On a recent 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with guest Ruvane Ribiat (RR), president of OnlineKosherWine.com.
YS: My understanding is that when you came into OnlineKosherWine.com, it was to deal with succession. Can you share some tips from transitioning a business from one generation to the next?
RR: You have to respect the vast amount of experience and wisdom that whoever handed it over to you has. In this case, it was my father-in-law, a very easy person to respect. He was extremely knowledgeable, and above all, extremely honest. He didn’t say anything unless he knew for a fact that it was true. And if he didn’t know for sure it was true, he would tell you that. There’s nothing more valuable than that. Respecting that is going to make it a lot easier for you to take over because it shows a willingness on your part to listen. After all, this person has spent 25-30 years building up the business, they don’t want to see you crash it into the wall. So, they’re going to want to feel confident in your ability.
Ask yourself, “Am I listening to what they’re saying?” After you start having your own management style, if they come to you to say, “You know what? I think you might be better off doing it this way,” you have to pay attention. That’s really the primary common sense in knowing how to deal with people. Of course, a new perspective is always valuable, but you have to make sure that it fits in within the parameters of what you’re trying to do.
YS: Let’s talk about wine itself- the experience of people that enjoy wine the range that is out there for people to enjoy.
RR: Well, people euphemistically consider traditional wine (for the seder, for kiddish) as being sweet wine. Actually, I don’t think there’s a lot of truth to that. I’ve spoken to people who came from Europe before the war, and the wine they had was not sweet. It was a drier one. I suspect that when people came to the United States, the only grapes they could find in the Italian market were concord grapes. Well, concord grapes are table grapes, and you have to keep on adding sugar until it’s palatable. I think that might have been what happened. If you fast forward up until the mid- ‘60s, that’s pretty much all there was. In fact, when I was a kid, you went to the seder and you had Concord, Mulago, Cream Red (if you were lucky), or maybe natural sweet, and you basically had a stomachache by the end of the seder.
When I got married, my father-in-law sold wine. I was learning in yeshiva and knew nothing about wine. I used grape juice for the seder because I couldn’t stomach the wine. One of my brothers told me that it’s much better to use wine than grape juice to do the mitzvah correctly, and so I decided to start drinking wine. And what I discovered wasn’t that I didn’t like wine; I just can’t drink bad wine. Concord is not a wine really. It’s grape juice that has sugar added to it and is fermented so there is a lot of alcohol in it. However, people like it. People are selling a lot of Manischewitz and a lot of Kedem Concords; there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s so many other options available. I mean, you get get probably over, 1,200-1,300 different kinds of brands and wine that are available. Countless Cabernets, almost as many Merlots, a bunch of Pinot Noirs and Malbecs. There’s no real reason why anybody has to settle for wine they can barely stomach. All these wines could be fit to the way your taste is, and to what you’re eating.
YS: I saw that either yourself or someone on your team tries every single bottle before it’s sold. What a lesson in customer service!
RR: Well, that’s true. I can’t try nearly all the wines because there are so many of them. But we have a group of people, and we know what each other’s palates are like and what we prefer as a taste profile, how we look at things. And it’s not just every new wine; it’s also new vintages. For example, you have you have Castel 2016, which was considered one of the 100 best wines in the world, I think, by The Wall Street Journal. I think they put it out in 2018. That’s incredible. But you try 2017 or 2018, it’s not exactly the same. When you’re spending $60, $70, $80, or maybe even $90 for a bottle of wine, you want to make sure you’re getting what you expect. So, we try pretty much every one that comes in. If somebody asks me if I tried the difference between, let’s say, one vintage of a lower end wine and another vintage, no. Because when it comes to wines that are, $15, maybe $20 a bottle, the winemaker styles the wines to be consistent. I’ll give you an example. If you take Manischewitz Concord, one a bottle from 1990 and another from 2020, they should taste identical. Their labs are that good. Well, there’s no reason for me to try the Manischewitz. I know what it tastes like. That’s the same idea here.
YS: Have you seen any major shifts in the wine industry over the last 10-20 years?
