We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 7.
In this episode of Working, Slate’s L.V. Anderson sits down for a glass of wine with Andrew Mulligan, a wine portfolio manager for Skurnik Wines in New York City. Mulligan talks about the difficult aspects of his job, such as dealing with U.S. regulations, and the happier parts of his job, like traveling and testing dozens of different wines across Spain. He also explains his wine selection process and why the best wines are like unforgettable characters in books.
In a Slate Plus extra, Mulligan talks about Greek wines and why they get a bad rap.
L.V. Anderson: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Laura Anderson, a writer and editor for Slate. On today’s episode we talk with someone who drinks a lot on the job.
What’s your name and what do you do?
Andrew Mulligan: My name is Andrew Mulligan. And I am a portfolio manager for a wine importer and distributor.
Anderson: When you say that you’re a portfolio manager, what is the portfolio consisting of? Does it consist of different wines?
Mulligan: Yes. We lovingly call my portfolio the economic crisis portfolio, because it is Portugal, Spain, and Greece. So, all the wines from those three countries are under my purview.
Anderson: So, is your job to find wine producers in these three countries and make deals with them to import wine to the U.S.? Or is that a complete misunderstanding of what you do?
Mulligan: No, that is one part of what I do. You know, I’m very lucky to work at this company, at Skurnik Wines, because we have a very, very good reputation all over the world. And so in fact it’s not kind of me going around and knocking on doors and shaking the trees. It’s a lot of people wanting to be with us and unfortunately for these—you know, the many producers that are seeking representation, we reject probably 95 percent of the wine that’s offered to us.
And that’s the way that we maintain the integrity of our portfolio, even as it grows, and each portfolio is kind of like its own separate company. So, in a lot of areas we are certainly very much looking for new things. But in Spain, particularly right now, we’ve kind of put the brakes on because we’ve grown from 29 producers in 2011, to 98 producers now.
So, yeah, I would say that now looking for new stuff and making deals with new producers is a very small part of what I’m doing.
Anderson: When you are considering whether to work with a producer, what are the criteria that go into that decision?
Mulligan: I mean, I think first and most importantly it is about the wine.
We don’t taste wine with the people. We don’t do that, because, you know, if the person is like really charming or like you just—you feel really great about them and you want to do right by them and, you know, whatever impression they give you is going to color the way that you perceive the wine. And so we taste all the wines in what we call our lab, which is just over in there. If it’s a wine from Spain, it will be me, my assistant portfolio manager, and then Michael and Harmon Skurnik who are the brothers that own the company, run the company, and taste every single wine that comes through the door.
And in large part it’s their decision whether, you know, I can fight for something if I really want it, but if both Harmon and Michael say no, it’s pretty much a no.
Anderson: Does the bottle come into consideration? Do you look at the bottle? And does that affect the way that you perceive the wine?
Mulligan: Yeah. Yeah. So after tasting the wine, you know, the questions are is this good.
Does it taste good? You know, a lot of wine tastes good, but isn’t necessarily marketable for one reason or another. And so does it taste good? Is it pleasant? And then you look for topicity. Is this a typical expression of this grape? If it’s not, is this an expression of this grape that we would like to see people become familiar with? You know, maybe it’s outside of our experience, but it merits attention and then sometimes it’s not.
You know, we can say, OK, this wine tastes good, but it doesn’t taste like we expect in a way that is not interesting, but is rather sort of off-putting or jarring. And then also the price. You know, a lot of people taste wine without looking at the prices, which I think is dumb. Because you can taste a lovely wine, and then realize that you’d have to sell it in a store for $150 a bottle, and you say, well that’s not, you know, nobody is going to pay that much money for this, even though it’s great.
And then, yes, you have all these other secondary things like the package. It would be nice to live in a world where, you know, aesthetics didn’t come into play. They do tremendously. And, I mean, probably a good portion of wine consumers buy wine because of what it looks like on the outside. And we struggle mightily with lots of our producers that have great wine and just can’t make anything resembling a coherent or marketable package.
Anderson: You poured us each a small glass of this beautiful looking white wine. Can you tell me about it?
