Wine & Spirits Saleswoman
Jenn and I met through a mutual friend shortly after I moved to New York City. Since her college ambition to be a doctor while in school, Jenn has since led a bilingual classroom of third graders and kept Manhattan's bars and restaurants stocked with wine and spirits.
"That was the point that it was evident to me that
these things matter."
I work in the wines and spirits industry, and it came about pretty suddenly, actually, I don’t think it’s one of those things that I thought I would do down the line. It just presented itself.
There are vineyards and distilleries around the world. So, rum that’s made in Venezuela, wine that’s made in Chile and then New Zealand and different parts of the United States. Some of these vineyards or distilleries are really small, and they don’t really have the forces to market themselves and sell their products through the United States or even globally. And that’s where companies like ours come in, is that we take that brand over from Chile, from Venezuela, and we import that into the United States. This company provides a salesperson, which is what I’m doing, my role in this company, and then we go out and we sell the product to bars, restaurants, liquor stores, wine stores, places like that.
SSIs there a moment where they’re so into the craft of actually making the product that they’re that much more abstracted from the bar down the street?
Absolutely. And I would say that a lot of them are like that. A lot of the vineyards are multi-generational families. We have a winemaker in Germany, eleventh generation organic biodynamic wines. And I think that they are so focused on their craftsmanship, which is what we love about the product, that they really are not an expert in marketing their product, and they don’t have enough people to walk through all the bars in Manhattan and sell their product. And so, that’s where you kind of need the people, like salespeople on the street kind of know, ‘Hey, this would be great at one particular restaurant because of the price point.’ Or ‘the price is a little too high – they don’t really have the clientele for it.’ Stuff like that.
People always say to me, like, ‘Whenever I go to diner with you, you talk like, you have a lot more conversation with the sommelier than with me.’ [laughs] And, I’m just generally very curious, it’s a genuine interest that I have, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to turn that into our actual job.
So when friends are noticing this—myself included—essentially educating everybody at the table, where does that come from?
I think it came about pretty organically. I don’t think my parents were that big [of] wine drinkers. My Mom particularly really likes sake. But I don’t think we had many conversations around the dinner table as adults going, ‘Oh, do you smell the red fruit in this wine?’ The interest kind of grew from food. So I wouldn’t call myself a foodie, but I appreciate good food, and I appreciate homemade food. I appreciate foods that are well seasoned and that has great texture. I remember having dinner with a friend at Boulud Sud. I never really took wine pairing very seriously, and Boulud Sud has a Mediterranean flair to it. And I ordered this lamb that has just the right Mediterranean seasoning on it. And the server was like, ‘You know, this particular red wine would work great with it.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, that’s what the all say,’ you know. And I took a bite of the lamb, and drank some of the red wine, and there was like an explosion in my mouth that I never felt before. And it’s as if, it’s as if that I had been walking around and, like in a park all my life, and I could see shadows of trees, and then the leaves, they kind of flutter in the wind, and I put on a pair of glasses and I realized that they were actually green leaves. Like that clarity that just kind of came through, and I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I finally got it.
They weren’t messing around and trying to fool those people that could or could not taste wine. That was the point that it was evident to me that these things matter.
I’m getting kind of hungry.
[laughs] It makes me so happy thinking about it. And I think that’s one of the things that my friend would say to me is that ‘whenever you talk about wine, your eyes just light up.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s a genuine interest and passion.’ And I don’t really know that much about wine. Now that I’m actually in the industry, there’s people who can smell artichoke, and I’m like, ‘I don’t smell anything.’ I take a sip of it, I like it, goes well with the food that I’m eating. And then at the end of the day, I think that the thing that I learn is, like art, wine is incredibly subjective. I just know what I like and what I don’t like.
That’s interesting, this distinction between being able to identify certain notes within the flavor profile of the wine, versus, or in addition to the relationship between that wine and food. It seems like the latter is maybe what you prioritize.
I have a lot of respect for people who make food and make wine or spirits. I don’t think that people talk much about the craftsmanship that goes into these creations.
You mentioned that spark when you’d talk about this and that your friends would notice that. Had you resisted that for some time? Why now? Why did you choose to all of the sudden actually get in the business?
You know, we have this saying in Chinese: when two people are playing chess, they’re so focused on it that they can’t see clarity sometimes. The people outside who [are] observing the chess game has more clarity that the two players. I know that I like wine, and I appreciate it, but I don’t think it was until my friends mentioned this spark that I realized how much I like it.
