While teaching about the business of wine at FIU, Patrick “Chip” Cassidy imparts advice that his students can use on the job. He warns them that the business can be both convivial and cutthroat.
“When you get into business, you’re going to find that lots of people — you’re going to think they’re your friends, but they’re going to be acquaintances for you,” he says, adding, “I would never let anyone screw me more than once. You screw me once, that’s OK. I can live with it. But you’re not going to do it twice. In business, you just have to watch yourself.”
Cassidy also provides a life lesson in patience and perseverance.
Decades ago, Cassidy first tasted Billecart-Salmon champagne at New York’s famed French restaurant Le Bernardin. Cassidy instantly knew he wanted to add that champagne to the wine list at Sunset Corners, where he worked as a wine buyer.
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“It’s the best champagne,” Cassidy says. “I went nuts. I couldn’t wait to find out who brought that in. I was going to get back to Miami, and I was going to order some.”
After learning that Robert Chadderdon, a wine supplier out of New York, had the concession, Cassidy wrote to say he wanted to purchase his wine. When he didn’t hear back for three weeks, Cassidy decided to call and inquire. The woman who answered dismissed Cassidy with: “He’s only interested in the best restaurants and the best retailers in the country. And frankly, we’ve never heard of you down there in South Florida. He’s not going to talk to you.”
Two years later, still smarting from the brush-off, Cassidy tasted another memorable French wine — Vouvray Clos de Bourg.
“I had never tasted a white wine like that in my whole life,” he says. “I still say it’s one of the greatest white wines that I ever drank. There were eight bottles left on the wine list. I bought them all. When I came back to Miami, I thought to myself, I’ve got to find that wine. So, I look it up, and who do you think carries it? That same Chadderdon.”
Again, Cassidy tried to buy from him and again got the brushoff. By this time, he was the wine buyer for Crown Wine & Spirits, one of largest chain stores in the United States. Chadderdon wouldn’t even take his call.
“I get the same woman on the phone,” Cassidy recalls. “She says, ‘Don’t you remember me telling you two years ago that he’s not interested in doing any business?’ I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m going to lose out on the second wine from the same guy.’ ”
The day after that miserable telephone conversation, Cassidy finally got a break. He had just spent four hours talking to another wine importer and concluding a sale for 1,000 cases of wine when the seller asks if there is anything he can do for him. Cassidy explains his difficulty in getting Chadderdon to sell him the Billecart and Vouvray. It turns out Chadderdon was his friend. Within the hour, Chadderdon called Cassidy. Three weeks later, they met in New York.
“His office is on the 51st floor of Rockefeller Plaza,” Cassidy says. “You could not have a more exclusive office in New York City. I got there, and there was a plate on the door that said Robert Chadderdon Selections. I knock on the door and a woman answered — and I recognized her voice.”
This time, she ushered him into Chadderdon’s office, where there was a desk with a file that beared Cassidy’s name. He sneaked a peek and saw that it contained the two letters he wrote, along with the two messages left when he called.
“This is the way this works,” Chadderdon told him. “You buy what I want to sell you.”
The whole experience was bewildering for Cassidy, who was used to selecting from a wine list provided by the importer.
“I’m sitting there thinking, God, this is really weird,” Cassidy says. “I’m also thinking — you’re finally going to get your Billecart; you’re finally going to get your Vouvray. So keep your mouth shut.”
So he did. Within 10 years, everyone wanted Billecart, and Cassidy had it exclusively for Florida, having bought 47,000 cases of it. Chadderdon never gave him a break on price, and Cassidy never asked for one. “I felt that he’d walk the other way if I did that,” Cassidy says, understanding the cut of the man, who later became a dear friend.
“Ten years later, I’m sitting with him and say, ‘I must have sold anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 cases of wine for you.’ And I’m looking for him to say to me, ‘Well, thank you.’ Instead, he said, ‘Just think of the opportunity that I’ve given you.’”
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.