By the numbers, America loves wine and beer: Yearly sales for wine add up to over $13 billion, and beer sales top that, at $36 billion. Stores that sell wine and beer (like most other retailers) tend to buy them in bulk from wholesalers. These wholesalers serve as intermediaries between manufacturers and stores, explaining products and negotiating prices for nearly everything that appears on shelves. Though they are less visible than salespeople, wholesalers are an important part of the supply chain; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 1.8 million Americans work as wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives.
Erin Dix works as a fine-wine manager at Major Brands, a wholesaler in St. Louis, Missouri. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Dix about what her job entails, why most people don’t know exactly what she does, and whether working in the industry has changed her perception of wine. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do for work and how did you get into it?
Erin Dix: Our company, Major Brands, is an independent, statewide beverage distributor in Missouri. I am based in St. Louis, and serve as a fine-wine manager, where I run a sales team of five people. We sell wine, spirits, and craft beer to small independent wine shops and some fine-dining—white-tablecloth restaurants, wine bars—establishments, or any business that wants to focus on their wine in the St. Louis area.
We sell to some retail stores. They're typically smaller, independent or family-owned wine shops that focus on fine wine, spirits, and craft beer. We often sell to Whole Foods, which is one of the largest grocery chain stores that we get.
Lam: How did you end up working in wholesale trade?
Dix: It fell into my lap. It was my first job out of college. I was looking around and wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do at the beginning of my career. I enjoyed wine, knew someone at Major Brands, and knew it was a great company to work for. They helped me get an interview. I didn't really know exactly what I was interviewing for, but I started in the wine department and that was 10 years ago.
I had no concept of what the wholesale industry was, but as an administrator I really got to understand how the company worked. I learned the extensive brand portfolio and just learned a lot about wine. I did a few different things in the wine department, along with some event planning. I helped different directors on the wine side, and then started as a sales representative a couple years after that. Now I’m in sales management.
Lam: How is your knowledge of wine different from, say, a sommelier’s?
Dix: There's a lot of overlap. I would say that one difference is that a sommelier who works in a restaurant has so many responsibilities: Not only do they need to know about wine, they need to know about cocktails and food pairings. They're opening, serving, and presenting a lot of bottles.
For myself, and for many of our salespeople, to sell wine comfortably, they need to be very familiar with specific wineries—the particular wine, the different growing regions, and how different wines from different areas of the world taste. They also need to know trends that change depending on whether they’re selling to a wine shop, or a grocery store, or a restaurant, or a wine bar. They also need to be familiar with the profit.
Lam: Why don’t most consumers know about the wholesaler who supplies the products that they buy in the stores?
Dix: I think we create that separation a little bit, because we want the consumer to know about what we’re selling and continue to purchase our brands. They don't necessarily need to know us as a wholesaler. If they do, that's great. We're local, we're family-owned, and we're involved in the community, so we do want to put our name out there. But the most important thing I can do is make sure my clients see and hear about our brands.
One way to explain wholesale is that we're selling to someone who is going to sell it again, and so we're trying to appeal to both the stores and their customers, in order to give them what they want. Sometimes those don't jibe, and that's where it can be challenging.
Maybe the store manager says, "I don't want to have to spend my money on this wine. I want different things." Well, [this particular wine] is the number-one selling white wine, so you don’t have to have it, but it's strongly recommended because that's what people are looking for. It's a little bit of a dance sometimes. You want to fill their needs and sell them what they want, but there's a little bit of coaching involved to help them sell to their customers too.
Lam: Are you a wine drinker yourself? Do you think about your job selling wine as a professional when you’re enjoying a glass of wine?
Dix: I am a wine drinker. I absolutely use a lot of my personal experiences with wine—whether I'm out socially or at home—in selling and to relate to my customers because it's a very social industry. It's a very social product, and people want to hear the stories. It’s not just, “Here's a Chardonnay. Do you like it?” There's definitely a story behind all of the products that we sell, whether it's a wine, or a new craft spirit, or a craft beer. I think that tying as much “real life” as you can into those products is very beneficial in selling it.
Lam: There are people who think that wine pricing is arbitrary. Do you hear that from your customers?
Dix: I don't agree with that at all. Wine is this living, breathing thing. There are so many things that go into the production. With wine, or any sort of agriculture, there’s a harvest. If there’s a lot of rain one year, it really affects that particular vintage of wine. Sometimes, it’ll make the prices go way up.
Sometimes, some wineries won’t make a particular wine because the fruit just wasn't good enough to produce. It boggles my mind to think about how many factors actually go into the process of getting those grapes to the bottle, and then getting those bottles from California to Missouri, or to New York, or across the world. And every stop along the way there's probably some extra little charge —such as shipping or tax—that gets included.
Lam: What are some challenges you face as a wine wholesaler?
Dix: I would say consolidation of companies is one. For our industry, it can happen with wineries, or some of these big conglomerate companies buying up wineries, or breweries, or at the distillery level. It's also on the wholesale side, too: Larger wholesalers buying smaller wholesalers, and us being small-ish and independent, that's something on people's minds.
I've been here for 10 years. That's somewhat of a short time for this industry, but it seems that in the last few years consolidation seems to be happening a lot faster and more frequently than 10 years ago.
Lam: How does someone working in your industry tend to feel when you see the news of new mergers or consolidations?
Dix: Probably mixed emotions. I would say that there's definitely a level of concern: Is that going to happen to us? Are we next? Even if [the merger] happened on the East Coast or the West Coast, what does it mean for us here in the state of Missouri? I know that there's good that can come from that as well, so I would say it’s definitely mixed emotions.
Lam: How does your job relate to your identity?
Dix: I live and breathe my job. I'm very happy to talk to people about what I do and explain it. This is a very social industry. When I'm not working, I still run into other people in the industry or one of my customers. One of the things I love about what I do is that even out of the work setting, people always want to know about the wine industry and what's going on. Maybe they saw a headline. Or they say, “Hey, I tried this new wine that I picked up at the wine shop down the street last night. I really like it. Can you tell me about it?” The job and my identity go hand in hand.
We're selling products, but we're also selling ourselves because this is a customer-service-based industry. I think it has changed me in a way. I also have more respect for people in the industry. I wouldn't say it's a thankless job, but people work very hard and it might go unnoticed. They do so much just to sell one bottle of wine. I think people forget that. I think that’s our consumer reality now, because it's so easy to buy stuff. This is not an 8-to-5 industry; it's a lot of nights and weekends, and the people that are working in the restaurants are working crazy hours. I have so much respect for the work ethic of the people in the industry.
Lam: On that note, do you feel differently when you see a bottle of wine in a store as a result of your job?
Dix: I do, and it's crazy. As a 22-year-old shopping for wine before I started working here, I would pick wine at a specific price point and look at what the label looked like. I was like, "That's a cute label."
Now, when I sit in a sales meeting, and we're kicking off a new Pinot Grigio and they tell you who their target audience is, they’ve done all this research to show that women between the ages of 25 and 40 are going to buy this Pinot Grigio for whatever reason. It's like, "Wow, this is some marketing at its finest." I see the other side of it. I laugh at myself, the 22-year-old buying wine and having no clue all the work it took to get that bottle on that shelf.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a salesperson, a bartender, and a pastor.