Buyer First, Salesman Second

The first time I talked with Paris Driggers, he was headed up to Los Angeles to attend a tasting put on by a broker who wouldn't be visiting San Diego. "You've got to go where the wine is," said Driggers. "There's so much funky stuff to be found that never makes it south of L.A." At the time, he was buying for San Diego Wine Company, a position that encouraged him to dig up hidden gems, spot the up-and-comers (just then, he was high on newcomer JC Cellars), and roam as far afield as France in the pursuit of interesting, well-priced wine.

Eventually, he rose to manager, but when owner Tom Kowalski decided to sell, Driggers started thinking about moving on. Offered a chance to buy into a 50--50 partnership at Bacchus downtown, he jumped at it. "I followed my instincts, but my instincts may have been blurred a bit, knowing that SD Wine Company was selling. Traditionally, when somebody buys the place, they fire the highest-paid employee and take over management duties themselves."

Driggers helped with Bacchus's transition from an Italian-only store to a general-bottle shop serving the Gaslamp, and business was good. But by February, differences over management roused his instincts again, and he left -- as he puts it, "abruptly. I didn't want to leave slowly. I needed to make money for the family."

By this point, Driggers had worked in restaurants and wineries and had run the gamut on retail. "I got some nice job offers. But by and large, the people who called up were the wineries -- the people I had formed special relationships with. They were saying, 'Who's going to sell our wine in San Diego now?' I ended up figuring out that I had more friends on the winery side than anywhere else." He decided to go for broker.

One of those friends on the winery side was Brian Graham of Ramian Estate. "I met him up at a barrel tasting in Napa. He contacted me later. He's a guy who's into vineyard designation, and he said, 'I'm site-specific. If you want San Diego, I'll give you San Diego.' I brought his wine to San Diego for the first time, suggested a couple of restaurants -- places like Parallel 33."

More generally, Graham was using Ricky Sander Wine Company to distribute his wines. "Sander lived up in St. Helena, and he had a knack for sniffing out these obscure wines." But Sander's health was failing, and he was having a hard time keeping track of his Southern California accounts. Graham suggested that Driggers take on the job, and Driggers accepted. "It was an opportunity to learn that side of the business from a comfortable position -- not trying to chisel it out, one winery at a time, trying to get a book together. I had 13 wineries handed over to me in March, with full control over sales and marketing in Southern California." A few big names (Loring Wine Company, Marco DiGiulio), a few more recent arrivals (AP Vin), and a few well-funded startups. "I love bringing the new stuff," he says.

Apparently, 13 was a lucky number of wineries to inherit. "The buyers and I started hitting it off. I was a buyer for so long. The first thing I do when I go into a meeting with a buyer is say, 'First of all, let me tell you that I'm a salesman second, and a buyer first...Trust me; these are good wines I'm bringing you.' A lot of reps will bring six wines -- one is good, and the other five they just need to sell. I was fortunate enough to inherit wines that were all pretty well-picked, and so I could bring wines that were all really good. And being into food, I could identify wines that worked with the menu."

But Sander's health continued to deteriorate, "and he was stretched financially. I saw it as an opportunity to give him a lump sum of cash to walk away and kind of relax. We visited all the wineries, and they all agreed to come along with me. They'd seen a spike in their sales, and my style was always to go to the best accounts first. We were in the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air, Spago, George's at the Cove. I'm representing wineries that make only 200 cases for the world, which might mean 50 for Southern California. Between Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and the desert, I can easily identify 25 restaurants that will take 2 cases. I try not to pick up wineries that are set up for disappointment -- say, 7000 cases, with 1000 to sell in San Diego at $70 a bottle. I know what the market can handle." Driggers borrowed the cash and took over the operation from Sander, changing the name to Direct Wine Marketing.

"Word started to get around -- all these wineries eat and drink together. I started getting calls and boxes of samples in the mail, people wanting me to represent them in Southern California." Business was good, but it was taking a toll -- that's a lot of territory to cover. "There were wineries that were jumping from established brokers to come with me, and people would say, 'Paris is spread pretty thin.'" They were right, of course, but Driggers was deliberately slow about hiring help. "Before I hire somebody for a territory, I want to know the territory myself, so I know what they're doing, who the players are. If I know the territory, I can say, 'Did you go see so-and-so?' 'Yeah, on Thursday.' 'That's funny; he tastes on Tuesday. Did you really go see him?'" Also slowing the process: Driggers was hiring via Craigslist. "It's a lot of work to go through the responses, but it's free. I made them send résumés -- that weeded out some people. And I said, 'Fine dining experience preferred.' A lot of the people I hired had night jobs at restaurants" -- sommeliers, servers. "It's people who know food and wine."

Now, he's starting to breathe easier. "I just hired my fifth employee. I have two people in L.A., two in San Diego, a hotshot in OC. I float through the whole area, and if there's a particularly wine-geeky account, I'll call on them personally. Now, I go to tastings, and if I hear something, I'll shoot up to Napa the way I used to do. I'm back doing the same thing I used to, convincing them to come with me."

One fellow who didn't need convincing was David Hinkle of North Berkeley Imports. "He's one of these guys like Kermit Lynch. He'll have stuff made to specs -- identify a couple of barrels and say, 'Okay, let's pull those off oak now and put them in stainless steel. Bottle it and put my label on it, saying that it's different from the other stuff you release.' He knows it will suit his clientele."

When Driggers sent out an e-mail blast announcing the birth of Direct Wine Marketing, "about 20 minutes later, I got a call from Hinkle. He said, 'I'm looking for a rep in San Diego.'" It wasn't that he didn't have representation; he just wasn't satisfied with what he had. "He said, 'You've been at my tastings in L.A. for the last eight years, and they haven't come to one of them.'"

Driggers took a day to think it over and seek advice. Ultimately, he took the offer. But San Diego's wine community is not a particularly large pool -- a move like that makes waves. "I can understand that it upset some people. I went from a friend to a foe, and there are two accounts where I've felt it -- they had close relationships with the previous broker. I've tried to be sympathetic, and I've really beat myself up over it, but overall, I feel it was the right decision. It's a business, and he came to me."

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