The Buyer
Chuck Cramer: the art of being a one man wine consulting band

Chuck Cramer: the art of being a one man wine consulting band

When it comes to importing, distributing and make a name for yourself in the UK there are now a growing number of ways of shifting cases of wine for an ambitious international producer. For some, however, the traditional model of working with a big agency does not give them the exclusivity they want and instead they are relying on the likes of Chuck Cramer, a specialist wine consultant, with a track record of single handedly building distribution and listings for producers in the premium on-trade. Here he explains how he is looking to do exactly that for America’s Terlato Wines.

Richard Siddle
30th October 2017by Richard Siddle
posted in People,People: Supplier,

With even smaller margins to play with in the highly competitive UK on-trade, major wine producers are looking at more cost effective, productive and profitable ways of selling there wine here. Chuck Cramer explains how he is using his experience to help bring Terlato Wines, from his home state in California, to leading restaurants, bars and hotels across the UK and Europe.

Back in the glorious days of 1980s pop, the charts were full of bands who by the sound of it on the radio were made up of a cast of thousands. Yet, who should then turn up on Top of Pops but a solitary singer surrounded, Rick Wakeman-style, by a bank of keyboards with a guitar thrown over their shoulder for good measure. You know the ones. Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Jean Michel Jarre. Even the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Yazoo and Erasure relied heavily on the musical and keyboard skills on one part of a double act who seemed to be doing all the heavy lifting.

To be a successful wine consultant you have to be able to multi-task and be as adept as Jean-Michel Jarre in keeping a lot of instruments going at the same time.

The world of wine also throws up all sorts of individuals and double acts who somehow manage to achieve and have a profile much bigger than the sum of their parts. The days of major wine producers running satellite offices all over the world with a full workforce in each one are well and truly over. If they do they are the exception rather than the rule.

Instead a growing number of one man/ woman/ person bands are now cropping up seemingly capable of achieving similar results to the large teams that preceded them.

Now, Chuck Cramer was busy hanging out with soon to be famous Hollywood actors back in his home state of California in the heady days of the 1980s. That is before he decided to move to the UK and try and make his way in the wine industry consulting for wineries looking for UK distribution.

Over the last 17 years Cramer has written the book on how to operate as a lone agent, acting as the UK face and voice of a series of Spanish producers for nine years, before working with Italian business, Wine People, for five years.

California dreaming

If you like a nine to five job then don’t even think about becoming a wine consultant, says Chuck Cramer

Who better to now run the UK and European affairs of major US and Californian wine business, Terlato Vineyards. Over the last three years he has been responsible for building up a network of premium outlets for its wines in London, but also now further afield around the country and across Europe. Cramer has been able to open up markets for Terlato in eight European countries including Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Romania, Ireland, Malta and France. He has also now got Terlato’s The Federalist wines in to Dubai duty free.

Cramer was born to his role as a sole operator. You could imagine him quite successfully running his own sports or film agent business, or running his own private detective agency. What he has in spades is both an infectious personality, but also a drive, determination and commitment to make things happen.

Once Cramer has you on his contacts list then your phone is never really yours again.

So what’s his advice for going it alone? “You have to find the right partner to work with. You have to make sure their business model is going to work for you. But you also have to remember that someone, in my case Terlato, are paying for your services, so you have to deliver.”

He says it took him a while to build up a way of working that is now proving successful. “The nine years I spent working with Spanish producers and then Wine People gave me the structure to define my business model for the UK market,” he explains.

Cramer likes the way he is now able to work with Terlato Vineyards . “I am paid on a consultancy basis so I work on a self employed basis. They are a great fit for me, being Californian, and they have a fantastic portfolio of wines. I get to manage 12 wineries across the UK and Europe, so it provides me with a great reach.”

California speaking

He is also largely left to get on with the job. “I have all the support I need to succeed when I want it, but I am given a lot of autonomy just to get on with it. They trust my approach and my instinct for the markets we are working in.It is also the first time they have worked like this in the UK. But they get a Californian accent to go with the sales pitch.”

Which, joking aside, does stand for a great deal when working with Californian wines in the UK and Europe, he adds. Look around and there are not many fellow Californians doing what he does.

“I think a lot of credibility comes with the accent,” claims Cramer. “I have a natural knowledge of the state of California and the wines I am selling. I really enjoying working with wines from my home state. I also have the backing of a big producer that is really committed to growing its UK, European and global business. We have had rapid growth in a short period of time.”

Cramer always hopes to create a welcome at Rutherford Hill or other Terlato properties when UK and European buyers visit California

Cramer is also quick to point to the help and support he has had from the California Wine Institute in helping to build contacts and get a platform in some European markets. He also works closely with the generic body to ensure Terlato, where possible, is represented on buyer and influencer trips to California both for the UK and across Europe. A recent visit, for example, by leading Danish sommeliers took them to Terlato’s Rutherford Hill winery. “We work with them very closely to make things happen. It is just a case of being as persistent, as is politely possible to be, so that we are involved in their trips and events.”

Again you can see why Cramer would be good as a manager of a band as well as acting like one. “You have to be thinking all the time about how you can create noise for the brands.”

Sideways thinking

When the Sideways play ran in London last year Cramer not only arranged special wine tastings with the cast, author Rex Pickett, but created a Sanford Wine Trial of nearby restaurants and bars selling the Californian wine featured in the play and film.

Here’s a great example. When a play of the great iconic Californian wine road movie, Sideways, came to London last year, Cramer was quickly on to the producers and the writer, Rex Pickett, for Sanford, one of the Terlato wines featured in the original film,should become the official wine of the show.

