Art of the Wine Sale

The Art of the Wine Sale

How the head of wine importer Savio Soares Selections hires a salesman

Savio Soares, right, founder and president of Savio Soares Selections, interviews Paulo Fernandes for a sales position at the wine importer. Mr. Fernandes got the job. ENLARGE
Savio Soares, right, founder and president of Savio Soares Selections, interviews Paulo Fernandes for a sales position at the wine importer. Mr. Fernandes got the job. Photo: Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Savio Soares was looking for someone who could help sell his wines in New York. The right person didn’t necessarily have to know a lot about wine, but sales ability was a must.

“Being a good salesman is one of the most incredible talents,” opined Mr. Soares. “You’re a wise man, a psychologist. You have to be subtle but aggressive.” He rattled off half a dozen more desirable qualities but so quickly that I couldn’t write them down fast enough before he was on to a new topic.

The 56-year old Mr. Soares, the president and founder of Savio Soares Selections, might as well have been describing himself. Except he would need to add “charming, well-dressed and fast-talking.” Not to mention multilingual. Born in Brazil, Mr. Soares lives part time in Germany and speaks six languages—which means he can speak with his wine producers from Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain and France in their native tongue.

It was just before 10 a.m. and Mr. Soares and I were sitting at a table in the otherwise empty lounge of the Hyatt Union Square Hotel, awaiting the appearance of the first job applicant. I had read Mr. Soares’s ad for a sales rep on a wine-business website and asked if I could attend a few interviews; I was curious to see what kind of qualities Mr. Soares thought were needed to sell wine in New York. Mr. Soares had agreed that I could sit at the table and listen—as had the candidates.

“It takes time and persistence to find a good sales rep,” Mr. Soares said, adding that it wasn’t a process he particularly liked. The post he was looking to fill was particularly important; he needed someone to open new accounts in top restaurants and stores in Midtown and uptown Manhattan. “Above 34th street is untapped territory,” he said. “I’ve never focused on it much but that’s what I’m doing now.”

He had deliberately chosen to conduct his search in July, a slow time in sales, to give his new hire time to “study and research” the market before starting full time in September—with his help. In August, he would return to Germany, where he moved 13 years ago with his German wife.

Mr. Soares spends half of his time in Europe and half of his time in New York, although much of his time in Europe is spent on the road, visiting his producers, whom he spoke of in warm, familial terms, saying his business was not wine selection but “people selection.” He spends hours, even days, in their company, tasting and talking and eating. A lot of his business is conducted in the kitchens and at the dinner tables of his producers.

Mr. Soares worked in the New York restaurant business for decades as a sommelier and wine director, including time at Bouley and Jean-Georges, which he likened to “military service” because the restaurant became his entire life. It wasn’t until Mr. Soares moved to Germany that he decided to start a wine importing company in 2006. He founded his business with just a handful of German and Austrian wineries, though when he added producers from the Jura region of France people took notice. Those producers “really made me an importer,” he said.

Mr. Soares soon became famous in New York wine circles for these Jura producers and their natural wines, so much so that many thought that all of Mr. Soares’s wines were from natural winemakers—producers who eschew chemical additives or manipulation of any kind. In fact, Mr. Soares noted, the figure was much closer to 20%, although he also works with organic and biodynamic producers as well.

Paulo Fernandes, left, during his job interview with Savio Soares. ENLARGE
Paulo Fernandes, left, during his job interview with Savio Soares. Photo: Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Indeed, two of the three job candidates Mr. Soares met that day thought he specialized in natural wines and were surprised to find out otherwise. Both were young men who worked in wine bars, while the third candidate was a much older, much more experienced man who had spent years in sales at a big wine company. He was too experienced. The ideal candidate, Mr. Soares said, was “not too green but not too ripe.” Experience was desirable but energy was crucial.

The questions he posed to the candidates ranged from the specific (“How do you go about selling a wine that you don’t like?” and “On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you at selling yourself?”) to the general (“What do you like to drink?”) One of the candidates actually had trouble answering that question. Sometimes the questions were decidedly off beat. “When will you stop living with your parents?”

There was tremendous potential in the position, said Mr. Soares. “I have 400 customers in Manhattan and I have the potential to open another 200. I have wines for every single establishment in this city, I have wines for everybody,” he declared, almost giddily, arms outstretched.

Then he struck a sober note. The candidates needed to understand that there were challenges too. Rejection is an ongoing part of the job. “How would you feel about coming home and not feeling like you’ve accomplished anything?” He asked one of the candidates.

Mr. Soares met with several more people a few days later and I followed up via email. Had he found someone? He had. In fact, he’d decided to create two sales positions—one junior and one senior. For the latter he was waiting to hear if his offer was accepted, and for the former he had hired Paulo Fernandes, a 24-year-old from New Jersey who was fluent in Portuguese.

“I sensed his potential to be a great sales rep in the future and a great asset for my company,” Mr. Soares wrote in an email. And perhaps then Mr. Fernandes can even move out of his parents’ house.

Write to Lettie Teague at lettie.teague@wsj.com

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