I was in education before, and I had focused on it for so long. So, it wasn’t something that I thought I would really pursue. We have plenty of hobbies. People like going on hikes or playing chess or playing any kind of music instrument, and it doesn’t necessarily meant that they have to turn that into a career. I am just someone who has multiple interests, so that’s why I didn’t really think about going into wines and spirits.
As a third grade teacher. I had twenty-one students, I was teaching bilingually, I was very busy, and I was very excited about being a third grade teacher. I don’t think my passion for education has subsided. It was just the fact that maybe it was time to take a break because this opportunity presented itself. And, I’m not afraid in making some of these decisions. What I realize [now] is that making decisions takes practice. And there are some people who don’t make decisions and they always say that’s because they don’t have that many choices. Sometimes I think that’s true, but on big lifetime decisions – on maybe moving somewhere, or switching a career – I feel like I had to make a lot of those decisions when I first graduated college. I don’t always make the right decisions, but I also try not to linger too long.
So you don’t get stuck, really? Personally, that’s a challenge I face a lot, whether it’s an abundance of options or really not that many and just two very compelling ones, or the lesser of two evils.
I don’t know exactly what the word stuck means in this particular scenario. I don’t know if that means you’re just in the position where you don’t know what is the right decision. At the very beginning of the interview, you mentioned that you were fascinated because we meet people that have been steady in one job for a long time. And then there’s me and multiple others that have switched around. Sometimes I think about that. I think what guides me at the end is a couple of things:
I realized very early on that I’m not one of those people who can draw up a ten-year plan and follow it. I think there are a lot of people out there that draw like a three-year plan, and they really do follow it, and they do a very good job. But I realized that it’s not for me. I think it’s a generational thing. My grandfather originally came from Shanghai and then they moved to Taiwan, had my father, and then moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. My grandfather’s generation [is] definitely more traditional. Back in the day, like if you wanted a steady job, you get higher education. So, what has always been stuck in the back of my mind is that, we really need to be moving with time in that, as Millennials, we’re at a turning point. A lot of this technology and under that digital age coming in, and it’s hard to abide by the values that the previous generation had.
I wouldn’t call myself random, but I think that at the end of the day, what really helps me in making all of these kinds of decisions is just thinking about the values that I hold as an individual. I kind of think that’s been the most effective way of grounding me and helping me make all of these different types of decisions.
It’s pretty impressive that you have that mental capacity to be able to do that. It’s just the demands of daily life…
The demands of daily life do get to me. [laughs]
You described this conceptual age. I think we’re pioneers from the outset.
A lot of the rules don’t apply. And I actually have to credit my father for [realizing] that. When he went to college, he didn’t know what he wanted to major in. Like my grandfather (and I don’t know if you know this, but Asians love being in the science and tech field), [he] thought that being an engineer would provide a steady income. So he majored in engineering when he was in college, graduated, got his first job as an engineer, hated it, quit after a year, and then went and got an MBA. And you have to remember, back in the 70s, there weren’t a lot of MBAs around. I remember him telling me that when he had gone to my grandfather saying that he wanted to get a business degree, my grandfather was like, ‘You don’t need a degree to run a business,’ because back in the day you didn’t. But he just did it anyway.
So that gut check I feel like that your father went through is probably a powerful example.
It was a very powerful example, but we’re talking about how time has changed. You look at it now, forty years later, and you talk about the value of an MBA, I have conversation with my friends about it; some of them are like, ‘You know, it really depends on what field you’re going into.’ So, I think that’s why, it’s just like through three generations, this one degree has sort of changed its value depending on the position you’re in, but it’s not constant. And I think my point is that it’s important for us to always evaluate; because it’s valuable to others doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valuable to you. And I think that’s where my values come in.
Talk more about those. Take me back to how you grew up and the context of how that eventually shaped you from a career standpoint.
I was born and raised in Taiwan. My Dad actually grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved back in the late 70s and met my Mom. I attended local Chinese school in Taiwan, all the way until I finished seventh grade. Recently, someone asked my Dad why he didn’t send my brother and me to an American school in Taiwan. My father said that it was really important for his kids to really understand the cultural values of being Taiwanese or Chinese. And he had experienced that himself because when he moved to Ohio as a third grader, he had to integrate into American life fairly quickly and learn the language.
