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Bob Edinger, natural wine distributor at Critical Mass Selections
Issue 42: On how wine distribution works, how Critical Mass decides what makers they work with, and what he thinks is next in the natural wine world.
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Bob is a musician-turned-wine-distributor that focuses on natural wines. I met him at Raw Wine earlier this year and we met for drinks and food at one of his distribution restaurants, Wildair, and talked about how wine distribution works, how Critical Mass decides what makers they work with, and what he thinks is next in the natural wine world.
Brianna Plaza: How did you get started as a wine distributor?
Bob Edinger: I have been a professional musician in New York for the last 12 years. I am a trained musician and I play drums and I still do occasionally.
The pandemic hit, I was out of work, and I was trying to convert all my drum students to online lessons and not everyone was doing that. Plus, that career is a lot of supplemental-based income, so you have to play gigs, you have to teach, and you have to do other things in the meantime.
I was like, "Okay, I don't want to stay home and not do anything." Down the street, there's a wine shop where we used to live in Bed-Stuy. The owner wanted to close the shop thinking it was too risky, and luckily, one of her friends talked her into keeping it open. He was a wine rep for a much bigger company, so he was already pretty established and set up. So he offered to work there and just keep the shop open.
I came along and it was just me and him for at least five months or so. It would just be us at the shop and we'd just crack open a bottle every day.
I really had no formal wine training or anything. He had a good wealth of knowledge and he would talk to me about the wine, and then I would do my own research outside of work. I naturally gravitated towards more of the natural wines in the shop.
I'm also a big food person. I really like cooking at home and eating really good food. I was starting to pair things with wine a bit more and enjoyed the variety that you get from wine, as opposed to whiskey.
I started drinking a lot of wine and learning about it. I think that's the best way to learn about wine — to just start drinking it.
Trying a Sauvignon blanc from France as opposed to Italy — you can see the similarities with the grape, but then the vinification process might alter the wine to some degree. That helps you learn about what you’re drinking.
Getting into wine distribution just naturally happened. The guy who I was working with was one of the first reps for the company where I currently work, so he recommended me for the job. He knew I had somewhat of a decent palette, was interested in wine, and had a lot of hustle because I was at the wine shop.
Brianna Plaza: How does this business work? Can you walk me through the process of how the wine gets to my glass at a restaurant?
Bob Edinger: It's a lot of word of mouth. We have purveyors and friends in different countries who are big wine enthusiasts. They help to scout out some of the wines. Then we'll travel to the country where those wines are from and we'll sit down with the producers and taste the wine.
When we were in Italy in February, we went to a natural wine bar in Rome and tried a few different bottles of things that hopefully weren't imported already.
Visiting the wineries is a huge part as well because we work with very small producers. We want to know that they're using organic practices and not adding anything to the wine or spraying the vines with any pesticides or herbicides.
We decide based on price, based on flavor profile. And labeling is a huge part of it because Americans are so attracted to the labels of bottles.
Brianna Plaza: Would you have a company adjust their branding to accommodate an American market?
Bob Edinger: Yeah, definitely. Winemakers want to sell the wine. The producers, they're small farmers. They need the cash flow, too. They want to sell the wine, and in some cases, they'll commit to changing the label if it'll sell better.
It’s unfortunate because in Italy they think about the quality of what they make, whereas here we think about, “How can we sell this, whatever it is, whether it’s good or not?”
Brianna Plaza: Wine is very subjective. How does Critical Mass pick who they want to work with?
Bob Edinger: Everyone has their own preferences and there are certain buyers that see past their own palette. They will have a broader spectrum of what other people will want, too. There are also people that are like, "I don't want to drink this. Why would I buy this?" But I think that’s a little bit close-minded.
Sometimes drinking natural wine is just a leap of faith you have to take. Natural wine feels like it's more alive, has more flavor. It's more interesting.
Also food helps. What kind of food does a particular restaurant have? Is it a Mediterranean restaurant? Or is it a steakhouse? Or Mexican? Knowing what kind of wines work well with each of those flavors.
Sometimes it’s literally going up to a restaurant and being like "Hey, is anybody in there? I'm a wine rep, and I want to sell you wine."
There’s also a lot of trial and error going on. There are places that take months to be able to sit down with the buyer and taste. But there are also places that are like "Yeah, I need wine right now. What do you have in your bag?"
You face a lot of rejection so I think it helps coming from a musician background and going to music school, and having a lot of teachers constantly telling you what you're doing wrong, and being at odds with yourself, trying to develop and get better.
Brianna Plaza: What do you think is next in the natural wine world?
Bob Edinger: Definitely new regions that will pop up for sure. There's this wine from Texas that I tried — It was delicious. That land is new for vines. They have to figure out how to manage it and how to produce a quality of wine from an area like Arizona or Texas.
I have a few producers that are just a few years old, younger producers that really respect their land. And they're doing everything by hand and harvesting and sorting, and believe in their quality so much they're not going to add sulfur to the wine. So it's completely untouched, so it's completely natural, and they’re producing fantastic wine.
But where is natural wine going? I hope not down the shitter, because like with everything, there's good stuff and there's bad stuff. And you have to sift through all the bullshit to find the good.
Other things ~
I love Guy Fieri. I know he’s historically been a bit of a joke in the food media world, but his shows have always been such a fun, wacky watch. The NYTimes looks at how Guy Fieri is finally getting his due as an elder statesman of sorts.