Wine enthusiast keeps businesses in touch with product

Saturday, November 20th 2004, 4:24 pm
By: News On 6

MUSTANG, Okla. (AP) _ After a few moments' consideration, wine broker Michelle Plueger finally settled on ``enthusiast'' as the word that best describes her relationship with the product she sells.

``It's not just my job. It's definitely my passion. It's in the blood,'' she said gesturing emphatically with her well-manicured hands as she noted her credentials as a fourth-generation Italian restaurant owner. ``I love helping customers find what they want. It's fun doing research and study in this business.''

From her home in Mustang, Plueger travels all over the state introducing retailers to her exclusive portfolio of domestic and foreign wines as a broker working for Tulsa-based Select Wines & Spirits, an affiliate of Jarboe Sales Co.

``Once it's in the blood, it's hard to shake. My 10-year-old son said, 'Mom, you're paid to drink wine all day? Whatever,''' she said, laughing as she demonstrates the way her son rolls his eyes. Her father and uncle have their own vineyard, she said.

To explain how the former Michelle Marcuzzi of Omaha, Neb., wound up selling wine in Oklahoma, she went back to the very beginning.

``My great-grandmother came over from Italy during Prohibition, with seven children _ five boys and two girls,'' she said. ``Her husband had passed on in Italy. She built up a restaurant with her own hands on blood, sweat and tears and sold bootlegged liquor out the back door to support her children.''

Plueger's grandfather, father and uncle also ran Italian restaurants. She was 13 years old when she started working in her father's restaurant, where she learned her first lessons in how to be an effective salesperson.

``(Service) is the only profession where you literally can set your own pay scale, based on your personality and your service. There is no limit,'' said Plueger. ``And you really get to study human nature, both the employees' and the customers.'''

During her college years, she studied dance, holistic health and massage therapy.'' But then Dad needed help,'' she said. Plueger ran her own restaurant for seven years, but the long hours and high health care costs eventually compelled her, then a single mother, to give up the restaurant in exchange for a steady paycheck at a wholesale house.

Though already familiar with both food and beverage wholesalers, she became increasingly specialized in the wine segment of the business. In time, she married a military man who was reassigned to Oklahoma.

The move from Nebraska to Oklahoma two years ago was not without its challenges, said Plueger. Besides learning the landscape and establishing relationships with new customers in a state where no one knew her extended family, Plueger had to learn a vastly different set of laws governing how alcohol is handled in Oklahoma.

``It was like selling liquor in the Twilight Zone,'' she said. ``In Nebraska, I could give out samples at the local Wal-Mart, Target. And there is nothing like the ABLE (Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement) Commission.''

By working with other brokers, studying her market and focusing on developing good relationships with her clients, Plueger said she was able to make the transition.

``She's a pleasant professional,'' said Randy Meyer, co-owner of The Mantel restaurant in Bricktown. ``Really sharp, especially on European wine. They have quality products that meet our price points. But most importantly, they can deliver what they say they have. The industry has been volatile over the last year in Oklahoma, but she's been good at keeping me abreast of problems.''

In addition to providing reliable service, Plueger also helps educate her customers, and just about everyone around her, about wines and how they should be served.

``Word has gotten around that I'm the wine lady,'' she said. Though she tries not to impose on other people's tastes, she will offer some basic advice. ``Please don't chill the red wine,'' she said. ``You'll make me cry.''

Over the last decade or so, Americans are increasingly coming to appreciate good food as an art form, evidenced by a growing number of television shows, books and magazines on the subject. The rise of the culinary arts bodes well for the wine industry. ``Historically, wine was meant to be a condiment to food,'' said Plueger.

Wine drinkers are viewed as more culturally savvy, and often wine is more accepted in a professional setting, she said. People are more willing to experiment with wines than they have in the past, she said, noting that Oklahoma is often targeted as a test market for many of her clients.

The wine industry itself has worked to cause change, both through more aggressive marketing and pricing strategies. For instance a ``really good'' bottle of wine priced in the $10 range was unheard of a decade ago, she said, though today more affordable wines have helped the industry flourish even during the recent economic recession.

And as her great-grandmother knew years ago, the sale of alcoholic beverages is a fairly stable industry. ``Regardless of what the economy is like at one time, a war or not, gas crunch, whatever, people are not going to give up their vices,'' said Plueger. ``They might not buy that $50 bottle, but they're darn sure going to buy that $5 box of wine... or a $10 bottle of something. People are not going to stop drinking wine.''