RR: There are two different dynamics that are happening. The first is the fact that, for some reason, kosher has become extremely hot in the general market. I don’t know if people are aware of this, but in the last 10-15 years, there have been consistent years where the growth in every kosher product has been double digit. People believe, and it’s true, that kosher is better. It’s higher quality, they’re more careful, they’re more meticulous. People are willing to spend the money for it. The numbers show it.
The second thing is that the baal teshuva movement has had a tremendous impact on the wine industry. I get phone calls all the time from people, “When I wasn’t frum, I drank this wine. Is there anything like that available?” Usually, I’d have to tell them no. But now there are so many wines that used to not be available that are now available. And it’s driven the kinds of big categories themselves higher, because it’s not just the people that are chozer b’teshuva that are interested. We’re getting orders from people in Monroe, Williamsburg, Crown Heights. These people are Chassidim that are much more interested in higher end kosher wine. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of wine that some people buy because they just like wine, and it doesn’t make any difference. You have wine stores in Williamsburg and Monsey selling wines for $150-$200, no problem. People are buying them. It’s a huge change in the industry.
YS: What advice would you recommend to someone who’s new to wine?
RR: Go to a good wine store and the first question you should ask is along the lines of, “Listen, I only drink traditional types of wine, but I really would like to start getting into wines that are drier. But I’m afraid that if I take a wine that’s super dry, I won’t like it, my kids won’t like, and my wife won’t like it, and that’ll be the end of it. Can you give me something that will be a good segue between sweet and dry?” The person at the wine store should be able to tell you that. It doesn’t have to be a semi-sweet. It can be a dry wine. There are a number of dry wines out there that don’t taste dry but are actually dry wines that don’t have that cloying sweetness at the end.
YS: Perhaps you could talk about how critical customer service us for any company.
RR: Most people don’t realize it, but almost any business you’re in, you’re really not selling a product; you’re really selling a service. That’s the way we look at it. All the wines that we have, you can get someplace else. Every one of them. The difference between us and everybody else is the service. We cross all our T’s, dot our I’s as much as humanly possible. To us, the customer is why we’re in business. We’re only a business because of you, and as far as we’re concerned, nothing else is important. All we care about is what is going to make the customer happy. We’ll bend over backwards for our customers. We’ll do things that other companies wouldn’t consider doing, because we feel that the customer might be right.
YS: Can you share a strategy for when a company transitions from brick-and-mortar to online?
RR: With brick-and-mortar, you have the advantage of being able to have a personal relationship with customers. However, when you’re talking to one customer and there are four other customers in the store, you can’t have that relationship with the other four customers. Online business is not like that. It’s true you can’t talk to them all at the same time. But the ability to communicate with them either by email or by calling them is still there. And that’s something that’s so important. To be able to have the customer feel that they have somebody to talk to. You don’t end up calling somebody, let’s say General Motors, where you have to wait and go through about 10 people, and hopefully you’ll get to the right person. It’s not like that at all with us. Once you get on the line with us, once you send an email, we answer within a timely fashion and let you know what our answer is. We try to help you as much as possible. That is a huge advantage in online business. When you’re talking about a brick and- mortar, you don’t have that ability to have that kind of relationship with as many people as you have with online businesses. Just the idea of knowing that customers are what your purpose is. You’re there for them. You’re there to provide them with a service. Once you understand that, the transition is much more understandable.
YS: Is there any type of strategy behind the new products and labels as they enter the market?
RR: The impetus behind having new labels is what grapes are available, depending on the weather or the area of the world the grapes are coming from. Let’s say there’s a tremendous amount of Sauvignon Blanc grapes available. Somebody who has all these grapes is going to think, “Well, there’s a glut of Sauvignon Blanc on the market. Let’s try to make a wine that has mostly Sauvignon Blanc and call it something else.” That would be the purpose of them having a new label. That’s the strategy from the producer’s viewpoint.
From the retailer’s viewpoint, anything new has an advantage. Somebody comes in, “I tried all these whites, what do you suggest?” He’ll say, “Try this; it’s new.” Hopefully, you’ve tried it, you like it, and you can describe it. These are the primary questions as far as new wines are concerned. This strategy is simple. Make sure you know what your product is, make sure you understand the product, and make sure you have people who will like the product. If you don’t have the clientele for it, there’s no point in buying that product. But new products are constantly coming out. Probably between 150-200 different wines come out every year, maybe more.
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