Mulligan: Yeah. So this is a relatively new wine to Skurnik Wines, to this company. This is from an area of Spain that’s not super well-known in terms of the wines that come from there, but it’s called the Ribeiro. And so this is a producer called Luis Anxo Rodriguez Vazquez.
And he’s imported by a guy named Jose Pastor, who imports a lot of really fantastic wines. And so this particular wine comes from the northwest of Spain. And I think the Northwest is where—is the most exciting area of Spain. So we’re talking about Galicia.
The wine that’s most famous from Galicia is Albarino, which most people have heard of, and you can find in any wine store. But this wine is made from, let’s see, Treixadura, Treixadura Albarino Lado. And a grape called Torrontes, which is actually more famous coming from Argentina. So, yeah, so this is a very small production, very little known wine, and wine region.
Anderson: You mentioned that the importer is, I forget the name—
Mulligan: Jose Pastor.
Anderson: Jose Pastor. What’s your relationship with him?
Mulligan: So, Jose Pastor has a portfolio of wines. And we—so he’ll have a different distributor in each of, you know, the major markets around the United States. So, what he, the role he’s playing is first of all selecting wines and finding new and interesting things to offer and also maintaining the relationships with the producers.
So, if I need to order wine from Luis, for example, I don’t send Luis an email. I send Jose an email. So, the whole system works really well because for these 37 wineries, I only have to speak to like these four people.
Anderson: And they probably don’t want to have to deal with a million different distributors and importers as well.
Mulligan: Exactly. So it’s good for them. It’s good for us.
But, of course, the importers take a margin. So, things that we have direct, that we both import and distribute, which is a good portion of the portfolio, the prices are better.
Anderson: How much are you concerned with the logistics of importing and the various laws that you have to obey while importing from other countries?
Mulligan: Extremely. And it is very frustrating at times.
Anderson: Could you summarize the various laws that you have to think about? Or are there too many of them to even—?
Mulligan: Yeah, no, well there are too many.
But some of the laws that I’m dealing with on almost a daily basis are the tax and trade bureau, the TTB, has very strict instructions and very sort of nonsense instructions on what can or cannot appear on the label. So like, OK, for instance, so this Jose Pastor’s back label on this wine, but you have the government warning.
And now you’d think, OK, we’ll just fit in the government warning somewhere. No, no. The government warning has to be a certain number of millimeters high and, you know, has to be verbatim, you know, contains sulfites you have to say. Of course, the alcohol percentage by volume. And so working with a lot of European suppliers, they’re like, you got to be kidding me, you know. Like really? Well, and also in Europe they have—it’s a little silhouette of a pregnant woman with a slash through it.
Anderson: Yeah. I’ve seen that.
Mulligan: You know, like don’t drink when you’re pregnant. So, that icon is considered by the United States government to be obscene.
Anderson: That’s crazy.
Mulligan: Yeah. So, I’ve heard stories of people shipping wine to the United States and forgetting to remove the pregnant woman thing. And like an intern having to go to the warehouse with like a black Sharpie and like black out.
Anderson: Oh my God.
Because they will hold it in Customs. And it’s like super frustrating, but it’s something that you have to do, because the worst thing that could possibly happen is you’re really excited about this new wine that you’re bringing in. You know, you place a big order. It gets to the port. And your box gets opened, which they do all the time, and they look at it and they find something that’s not compliant. And in some cases they’ll destroy the wine.
Anderson: That’s terrible.
Mulligan: And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to pay for it. You know?
Anderson: Right. Right. Right.
When you taste wines, do you have a mental checklist of things that you’re looking for? Or is it more of an intuitive experience?
Mulligan: I would say it is more intuitive. And—though I guess when I say it’s intuitive, it also—it is a mental checklist. You know, I might not be saying, OK, does it have acidity? Does it have fruit? Does it have minerals? You know, the overall impression of the wine is composed of all of those things.
And one of my favorite parts of my job is doing education, whether it be for the staff of a restaurant, or for—I live in Carroll Gardens, and there’s a great wine store called Brooklyn Wine Exchange that has a classroom in the back. And so every once and awhile I’ll go there and teach about a certain topic to consumers. So, one of the things that I don’t like to do, which I think is a little bit too prevalent in the, you know, sort of wine education and wine media scene is give tasting notes.