Not only was he able to secure Pickett and members of the cast to take part in trade and consumer tastings, but he managed to get the wines listed in to prestige accounts, restaurants and hotels within a square mile of the theatre offering special wines by the glass for pre and post-theatre offers.

He is currently in talks with Cameron Makintosh and the producers of the hit musical Hamilton, about the American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, to arrange a similar tie in for Terlato’s Federalist range.

But this is not the life for those who like their nine to five routine, warns Cramer. “Terlato quite rightly sets me aggressive targets to hit and expects me to reach them. So you have to be constantly on the road, in the UK and across Europe, hosting tastings, dinners, masterclasses and then doing follow up training and support. You have to be out and about in the market.”

Sing for your supper

Liverpool’s Titanic hotel was the setting for a recent Federalist trade and consumer wine dinner hosted by Cramer

The Buyer accompanied Cramer on a recent trade and consumer dinner for Terlato’s Federalist wines at the hugely impressive Titanic hotel in Liverpool. Here Cramer was in his element telling stories about each of the wines, based on the forefathers of America, and enjoying the banter of local scousers pulling his leg about the fact everyone is known as “Chuck” in Liverpool.

What these sort of dinners show is if you have the right wines and the personality to sell them, then local operators, restaurants and bars are more than willing to come out for a night to try them. If you can make those nights more like a social, fun night than a serious wine dinner then all the better. Very much the Californian way of doing business.

That said it is hard to imagine anyone else in Cramer’s position also being to entertain the local on-trade buyers, who had come from right across the North West, thanks to the pull of Federalist distributors Matthew Clark, with stories of dancing with Jennifer Aniston and hanging out with George Best in his Californian footballing days. One of the locals buyers said they would be happy to order as many Federalist wines as Cramer had, providing he came to their bar to sell them to their customers.

He says the ideal number for a wine dinner is around 20 to 30.Big enough to make it worthwhile, but not too big to be able to hold a conversation. “We have done a lot of dinners at Smith & Wollensky and M Restaurants in London and you can create such an experience there for our customers,” says Cramer. “You can pay attention to everyone.”

Cramer does both consumer and trade events, and like the one in Liverpool likes to mix them up as well. “I think it is good for customers to see how consumers react and talk about the wines. Also not all the customers we sell to are very knowledgeable about Californian wine so it creates a good open atmosphere as well.”

The perfect backdrop for a Californian wine tasting or dinner: Smith & Wollensky just off the Strand in London

Finding the right partner

He works closely with his two main distributors, Matthew Clark and The Wine Treasury, to organise dinners and events and believes it is also a good learning experience from them as well to hear direct feedback from customers and consumers.

The two distributors clearly look after very different parts of Terlato’s portfolio. The Wine Treasury focuses on fine dining with Rutherford Hill and Iron Horse, while Matthew Clark targets the national hotel chains such as Marriott and Hilton, while developing new business with independents in London and other major cities for its Chimney Rock, Sanford, and The Federalist.

“They have very different business models, but are both very effective in what they do and have great expertise on the ground. I really enjoy working with both of them,” says Cramer. “They both have great resources to help build distribution.”

Equally he knows he is bringing new, exciting business to them so it is a good partnership for both sides. “We work hand in hand together and it is important I really get to know their staff and teams. Like at Matthew Clark I know their wine development specialist teams, national key and regional account managers very well. In fact there is probably around 25 people in Matthew Clark that I work with to deliver business. It’s the same with Wine Treasury and their sales team. We spend a lot of time going in to accounts together.”

He admits though he has to make sure he stays on the right side of the line of not “becoming a pain in the arse. “But yes I am calling them all the time asking where we can go next to do business. Hopefully they like that as I am helping them hit their targets.”

International approach

It’s not hard to sell the Californian dream around Europe, says Cramer

His way of working across Europe is not any different to any other international sales manager. Find the right local partner and distributor and then go out and get your hands dirty selling. But it is Cramer’s enthusiasm to go out time and again to repeat the message and follow up with training which makes a difference to actually drilling down sales. “You have to find the right partner so you can build momentum in each market. You can’t just go once and then expect it all to happen for you. You have to be constantly going back,” he explains.

“Being in the market is a big advantage as California is just so far away. So you can be there and sell the whole imagery about the state from the beaches, to the stars, to the Ford Mustangs. After all people fantasise about being able to travel to California, so it’s great to be able to bring a little bit of it to them.”

He admits some of it comes down to luck and “being in the right place at the right time”. But you also have to be here, there and everywhere for lady luck to find you in the first place. “You have to push and make things happen and if they’re not, then you have to push a little harder.”

“Half the time you are working with existing businesses and customers and half the time you are trying to find new business,” he adds.

California push

Selling iconic US of A with The Federalist wine range

After all his time working in the UK he does not think there has been a better time for Californian wine. The wines being made are now ideal for the UK market and the prices are also far more reasonable and effective for UK wine lists. He thinks Brexit might actually give California a boost and whist he admits there is a “Trump factor” when out and about talking to customers, at least it gets the debate going.

“Californian wines are also great wines for all these premium meat restaurants we are seeing now,” he adds.

It is also well placed to benefit from the shortages in wine available from Bordeaux and Burgundy and the increase in prices for those wines that are available. “Napa is actually looking like a really good opportunity by comparison,” says Cramer.

Either way you if you had to pick one sales person to go out there and tell your story then you would do well to find anyone who has more drive, personality, and a bigger smile to get the business won.

After all this is the man who actually went up to Jerry Seinfeld quietly enjoying a drink in a bar to declare: “It’s Cramer!”