get used to rejection – it recurrently feels like lady’s night out there -, and I’ve learned to walk away. Some doors will eventually open, even if most of them slam at first.
I hope next time you sit in your patio sipping that amazing imported juice that you simply picked up from the shelf at your local wine shop, you’ll have a clearer idea of the hard work some people have done to make it available to you and remember to raise a glass to the export managers of the world. It was a door that opened, a small victory for them after all.
Photos by Ryan Opaz