Saturday, May 12, 2012

Psychowine: Friends in low places? What to consider when your friends go into the wine business.

When I worked in a medical setting, we'd be visited by these strange creatures. Well, not strange, exactly. They were young, attractive, verbal, intelligent (YAVI, or what Irving Yalom says therapists consider their ideal clients), well dressed, and brought food and presents to the docs and office staff. All they wanted in return was the opportunity to tell us about the wonderful products they represented.

Yeah, I'm talking about pharmaceutical reps. Although the rules have tightened over the past decade, and they can't give out pads, pens, or other goodies, they're still YAVIs, and the pharmaceutical industry seems to be doing just fine. Why? Because we're more likely to buy or recommend stuff that's represented by someone we like. That's why salespeople are so friendly and focused on "relationship-building." Most of us like to help other people out, so if we get to make a great purchase and help out someone we like, well what's wrong with that?

In psychology, we have the concept of "dual relationships." Yes, it goes beyond, "don't sleep with your clients" (although that's always a good rule to follow). The idea is that it's hard to objectively treat someone with whom you have a relationship beyond the doctor/patient one. Somehow the medical profession gets away with that, but that's a different blog post. The question that comes up is, can you be objective when your buddy has become part of the wine business and invites you to tastings?
Perhaps she's about to have a blind tasting? 

Hubby and I have encountered this question recently, and being the geeks that we are, have discussed it. Our friend Joe Herrig of fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it) is now a rep for Global Imports. I think that's it. Or maybe that's a car dealership? Oh, right, Joe is a rep for Global Wines. Damn, he's not going to be able to hook me up with a BMW.

We got a first-hand taste of this a few weeks ago, when we dropped in on a tasting Joe was having at a little wine shop in Marietta. The owner, whom we'll call Mark, said that when Joe had first come by with samples of his portfolio, he didn't try any, but rather bought some without tasting because he knew and liked Joe. The point is, it was the relationship that sold the wine, not the wine itself, but it's going to be the wine that closes the deal later.  

Note: Somehow we didn't take pictures of the tasting referenced in this post, so the photos are from an earlier tasting with Joe. Here's Joe in his spiffy Hall & Oates t-shirt with jacket. I like the wine biz dress code.

Is this ethical? If Joe were a psychologist selling wines to his clients, no. In the business and marketing world, yes. It's a commonly accepted principle that it's relationships that make sales, and even if you don't close the deal today, they'll be more likely to come back to you tomorrow. Then you need a good product. Think about it: what if Mark had tried the wine and had a negative reaction (psychospeak for "hated it")? Then the product would have overshadowed the relationship, and indeed, we saw him be honest with one of the wines at the tasting that he really didn't like.

So there are two of the three elements of this potential influence: relationship and good products. The third is trust. Joe had been going into Mark's shop for three years before he started the wine gig, so Mark had gotten familiar with Joe's taste and knew they must be somewhat compatible with his. You have to trust the guy who's selling you stuff knows what he's talking about. That's actually the best way to figure out which of the many wine blogs to read – go with the bloggers whose tastes are most compatible with yours, not necessarily the experts who would turn their noses up at your favorite summer sippers because they're – gasp! – reasonably priced, mass-produced, from states other than the Big Four, or any of the other things wine snobs turn up their noses at.

This is getting complicated. How about we simplify with a totally non-validated, non-reliable psychometric scale upon which one should rate potential wine sales rep influence? Since we're less likely to buy from people whom we don't like, we'll have a negative end of the spectrum as well:

-5: You've seen each other with your clothes off and are no longer speaking.

 -4: Their kid beat up your kid.

-3: They snubbed you at an event or deliberately ignored your hints about samples because they didn't recognize you as a famous wine blogger.

 -2: Didn't seem happy to see you when you entered the tasting venue.

-1: Hate cats/dogs, and you're a cat/dog person.

0: No strong feelings either way.

+1: You call each other by your first names, and he/she is always happy to see you.

+2: They've hooked you up with samples, wine swag, or other cool free stuff.

+3: You've gotten together socially (e.g., outside of business contexts).

+4: They've watched your kids and/or pets for free, and you've watched theirs.

 +5: You've seen each other naked and are still speaking.*

Okay, so that's my totally non-validated, non-reliable scale. Maybe I'll turn it into a questionnaire at some point. Joe would score a +3, or moderate potential influence.  Note, I said potential.  Whether you're a wine blogger or not, it's always good to step back and examine how much of your perception of the wine may be influenced by the person pouring it. Maybe that's why some people remember wines in the tasting rooms as being much better than the bottles they bring home. Our minds are fun and complicated, and sometimes they can play tricks on us. Perhaps the mandatory FCC disclosure policy on sample products is a good thing, after all, because it at least makes us step back and consider these issues.

This was a really yummy Malbec we got from Joe's first tasting. It tasted as good at home as it did at the wine shop.

*Hubby's comment: "What happens at the wine blogger conference stays at the wine blogger conference." Hmmm, I may have to keep him on a shorter leash this year.

Art attribution, top of page: "Hypnotist and blindfolded woman with angels on stage."  Created by "The Donaldson Litho. Co., Newport, KY." [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

Cheryl Hart said...

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don't know anything about wine (other than some of them taste fabulous.)

Second of all, I love your witty, mouth-watering post!