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The Three-Tier Schnook SystemOriginally posted on April 13, 2001.
I'm writing this on the Metroliner returning from Baltimore to New York City. I have been in DC/Maryland/Virginia since Monday morning in an effort to promote Louis/Dressner Selections wines in this region. In the process, I have not only met a lot of Schnooks in the wine trade but have turned into a Schnook myself.
My Thursday’s salesmanship highlight, was trying to convince two dead men who buy wine for an important retailer in Maryland to buy the Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon Blanc. Despite the numerous amusing anecdotes I told the dead men about the vignerons, they rejected the wine on the grounds it was too acidic. But they greatly enjoyed the Corbieres Chateau la Baronne Rouge 1999 and immediately ordered a large quantity that will be case stacked at their important store. The dead is a market segment I want to learn more about in the future, as I see my firm has enormous growth possibilities with this important group. On the other hand, we are not doing well amongst the far more numerous Schnooks.
The two dead men did not qualify as being Schnooks as Schnooks are genuinely among the living. Addtionally, the two dead men tasted with glassware, whereas Schnooks always taste using plastic cups that they either have stolen from their Dentists or that they have bought in massive quantities from dental supply companies.
That's right. You, the average wine geek out there, are bombarded with endless literature about Riedel stemware and fret over which stemware is more appropriate for Burgundy and which stemware is more appropriate for your Flowers Chardonnay. Curiously, the DC/Maryland/Virginia market is flooded with Flowers Chardonnay, a winery that I always assumed is an internet invention. Kind of like Kay Bixler.
Anyhow, in reality the Schnooks who are deciding which wines you will be able to buy at your local retailer are making buying decisions by tasting wines in plastic cups. Here is how it works:
(1) The Schnook Salespeople from Schnook Distributors arrive at stores all across America with samples of wines from Schnook Importers (such as myself) or Schnook Domestic Wineries.
(2) The Schnook Retailer then humiliates the Schnook Distributor Salesperson over some late delivery or billing error for the first 15 minutes of the encounter. Since the Schnook Retailer is secure in the knowledge that the Schnook Distributor Salesperson needs his business (as the salespeople are working on commission) they take particular sadistic delight in making the salesperson feel sullied, stupid and humiliated. The veteran Schnook Distributor Salesperson learns to ignore this tirade and not take it personally. If the salesperson is a man and the retailer is a man, the skilled Schnook Salesperson allows the tirade to come to a halt and then tells a particularly salty dirty joke, usually involving oral sex, to make the Schnook Retailer laugh and feel a sense of camraderie with the Schnook Distributor Salesperson. They then proceed directly to important business deals.
(3) There are two variants to this stage. In the simpler variant the Schnook Retailer takes out his plastic cup and tastes all the wine samples the Schnook Salesperson has brought with him. The Schnook Salesperson tries desperately to bombard the Schnook Retailer with all the scores the wine in the plastic cup has received in The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, The Paul Roberts Wine Monthly, or any other periodical that has mentioned the wine and that can be turned into a shop talker. This is a very important point: the wine needs a good score somewhere, anywhere, because the Schnool Retailer does not have the time to do "hand-sells." The Schnook Retailer has a difficult job during this phase of the ritual, having to smell, taste and spit (already made more difficult by the wine being in a Dentist’s plastic cup) while listening to the Schnook Salesperson's passioned narrative of 89 points, 90 points and 87 points for each wine.
A subvariant of this process in the Schnook Retailer having a Designated Taster, a kind of sub-Schnook, who tastes all the wines in a designated plastic cup and decides which wines merit being tasted by The Main Schnook. This is something I have never seen outside of the Washington, DC area.
Regardless of whether it is the Designated Schnook or the Main Schnook there are now two fascinating rituals to observe. Some Retailers use one plastic cup for whites and another plastic cup for reds. Some use different plastic cups for each wine. I suppose this is often a function of the tasting budget alloted by each store. Because often the Retail Schnook Buyer is but an employee working within the budgetary limitations of a Boss who doesn’t even bother coming into the store. I did observe during this trip that our wines were much better received by the Schnooks who change cups with each wine. They tend to be much serious wine tasters.
After evaluating the wines through any of the above methods, the Retail Schnook then tells you which wines they will order. This is prefaced by an interrogation where the Retail Schnook demands to know the name of every retail store in the immediate area who carries the wine and what they are charging per bottle. The Retail Schnooks especially like wines that are not carried by their competitors: normally they mark-up the wine 50%, but if no competing Schnooks carry the wine they can add another $1.00 to the bottle price. In general, the Distributor Salesperson Schnook blatantly lies at this point and assures the retailer that non one else in the continental United States will carry the wine if they take 5 cases and make a floor stacking.
I am always shocked by the sheer squeals of delight by Retail Schnooks when they find out their 5 case purchase will be an American exclusivity. Since I work for a fringe company, the Retail Schnooks assume that no one carries my wine anyhow and sometimes mark it up $2.00 for a an additional $120.00 profit on their 5 case purchase! If I am present, working with the Schnook Salesperson, the Schnook Retailer then tells me how he loves working with insignificant companies like Louis/Dressner Selections because our wines are so badly distributed and obscure that he can make enormous and objectionable profits from carrying our “product.”
What do we call this system? We in the wine and liquor trade call it “The Three-Tier System.”
Of course, the entire market is not like this. There are fabulous retailers out there and great distributors with great salespeople. They truly do exist and eventually wine geeks figure out who they are and patronize them.
Despite being a schnook myself I have met many of these people. But even these people are obligated to carry Schnook wines along with the often excellent selections they sell. It’s a schnook world out there and everyone needs a schnook cash flow to stay in business.
And don’t forget that without the Three-Tier Schnook System there would be nobody to warehouse, truck and get out wine to retailers and restaurants outside of a handful of major wine markets.
Yes, the Schnooks perform many useful functions.
I want to thank everyone at the Washington Winos for the great reception I had on Monday night. It was truly an enjoyable evening.