My grandparents didn’t really stick around. So he grew up speaking English very fluently and has forgotten most of his Chinese. It wasn’t until he moved back to Taiwan and worked for Citibank. And the funny story was that, he was sharing a cubicle with someone else, and one day a client came in, went straight to his desk, and started speaking to him in Chinese. And my father didn’t understand. It turns out it was his co-worker who was a white guy sitting next to him speaking fluently Chinese with his client the whole time. And he just felt really embarrassed that even though he’s ethnically Chinese, he didn’t speak Chinese that well. I think that he didn’t want my brother and me to go through the same thing. I’m really glad that he made that decision.
So my brother and I went to a local Chinese school, and I had to learn English when I was in eighth grade, so I went to a boarding school in Oregon for two years. I went back to Taiwan and attended the American school there for high school. And then I came to the United States for college, worked for a little bit in New York. That was during the financial crisis. And so, talking about going back and making decisions, I just graduated college, you’re in New York City, you’re sharing an apartment with multiple roommates, having fun, and all of a sudden, the market crashed. And it affected me because I was working for a medical PR company. And when nobody’s investing, they’re cutting budgets. And PR and a lot of times marketing is like the first thing that they will cut. And so I actually lost two jobs in one year.
I can’t even…
Imagine [laughs]. Yeah, when you’re, you just finished college you’re kind of, you’re very hopeful and maybe a little too idealistic. And then there was just really no jobs in the United States.
So, was there like a sense of wanting to go back to Taiwan?
I really didn’t want to. I felt like I just got here for college, and afterwards, like, ‘so cool to live in New York.’ And so yeah, I sublet my apartment because I still had the lease (I just signed it), I packed up my stuff, went back to Taiwan for a month, looking for a job – couldn’t find one. And so I ended up going to Shanghai without a job offer or anything, sleeping on a couch for a couple of months until I found something.
I was working for a local Chinese medical company, but instead of working for a PR agency, I was working in-house doing marketing. Nobody really spoke English, and it was difficult because, even though I speak Chinese fluently, I feel like I was still a little bit of an outcast. But that was a great learning experience. I learned so much working with different types of people, and it’s not really always about what I think is best. I really didn’t think about that much. In my own head I was just like, ‘this is the right thing to do for the company; why didn’t you understand that?’ And I didn’t really think about like, culturally, how their perspective of what may be good for a company is different than what I think may be good for the company.
I can imagine there was a period of isolation from a culture that’s much more close to the one you grew up with compared to being in New York, and yet, it sounds like for a period of time, there was a gap in terms of feeling connected to the folks around you. How did you go from that to this presence of mind that you have now, being able to think about what’s best for the company and best for the people that you work for?
I once spoke to an author, and he used to be an anesthesiologist, and then became a writer because inside himself he always wanted to write, but it was the “right thing” to go to medical school. And he says that, ‘In order to succeed in life, you can’t think of yourself as one individual. Like even at work, if you think about ways that it would benefit you and others, you can get to that point so much faster.’ And I really took that to heart. I think that’s true. Going back to things that guide me, I think that was helpful. I can’t say that I do that best at all times, but I know that it’s, at least consciously, in the back of my mind [laughs].
One could argue that to really achieve something, you have to be laser-focused on that thing, whether that means you are your work or you are characterized by a singular trait. And yet, there’s this sentiment that you’re not one thing, that you are many things in terms of personality, talent, and also one amidst a broader group of people.
I actually think that embodies what a salesperson is like. When people think about a salesperson, they think about the person on infomercials, you know, they talk non-stop and they’re always talking to themselves, and they’re kind of pushy. But, I think that, in order to be a good sales [person], you have to be really dynamic. You need to know when to be aggressive but not annoying and not pushy. And a lot of times, being a good sales [person] means you’re listening to what the client is telling you. And also just judging the overall environment – is this a good time for me to be here? It’s not always just you shooting off bullet points of why this product is great; it’s to be able to relate to the environment, to try and come up with solutions.
