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From Behind the Glass: The realities of the wine business

Someday I’ll tell you how I ended up in the basement of a restaurant at the bottom of Houston Street in Tribeca drinking magnums of grower Champagne with a group of Europe’s finest winemakers.

But we just met.

My name is Peter Troilo. I’m a wine merchant. I always have been. I spent some time selling outdoor equipment and pounded nails on a roof. I prefer the wine trade. In 1990, my family purchased what was once a classic Connecticut “packy”. The store’s main trades were pints of vodka and kegs of beer. I was a kid at the time. I swept floors, cleaned shelves and listened. Through the vision and hard work of my brother and father, the image of the store changed and developed a reputation as a fine wine store.

During the transformation, I was skiing in Colorado.

To support both my burgeoning wine habit and insatiable appetite for fresh snow, I took a job at a liquor store and another in the kitchen of a restaurant. I enrolled at Colorado State University. Eventually, my dad and brother discovered tuition checks were misappropriated. The next envelope contained a plane ticket home and a note, “Hope you had fun.”

I was greeted at LaGuardia with a smile, a handshake and an unspoken understanding that I was the newest intern at my family’s wine store. That was 1999.

Fourteen years later, I find myself with the same burgeoning wine habit and appetite for fresh snow. Except my purchasing decisions are now based on analytical studies and purchasing budgets, not what’s left in my pocket after stocking the cupboard with Ramen Noodles. My skier days are determined by how much forgiveness I’ll need from my kids for disappearing on a rare day off.

Some consider me lucky to be a business owner and in the wine trade. From the outside, a career as a wine merchant is a romantic profession. Truthfully, it is. But don’t confuse romantics with fantasy.

My days start at 6 a.m. with a cup of coffee, perusing my wine news boards and getting my kids ready for school. They end about 10 p.m. when the last tasting note is written.

I’ll put two ice cubes in a glass and top it with two fingers of something brown, a habit I inherited from my father. You can often find me tasting the latest vintages of some truly great wines at 10 a.m. — romantic. But drive by the store at 10 p.m., and you can often see the office light burning. Romance dies — education and retail collide. Don’t forget that the business of wine is, after all, a business. Consider me your friend on the inside.

A few times a year, I’m often asked to meet someone for a drink and offer some advice about breaking into the wine business. “I’m thinking about getting a start in the wine business. What should I do?”

My reply is generally the same, a chuckled, “Have your head examined.”

Followed by a deadpan stare, “No, seriously.”

From the outside, the wine business is a romantic industry filled with travel to ancient cellars and lavish meals. While it’s certainly plausible to find yourself in the basement of a restaurant drinking grower Champagne, this business is hard. It’s cold. It’s cutthroat.

There are no loyalties and there are few friends. That’s not a complaint, nor meant to scare, just a declaration of truth from behind the glass.

 

Peter Troilo is the managing director of Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines and has been in the wine business for 14 years. For more information, visit nicholasrobertsltd.com, petertroilo.blogspot.com or email petertroilo@me.com

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