Because if I’m standing up there in a front of a room as the “expert” and I’m saying I taste, you know, blackberries and licorice and tobacco, and you’re sitting there in the room as someone that’s looking to learn something, but you don’t taste blackberries, and licorice, and tobacco because everyone tastes with their own palate and everyone describes the associations to themselves in their own language.
And so it can then be frustrating for that person because they’re like, well, that guy said it tastes like this, and I don’t taste that, so I must be wrong, or I must have not a good palate. So I try when I’m teaching I put the emphasis on history, on culture, on, yes, you know, the technical aspects of making the wine and what the grape is about. But I try not to tell people what it tastes like.
So in a similar way, when I am tasting wine, I take copious notes. Like when I’m visiting the countries and I’m in the vineyards, I take copious notes on the wine-making process, you know, the place, what my impressions are, but when I’m tasting wine I close my notebook. You know, and a lot of people really depend on tasting notes to help them in their recall of the wine, you know, I’ll go on a trip for two weeks and I’ll taste 300 wines.
And on some level I’m supposed to be able to recall them. But I decided to stop taking notes while tasting wine and just allow the impression to arrive kind of fully formed rather than as the sum of all these different component parts that I’m noting. But, I feel like I have better memory—like my sense memory is heightened by not breaking the wine down into its component parts.
So I kind of have an idea of the wine almost as if it were a person or a character in a book. You know, and so I remember it in that way. And I certainly remember if I liked it or if I didn’t like it, which at the end of the day is really all that’s important. So.
Anderson: How much wine do you drink these days?
Mulligan: That, I don’t know. You know, my mother might listen to this. I at least taste wine every day.
You know, we do spit a lot here, because we do have to maintain our professionalism, even after sometimes having to taste dozens of wines. And certainly when I’m out eating I’m ordering wine, for the most part. But, I also drink beer. Whatever the environment I’m in dictates my beverage of choice. But because I work in the wine business, I’m often in environments where I’m choosing wine.
Anderson: What is a typical day like for you? What time do you get to the office? What’s the first thing you do?
Mulligan: I get to the office around 9:30. Usually, the first thing I do is run a report that shows me performance of my portfolio month to date and year to date. And that’s kind of like a masochistic thing, I guess, because why do I need to check it every day? I could check it—
Anderson: Does it change much per day to day?
Mulligan: It can. For instance, today it changed for the positive. And then I realized that that was because Dec. 8 of last year was a Sunday. [Ed. Note: Dec. 8, 2013, was a Sunday.] Yeah.
Anderson: Oh, so it’s comparing to a year ago?
Exactly. And then I generally have a fair amount of emails from Europe. So the morning is a lot of times about conducting that business and then—
Anderson: Are they usually just like practical problems with importing? Or are they questions about the label?
Mulligan: Anything. I mean, it could really be anything. You know, in general, it’s a lot of, you know, we’ll send an order. We’ll get a confirmation back. Or they’ll say, oh, we’re out of that thing, or this thing is no longer a 2010 vintage. It’s moved to ’11. And then we fix.
So, yeah, mostly just very practical issues. There’s a lot of different facets to it. So I’m working with suppliers, but I’m also working with the sales reps. And so the sales reps are calling, they’re emailing, they’re saying, “Hey, I’m running from the subway into an appointment. I’m 10 minutes late. And I need you to tell me everything I need to know about this wine.”
You know, because the sales reps have a much more difficult job when it comes to—because they don’t specialize. You know, so they have to know a little something about every single wine in our portfolio, which is 2,000 wines. And then logistics. Building shipping containers. Saying, OK, we have 200 cases here, 400 cases here. You know, I have a map of Spain behind my desk for when I forget where places are. And are we going to leave from the Port of Bilbao when we’re sure to be trans-shipped through Antwerp and it’s going to take 19 days?
Or are we going to pay an extra 400 euros to have the wine moved to the port of Barcelona, where there’s direct service? And a lot of this stuff that I do has nothing to do with wine. I mean, I use more math than I ever thought I would have to do in my life. And—
Anderson: Are you involved in pricing wines?
Anderson: How do you make that decision?