I went into a restaurant the other day and the lady was a little overwhelmed. And I was just like, ‘You know, I’m just going to sit at the bar and see what happens.’ And she didn’t know who I was. She was reprinting the menu, putting up some new signs, and I was thinking, if I were to go up to her right now she’d be a little overwhelmed. So I sat there for like an hour and I was just eating my food, and reading a magazine, and then finally she just happened to pull up her computer next to me and I was like, ‘Oh, hey, you know, so and so, we used to work together, you guys used to purchase some spirits from us.’ And she spoke in a very calm tone, kind of reminded me of like my yoga instructor, and so it made me. I can talk like a mile a minute if you really want me to. And then I spoke in a lower voice, and I was thinking, ‘Imagine myself as a yoga instructor. What would my tone of voice be?’ And I think that really worked for her.
Yeah, that seems like a difficult thing to have that parallel track where you’re trying to achieve a goal, but you’re trying to achieve it relative to their goals.
Right, right. And again, this is just something I learned to pick up; I’m not a master at it yet, but it’s something that, again, back of the mind, trying to be conscious about it.
You were talking about the MBA, how you might not need it nowadays … you moved to Shanghai … what happens from then to, ‘I think I want to be a teacher?’
In 2010, Shanghai hosted the World Expo, and there were a lot of countries going over to this, we called it the Pavilion Area, the east side of the river they were building pavilions that are actual architectural structures. And nobody really thought about what was going to happen after these pavilions were being built, right, and it just seemed like such a waste.
I was working for a non-profit organization, it’s called JUCCCE, Joint US-China Collaboration for Clean Energy. And that was a particular area I was very interested in. I was their project manager for recycling these building materials, and building a school outside of Shanghai.
It was a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. A lot of these, countries brought these materials over from Portugal or France or Italy, and they were not taxed on these building materials because China thought that they would be shipping them back. But because we wanted them to stay and then recycle again, we had to pay tax, so we were just trying to play around to see if it’s even worth it. And the head of the school hired me to actually work in-house with the school. That was my first job in education.
It was totally unexpected. And it kind of was up my alley. It was for a bilingual school – they were teaching Chinese and English to expats as well as Chinese passport holders because in China, we definitely have a lot of people who ethnically aren’t Chinese and they want their kids to learn Chinese. And same thing, if you are Chinese and you are in Shanghai, you want your kids to speak English well. So we were the first school to be able to do that. And being someone who’s bilingual, you know, I was able to work with the staff, you know, the local hires as well as the international staff and really help.
And teaching bilingually, how did you overcome that challenge?
Working with kids has never really been that big of a deal for me. I was babysitting when I was 13. I just always liked kids. The part that scared me about education was not the part that I would be in the classroom with kids; I think sometimes it’s the bureaucracy; sometimes it’s the resources, whether or not we have those; it’s about expectations, expectations for parents, expectations for the school, expectations of yourself. Those were more challenging. When I was a third-grade teacher, the best time I had was with the time that I had with my kids in the classroom, doing things with them, interacting with them.
It’s funny because I feel like a lot of people would say the opposite.
Don’t get me wrong, being with kids is exhausting – you don’t really have any downtime at all, you don’t even really have time to think. During lunchtime they run off and you’re like ‘Oh my G-d, I have 45 minutes to eat and I have to wait in line to microwave my food and that’s another 15 minutes, so I have half-an-hour to eat while I’m like grading your homework, and kids run up because they don’t want to play on the playground. But when they come up, for example, I can’t go use the bathroom ‘cause you can’t leave kids alone, so it’s tough, it’s not easy, especially in the New York City public schools.
So when you decided to get your masters, what was the tipping point for you to say ‘Alright, I’m going to go back to school?’
It’s so funny that people think going to school is such a big deal. I don’t think it’s a big deal. The truth is, I never thought in a million years that I would go to grad school.
I never thought that I was the person built for academia. And, when I was growing up, I didn’t get the best grades, and math particularly was quite weak. So I was jus like ‘Oh man, I need to take the GMAT and the GRE and…’ – I was trying to go to business school before. The reason I decided to go back to school was I wanted to have classroom experience. You know, I was working in a school, I was looking at people building curriculum, things like that. I wanted to know a little bit more about the theories, and that’s where the academia part comes in.
My original goal was to become a specialist in creating bilingual curriculum, particularly for Mandarin Chinese and English.
Even though you hadn’t seen yourself in education.
I realized the struggle that people have, and working at that school in Shanghai, a lot of times they just hire a Chinese teacher, and she’s in charge of, or he’s in charge of the Mandarin curriculum. And then you have a random white person who’s in charge of English, and they never talk to each other. But there should be synergy when you’re growing up learning two languages at once, right. The cultural aspect, and people often overlook that. I think for them, it’s just about the logistics of being able to speak those two languages. Can you read, can you write, and like nothing else, and I think that’s just such a shame because there’s so much more about growing up and speaking two languages that they often overlook. And I think I was fortunate enough to understand that culturally on both sides, that I wanted to provide my own experience.
