I found myself driving a seven year-old red Peugeot 205 automatic in 1996, a nippy little number that helped me deliver cases of wine to customers in my new job. After years of aid work in Rwanda, Russia and the Caucasus, I headed home to try and forge a life in Blighty. As I had never worked there and lacked a skill set which fitted into a conventional box, I found jobs hard to come by and, but for one close shave with a Regional Manager’s position for ALDI supermarkets, I was lost and slowly eating through my aid worker savings.
A New Career as a Door to Door Salesman
Help was at hand with some fine claret as the family gathered for a weekend at my father’s. Recently retired at 49 after a successful sales career at IBM, he had started his own wine business, importing quality wines from small family growers too small to interest the big boys, and selling door to door in rural Warwickshire. We all thought he was nuts, deciding to be a door to door salesman after such a successful career, but what the hell, each to his own.
Wine flowed that evening. Nice wine from the vineyards of his suppliers. He was planning a trip to Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in a Ford Luton transit van the following week. That was how it started, I seem to remember. By the end of the evening, as claret number eight was eliminated, I was not only coming too, but a partner in the business.
The alcohol flow did not let up for the next five years, as potential suppliers would send bottles though the post, which we would demolish over a pork pie and pickled onion lunch. It was not uncommon to see off a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a red Burgundy over lunch before loading cases of wine and delivering them around rural Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.
The ‘job’ was twofold – finding and dealing with customers, and finding and dealing with suppliers. New to sales, there is nothing like cutting one’s teeth selling door to door, and it was an experience that I was glad to have done, but not one I wish to repeat. Between us, during the five years we worked together, we knocked on more than 30,000 doors in the wealthy villages and posh parts of towns from Oxford to Birmingham.
Beware the Door to Door Salesman
I must have cut a foreboding figure in my blue blazer, shirt and tie as I traipsed down ever longer driveways in obscure villages, if the numbers of people who dived under sofas pretending to be out was anything to go by. I always had a low opinion of direct salesmen, invading private space to power sell a product nobody wanted, but now the shoe has been on the other foot, I have a different opinion.
Fortunately, the product I had was very much in demand, the only problem was that I knew little about it. I also knew little about selling, but was soon to learn a lot about rejection. My aim was to get a pricelist to the wine drinker of the house, with a secondary aim of asking for a phone number, so that I could make a follow up call the following week.
“Good evening, I am sorry to disturb...” Slam.
“Good eve...” Slam.
My first evening’s calling numbers, on a wintery housing estate in Wellesbourne, near Stratford-upon-Avon, were: 77 houses called on, 45 rejections, 27 people out (of whom at least 19 were cowering under the sofa waiting for me to go) and five precious pricelists distributed.
This wasn’t as easy as my father had said. It all seemed so easy over that second bottle of Sancerre. When I finally did get someone’s semi-attention, the clock started ticking:
“I am not selling anything today, but if drink wine, would you have 30 seconds to see how we might be of assistance in the future?” There were those who took me at my word, stopwatch at the ready, calling my bluff. My message of quality, service and value was polished after 100 attempts, and once I got that far, I knew I was in. It always amazed me how quickly one could go from door to door salesman hatred to walking out with a cheque for 200 quid and the promise of imminent delivery.
Learning about Wine the Hard Way
My father had done his research and his list was good, prices keen and service exceptional. Free home delivery and a full-money back guarantee from a small, local family business, it would take a mean-spirited wine-drinker not to give us a try. All that remained was a requirement for me to know something about the topic and, while I could drink for England, my taste buds (and wallet) tended to be at the cheaper end of the supermarket range.
I learned what I could as I went along and there was a certain amount one could learn about grape varieties to appear knowledgeable on the subject of wine. Nothing could quite replace a developed palette, however, as I was soon to discover.
“Impressive spiel, and looks like an impressive list,” said the posh accented over-achiever with the biggest drive in the village of Radway near Banbury. “I am a New World man myself, and will have a case of whatever you think is closest to this divine Shiraz. Here.” And a glass of Australia’s finest was shoved in my direction. I was internally proud that I knew that what the New World called Shiraz, the French called Syrah, but I had no idea what it tasted like. His glass was lovely and I nodded my approval.
“It is good, isn’t it. So what would you recommend from your list?” What indeed. Our list, initially just 17 wines, fitted on a single sheet, and was helpfully sorted by whites on the front and reds on the back. I was halfway there. Using a technique that has had varying success over the years – closing a mental eye and stabbing the page for an answer – suggested a case of Bordeaux Fronsac at ninety quid for which he duly paid on the spot. He never reordered.
Wine Deliveries in the Dark: Rogue Swimming Pools
While selling the wine was a challenge, delivering it was also not without mishap. Many sales were concluded over the phone, with free delivery hard to coordinate with busy households if a physical meeting was required. I learned over the years which doors were left open in various expensive houses (a list which is available for a fee), and I learned also where to leave the wine and where the cheque had been left.