Mulligan: So I don’t have complete autonomy when it comes to that. You know, we have a model on which we work and if I were to stray too far from that model it would probably be something I’d have to have a conversation about with Michael and Harmon Skurnik. But in general, my general philosophy is I try to make the wines as inexpensive as we possibly can and still be profitable. Because I would rather sell 100 cases of wine at $10 a bottle than 80 cases of wine at $11 a bottle.
I find that to be fairly self-explanatory, but you know, I’m generally of the mind that what’s good for us as a company is good for you as a wine consumer. So, generally, I mean, the pricing is pretty much like the computer kind of tells you how to price the wine based on the model that we have and based on what our CFO and our controller put into place to make sure that we’re profitable and that, you know, we have cash flow and all those considerations.
Anderson: Do you negotiate with suppliers and producers to set a price?
Or is their price pretty much set and you have to just decide whether or not you want to pay it?
Mulligan: Definitely negotiate. You know, we fight like wild dogs against any price increases. There are sort of magic price points. You know, like if we sell a wine for $10 a bottle, you know, the rule of thumb is that you’re going to mark it up 1.5 times. So, if we sell a wine to a store for $10, it’s going to be on the shelf for $15 or $14.99 or whatever.
So, a very important price point becomes when you get to let’s say $12 or $13. Is this going to get to the shelf for $19.99? Because the difference between $19.99 and $20.99 or $21.99, that’s a huge psychological—that’s why prices are in 99s. Because of the psychological barrier that exists, you know, between something that’s $19 or something that’s $20.
And so if I really think that a wine needs to fit into a certain price category to be competitive, then I have no problem telling the producer that. And there are a number of different ways that we can work it out. A lot of producers elect to rather than lower the price of the wine, they’ll say on a palate fits 56 cases, you pay for 54 of them, and we’ll give you two cases for free.
Because that’s—I don’t know if they can skirt excise taxes that way or what, but that seems to be the way that a lot of people like to do it. You know, make a price adjustment in the form of product rather than the form of—I mean, it’s all the same at the end of the day. The number at the bottom of the invoice is the same, whether you lower the price of the wine or add free goods to the deal. But…
Anderson: Have you ever had a wine that you expected to be like incredibly popular and it wasn’t?
Or vice versa, a wine that you expected to have like a very small customer base, but then it became very popular?
Mulligan: Definitely the former. Yeah.
Anderson: Because presumably most of your wines, you’re hoping that they’re going to be very—
Mulligan: Right. Right. But the latter is something that happens very, very rarely, just because we know—
Anderson: What people are buying.
Mulligan: We know what people are buying. And we know what—within reason—what the potential of something is.
You know, I think in general as people that sell things for a living, we’re optimistic about, you know, the performance of the products that we carry. And, you know, we buy them because we think they’re great. But we also—we’re buying something to sell it to somebody who is going to sell it somebody else. So, we’re one-step removed from what you would call the end user. And so sometimes in that step or sometimes in the step from us to the store or the restaurant, something is lost.
You know, and there are plenty of examples of things that I just say I don’t get it. I don’t get why we’re not selling tons of this stuff. This is what I drink at home. This is a great value. But for whatever reason, usually has very little to do with the actual taste of the wine. Pricing. Packaging. Where the wine comes from. All these different factors—sometimes, you know, you make bad bets. And, you know, what we’re trying to do is make more good bets than bad ones. And, you know, Michael and Harmon have been in business for 28 years, so I think they’re pretty good at that.
Anderson: Are Americans very trend-focused when it comes to wine?
Do Americans just sort of like jump from one wine trend to the next? Or do you think that they’re becoming more actually sophisticated and getting a better understanding?
Mulligan: I think they are becoming more sophisticated. Yes, the market is absolutely trend driven. And, you know, I always have to be careful because my experience is New York City. And New York City, what we’re seeing a lot of is that trends are important, but more and more the level of sophistication of the end user is rising at a rate that’s quicker than the level of sophistication of a wine professional like, me, you know, or of a sommelier.
