Marching with the modern wine salesman
New York City is the mecca of wine distributors and importers, making it the top destination for new salesmen such as Eric Clemons, owner of Coeur Wines, to come and share their trade. Clemons, who worked his way up at Michael Skurnik Wines, starts client meetings after noon to match buyer preferences and jumps immediately to the punch of any sales call to not waste a buyer’s time. Clemons paved his way with San Diego wines and still sticks to them as a strong selling point even in Manhattan.
New York City, is the most important wine market in the US, and possibly the world. Not because of its great wealth, its restaurants and wine shops, or even its corps of fast-talking, fast-moving sommeliers, but because the city is home to more influential wine distributors and importers than anywhere else. These are the companies that inform the palates and shape the preferences of wine drinkers everywhere.
There are 219 wine wholesalers in New York City—and their numbers are growing, especially when it comes to small operations specializing in wines of a particular country or specific type. Among these newly launched companies are distributors and importers focused on small Italian estates (Montcalm Wine), the Mosel region of Germany (vom Boden) and cool-climate wines from Australia (Little Peacock Imports). The focus of Coeur Wines, a company owned by Eric Clemons, is a bit wider: he works with wineries in California, New York and Oregon, as well as some in Italy, Spain and France.
Clemons fell in love with wine while still an undergraduate at Cornell University; his summer job was at a tasting room in the Finger Lakes region of New York. A former star salesman with the highly-regarded Michael Skurnik Wines of Syosset, Long Island, Clemons was looking for an even greater challenge than his Skurnik sales job. He wanted to own a business since he was 21. Clemons made it sound as if that was long ago when in fact he is 31. He founded Coeur Wines a few months ago.
The very first label that Clemons signed up was Vesper Vineyards, a tiny winery located just outside San Diego. An obscure winery from an unlikely location might not have seemed like an auspicious beginning, but after tasting the wines there, Clemons found that they were “not good-for-wines-from-San Diego but just wines that are good.”
He had three Vesper wines—a white, a red and a rosé—in his large black canvas wheelie bag on the day that I joined him on his sales calls. The routine—and the bag—were pretty much the same as those of his previous life. The only difference is that, as the owner and sole employee of Coeur Wines, he does a lot more paperwork and makes a lot less money. But he actually expected that because it is just at the beginning.
How much did a successful New York wine salesman make? A good salesman could earn $80,000 a year, or even two or three times that amount, said Clemons, depending on the territory and accounts. At Skurnik, he worked strictly on commission, as do most wine sales reps.
There are other challenges for small importers, most notably those to do with logistics. “I didn’t know anything about how to get wine shipped from France, or about filling a container,” said Clemons, referring to the large freight containers in which wine is brought to the U.S. from overseas. He didn’t have enough bottles to fill a container, which usually holds some 1,100 cases of wine, and the transport of a partly filled container can be quite expensive. Fortunately, Clemons found Tim Elenteny, whose New York-based freight-handling company, T. Elenteny Imports, was created to assist wine companies. Elenteny’s team takes care of filling the containers with the wines of various firms, and handling the prodigious amount of paperwork.
And this is the rise of the next-wave wine salesman! Young and vibrant!