Wine Education is a Priority at SGWS

Eric Hemer has worked as a wine educator at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits since 1998, following a career that included time in the restaurant industry and managing sales teams at Southern. Currently SVP and Director of Wine Education for the wholesaler, Hemer has seen the importance of wine education grow with the company, which was only in three states when he first joined the team.

“In the late nineties, the owners of Southern decided we should create devoted education positions in our key markets, which would give us an advantage if we had a well-trained sales staff,” he says. “I was happy at the time to get out of sales and back to teaching others about fine wine, which was my original passion when I left the restaurant business.”

After running the educational division in Florida for more than a decade, Hemer was promoted to his current position in 2013 to take charge of wine education nationally, which now includes 45 states, D.C. and parts of Canada. With a team of eight educators spread throughout the country, he develops education programs for internal sales staff and stays active in teaching organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers. He describes his job as lecturing, teaching and tasting. While that sounds like a dream career, it does have its challenges.

“Strictly from a wholesaler perspective, finding time in the busy days of wine reps to carve out education is difficult,” he says. “The most important thing we do is sell product, so spending any time away from suppliers or customers to get training done is challenging. But once you establish it and it becomes a habit, you begin to see results like more confident personnel and everyone quickly realizes how important education is.”

At Southern Glazer’s, management ha”s made education an essential priority from the top down, Hemer adds, reporting that it’s talked about in every meeting as a way to differentiate the company from competitors.

In many cases, Hemer is able to integrate outside training programs into Southern Glazers’ learning management system, thanks to the investments the company has made in technology.

“Many of our suppliers have their own education programs online, which is very convenient for our sales reps since they can work on them during downtime,” he says. “Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Constellation and Trinchero Family Estates all have online training programs that integrate with us. Since we’re spread out from Alaska to Hawaii to Florida to New York and everywhere in-between, it’s very useful.”

Current Wine Trends

Given his history in wine sales and the need to address current trends in his training, Hemer makes it a point to stay on top of the category’s latest developments.

“Sparkling is doing very well right now, led by Prosecco, which has been trending hot for years with double-digit growth,” he says. “We’re also seeing that carry over into other sparkling wines like Champagne, which as bounced back from the recession and was up more than 5% for us last year.”

He also cites premiumization of the category as a major growth driver, and mentions Rose, red blends, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc as other hot sellers within the wine category. And like in every beverage alcohol segment, Millennial consumers are having an impact.

“Millennials are experimental – they’re not afraid of new varietals or regions,” he says. “They’re less apt to follow previous generations, they’re in tune with products that are environmentally friendly and they embrace alternative packaging. It’s a good time to introduce new varieties and regions into the industry because they aren’t shy.”

While there are certainly challenges facing wineries, Hemer says even consumer understanding of the wine industry is changing for the better. “Consumers’ level of acceptance and understanding continues to surprise me,” he says. “I thought it would take a while for them to accept anything but a glass bottle with a cork, but they’ve accepted screwcaps and new packaging very quickly. They’re more savvy than ever before and more informed than ever before.”

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