And so, you know, I think this idea of wine as an aspirational beverage and as something that one should know something about, or one would be embarrassed to misspeak about or is the thing that’s standing in the way of us being a truly great wine appreciating culture. Because almost all of those considerations have nothing to do with what’s in the bottle or what’s in the glass. And they have everything to do with marketing, with trends, with you know—and if people would just—
Anderson: Stop feeling embarrassed about wine?
And there’s so many studies that have been done about how your actual perception of flavor can be affected by your perception of the amount of money that something costs. And like there are amazing, amazing wines from every country that makes wine that you can get for $15. But I would say like the difference between $10 and $15 is huge. The difference between $15 and $100 is smaller.
Now, that doesn’t go for everything, but in general you can do very well and drink very well and not spend a lot of money. But, that requires you to make an investment. If you get to know your merchant, and it might not be the place that’s right on your block. You know, you might go in there and not have a positive experience, or find that the staff wasn’t engaging. But almost anybody in the five boroughs of New York can find a place within walking distance of their apartment where there is somebody who is going to reward the investment that you’re making and their business by providing the added value of sharing what they love about wine with you and sharing the bottles that they love with you, at whatever price you’re shopping at.
And, you know, one of the great laws of New York is, A, you can’t sell wine in supermarkets. And the behemoth companies are trying to change that, because they sell supermarket wine. And it could allow them to narrow their focus to just this bunch of chains. But, you know, in a similar vein is the law in New York that you can only hold one license. It prevents the domination of chains.
Because when you have a chain, then everything becomes about economies of scale, and it becomes so difficult for a small business to compete against a chain, especially with the way that pricing schemes work. If you buy 200 cases of Absolut vodka, you might get it for $12 a bottle. And if buy only one case, because that’s the only room you have in your store, it might be $16 a bottle. And then so you’re selling it at a higher price. And it just kills competition.
And so—but, you know, there are so many great wine stores out there and so many people that have dedicated their career and, you know, you don’t get rich owning a wine store. But they love it so much that they’ve invested probably their entire life savings to open up a place and, you know, it doesn’t matter if you’re Crown Heights or you’re in Greenpoint or you’re in the Lower East Side. I mean, anyone can find a great wine store.
Anderson: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at email@example.com.
And you can also listen to our first four seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jayson De Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo. And our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Laura Anderson. See you next time on Working.
This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Anderson: Have you learned anything really interesting or exciting about Greek wines as you started working in Greek wine territory?
Mulligan: Tons. Greece is a very interesting country when it comes to wine because they invented wine, you know, in—what do they call it now—BCE, before the common era. But, they’ve had—their wines have had a very, very bad reputation in the international market, for mostly good reason. You know, throughout the 20th century most of what they were exporting was very poorly made and very commercial stuff. You know, massive production, but also just bad quality. But, you know, in the latter half of the 20th century, like a lot of young vignerons started to go to France and study how things were being done there.
And then come back to Greece and bring that knowledge. And so they actually are making some fantastic wines now. And comparatively very good values, because, you know, they’re not as highly coveted as the great wines of France and Italy. And so they are comparatively can be very good wines for the money. And, yeah, you know, I mean, an interesting thing, one of the first things that was striking about Greek wine for me was that they make just as much red wine as they do white.
Because you think about Greece, you know, you think about Greek salad, fish, islands, you know, with little white stucco buildings on them. But Greece is actually—I believe it’s the third most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland and Austria, which is something I didn’t know at all. And so they have a lot in the north, in the Macedonia area, especially they have these very high elevation vineyards, which are great for producing red wines.
And they also—the eat tons of meat in the north of the country. And the fish stuff is more in the south. So, but I think that’s what people’s idea of Greece is molded by is kind of the postcards and stuff. But—
Anderson: Yeah. I feel like the only Greek wine I’ve drunk has been like really sweet white wine.
Mulligan: Yeah. Well, and they also—like the vast majority of what was imported for many, many years was a wine called Retsina, which is actually flavored with pine resin.
Because—and there’s all kinds of stories of what started out as, you know, a practical solution to a problem, then becoming like a stylistic trademark of the wine. And so the Retsina, they used to seal the barrels that it was aged in with pine resin. And the flavor of the resin would get into the wine and people decided that they liked that. And so then they started doing it in a more sort of directed way.
Anderson: Doing it on purpose.
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