What would you say your thesis is now for how you approach your work?
I don’t think my approach regarding my work changes depending on the industry, I think that there’s an underlying value. I don’t necessarily work more or less because of a particular industry. I think that they just bring out different things in you. I always try to do the best that I can. I think that, that way, I know that I’ve given it [my] all and there’s nothing else I can do. And so hopefully that eliminates certain level of regrets. And, and I think that’s something that my father taught me when he was applying for MBA. He put in so much thought into his essays, and he said ‘You know what I learned is that like, this is the best I can do and nothing more. And if they don’t accept me, there’s nothing much I could have said. Then that just means my best isn’t enough for them, and there’s nothing else as an individual that I can do. And I think it’s really hard to approach all aspects of life like that.
It’s hard to know what your best really is.
Unless you push yourself. For me it’s not really about, always about 120%, you know, now we’re at that age where we’re going to work smarter and not harder. And but what does that really mean? I don’t know, I think in general, my value is to keep an open mind. And, shut up and listen has taught me a lot. I definitely have people at work, they can talk about wines, all this, and I’m just like, listening. Sometimes I do zone out [laughs], but I can piece together things that I need and see how people react and stuff like that. I think that’s a great thing about being in a new industry is you’re incredibly humble because, I don’t have any pride in this, I don’t know much about wines and spirits, I just know what I like and what I don’t like. And there’s so much to be learned.
So what are you striving for now?
I know it seems to confusing to have a person that doesn’t think about goals because we talk about goals so much, but at the end of the day, I don’t really know what these goals really mean. I’m one of those people that never have new year resolutions. If I want to make a change I should just make a change – I don’t have to wait until New Years. And I realize that new year’s resolutions don’t usually work. You join a gym in January and you stop going in March, and there’s this big thing about New Year’s resolutions. And so sometimes I decide not to play by the rules, and, yeah my long-term goal is monetary, I want to pay off my student debts [laughs] for grad school hopefully soonish. That’s a tough one because I’m not one of those people that wake up and think about what my goal is today.
More in the moment.
I’m one of those people that wake up and I have a list of things to do and I do them and I feel great. Maybe it could just be as simple as getting things done today, and I’m definitely an in-the-moment person, yeah, I have, my goals usually not like those very profound ones. I think it’s just, again, going back to the idea of like, being guided by your values. That’s not necessarily a goal, but it’s more a guidance of some sort.
I think one thing I would say is, people always think that there’s a right and wrong decision. And what I kind of realized when I jumped into this wine industry was that, there’s really no right and wrong decision. Just like when I moved to Shanghai, what I hadn’t learned or didn’t know was that you could always come back to New York if you wanted to. If things didn’t work out in wine, I could always go back to education. I think that sometimes people don’t take these steps, just to even try out what it’s like because they’re afraid it’s the wrong decision. But in this scenario, I don’t know what the right decision would be, I skip out on a year of teaching and realize that wine didn’t work out, or I hate it, or I have an allergy to alcohol, and I jump back, and maybe, it’s a setback, maybe I wouldn’t be as far as I could be if I were in my third year of teaching. But I think, for me, and this is just my personality – it’s always worth finding out so that you don’t wonder.
So you might as well just do it and then see what happens. And having options is an incredible luxury that I don’t think people take advantage of. To be able to be in that position where you can make a decision.
And it sounds like you certainly found yourself in those positions
I’m not afraid of putting myself in those positions.
And as you said, you’re not afraid of making decisions either once you are in those positions.
To jump from education to wine, I spoke to my father, I spoke to friends, I spoke to people in this industry, I spoke to someone who used to work for this company, and I spoke to owns restaurants on the other side of this business. I want to be as thoughtful and thorough as I could be. I like to be well informed. At least I can say I’m happy with where I am right now.
Which is what matters.
Yeah, in this moment I’m happy with where I am right now.
Inspired by Studs Terkel's Working, WORK began out of a series of patterns I noticed as I sought out people who would recount their career journeys. Inspired by how those patterns might become more apparent – and perhaps even actionable – I decided to compile those stories into what is now an ongoing project.