The system worked well in principle, allowing us to plan deliveries around the precious door knocking hours of 1700-1830, which had deemed as the least offensive and most populated. A successful afternoon could include a couple of bottles of red over a pork pie or two for lunch, followed by a leisurely drive through the villages of Oxfordshire, before a session of character-building door knocking would be capped off with a gin-fuelled telesales campaign. Despite the drunkenness, it worked, although I was by far the junior partner in terms of success.
My finest hour occurred behind a farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Murcott, at the end of a road to nowhere, somewhere north of Oxford. The client was not home and had told me to leave the wine in the shed at the back of the house and he would post a cheque. It was winter, a dark moonless night and I had forgotten the torch. I could barely make out the main house and proceeded with caution until my eyes became more adjusted to the lack of light. In my hand, a case of 1989 Rioja Gran Reserva, retail value £137.90.
Eyes adjusted, I moved round the back of the house in search of the shed, but no amount of adjustment could compensate for my right leg wandering into the family swimming pool. Ever the consummate professional, I swivelled mid-fall to save the wine and was fortunate that the protective cover was on and held my weight. I did get completely soaked, but the wine was saved. It is at moments like these that the owner comes home to find a would-be intruder grappling with a case of quality wine in the pool. Fortunately nobody saw the debacle.
The Romantic Tour of French Vineyards
While dealing with the customer brought its own challenges, finding the right supplier had its own highlights. The romantic notion of touring the vineyards of France, sampling the country’s finest wines soon gave way to the economic reality of running a small business; a five-day rental of a Ford Luton transit van from Rugby to Alsace, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley did not leave a lot of time for fun. Tasting the wines, meeting the growers and practicing my French were all great, but there was only a certain amount that could be consumed due to drink driving considerations.
Drink driving aside, the trips were planned with military precision; 8am start with one grower, 0930 with the next, 11am the next before a four-hour drive to the next region. There was little margin for error and the route planning was masterminded by my father, who knew the vineyards like the back of his hand. As long as he was in charge, nothing seemed to go wrong. It was fun to drive and learn more of the wines and the wine-making process, loading cases of wine into the back of the van for delivery to clients back home.
Stocks were short on both clarets and burgundies, so we decided to do a double trip, firstly to the Loire, Bordeaux and Bergerac, followed by a second to the Rhine Valley in Germany, Alsace, Chablis and Burgundy. I went on both trips on a seven-day rental, with my father on the Bordeaux run and as lead driver with Jerry, a Welsh friend from my Moscow days, on the second trip.
The Differences Between a Ford Luton Transit Van and a Peugeot 205
Nothing symbolised the military precision of the trip more than the route maps that were prepared for me. The entire route, including six collection points, was detailed on the back of a standard envelope, some intricate squiggles and some recommended times for each winery. It all made sense in a weird way and I was confident I could find the places with the directions I was given. Jerry was incredulous.
Driving a Peugeot 205 automatic is a little different than a Ford Luton transit, but I soon got the hang of it once I became accustomed to the higher vantage point and was able to judge my rear end more effectively. The trip was going well and Jerry saw the merits of our envelope map, as we hit our two German appointments bang on time and headed to Alsace with forty cases of German wine in the back.
Closing in on our Gewurztraminer supplier in the small town of Turckheim, I must have veered off the envelope route slowly, but we knew we were close. Stopping to ask a friendly local, it appeared we were only 200 metres away. Under the bridge and turn left was the advice. Perfect. We were only 15 minutes behind schedule and could still make the last appointment in Chablis.
Every time I went under a bridge or into multi-storey parking in my Peugeot from that day on, I have ducked.
I remember we were chatting about a plan to motorbike it round the Soviet Union as we approached the bridge. The sun was out, we were back on track and about to taste some nice wines. I may even have sped up a little. Never having had to think about bridges before I cheerfully headed under, focused on trying to find the left turn on the other side.
French Bridges are Too Low
It took me a few seconds to figure out what the loud bang was. More confusing was the fact that the truck had gone from 40 km/h to zero, and no amount of revving would get it to move. I looked at Jerry. He looked at me. We had hit the bridge.
We got out to inspect the damage. It looked as though we were 15cm too tall for the bridge, and my enthusiastic revving had cemented our relationship with its underside. I tried reversing. Nothing. I looked at the underside of the bridge and noticed scratch marks all the way through, so at least I wasn’t the first. We let the tyres down, conscious that this might mean our Chablis date was off. A gendarme appeared, cursing the English under his breath and setting up a diversion.
Eventually, with four volunteers jumping on the bonnet to force the truck down, I managed to edge the vehicle out in reverse with its four flat tyres. There was a nasty hole in the top of the truck, which made a howling noise as we drove, so a couple of hours were spent patching that up. We continued our journey, arriving a day late, much to my father’s consternation. When we explained what had happened, his reaction was somewhat different to the anger I had anticipated:
“But there was no bridge on my map. How the hell did you hit a bridge when there was none? If you had followed the map, there would never have been a problem.”
Satellite navigation is a wonderful thing.