Ted’s Vietnam Adventure—Part Two

The Journey to Open a New Market Continues…

Our story so far: Ted McDonnell, a salesman and brand builder working in Asia, has been given the assignment to work with the Chivas Regal group.  He is sent to Vietnam to help the local team grow the brand in the newly opened market. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Ted, he ends up in Hanoi when he was supposed to go to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). By the time Ted learns of his mistake, he has been through a bit of an ordeal—deserted, dark and lonely roads, fears of having been kidnapped, going from hotel to hotel in search of a place to stay, and exhaustion from the ordeal.

But, Ted also learns that the Vietnamese he meets are warm and friendly and, despite his fears, are anxious to help him.

We pick up our story at the point where Ted has just learned of his mistake. (Here is part one.)

Back to the Airport

So, it’s late, Ted is exhausted and anxious to get to Ho Chi Minh City. If he stays in Hanoi—assuming he can find a hotel room this late at night—he will lose time in getting there. Then the thought hits him: Get back to the airport, surely there’s a hotel there, and get the first plane out to the southern city.

Ah, but what about money? Credit cards are not yet widely accepted and he has a limited amount of dollars (having paid Tran, the driver most of what he had), but he has over 300 British Pounds. “After all,” thinks Ted, “if a dollar can buy 17,000 Dong (Vietnamese currency) the pound should buy a billion. I should have enough.” Although, the universe may have other ideas.

But, first things first. He has to find a hotel at the airport and get a shower and some much-needed sleep. Then get up early, buy a plane ticket and get back on track.

Unfortunately, when he arrives back at the airport, he learns that that there are no hotels, in those days. What happens next according to Ted:

“There was no hotel just a building that was used for airport workers to sleep and they charge them so many Dong a night. I said, ‘Well that’s where I’m going to be sleeping but I need my own room.’ So, Tran wakes up the owner of the hotel at 1 o’clock in the morning. They’re screaming at each other, I’m saying, ‘I need a hotel room because I have to get the first plane.’ They’re thinking I’m crazy.”

“After a little haggling, I gave the last of my US dollars to the hotel guy. He was happy. I also gave Tran his money and he was happy. I got my room. They put my boxes and my luggage there with me and said, ‘Good night.’ I closed the door. I went to take a shower but there was no running water.”

One thing you can always say about a Seagram person, especially the folks who worked in Asia, no matter what, they’ll find a solution. In true form, Ted decides that if he can’t shower, he’ll use the sink. He turns on the faucet and out comes a lovely shade of brown water. He figures “what the hell,” finds a bucket fills it with the water and puts his head into it to cool down.

Please don’t laugh folks… desperate times call for desperate measures.

He’s feeling a bit better (or so he says) and puts on a clean t-shirt, turns out the lights, and quickly falls asleep. For about 15 minutes.

“Something was scratching and rattling the door. Well, you couldn’t believe how tired and exhausted I was, but I was still able to push the bed, the desk, the boxes, and my luggage up against the door. And I stared at that door for another half hour.”

The next day

Finally, around three o’clock in the morning, Ted falls asleep but is up at five to get to the airport, be the first on line to exchange money, get the ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, maybe even find a lounge (there was none) to wait for the plane. At seven, the foreign exchange opens and he’s first on line. He is starting to breathe a sigh of relief, reliving the ordeal of the night before and even managing to laugh about it. But not for long.

“We don’t take this,” the woman behind the counter says.

Ted is shocked: “This is pounds sterling… this is very important money, more valuable than US dollar.”

“No, we only take American dollar, Malaysian Ringett, also take Chinese money, but we don’t take this.”

Ted says, “You please take this, I need to get on a plane for the South and my flight’s at 7:30.” The reply is a firm No!

Ted leaves the counter and once again decides that desperate times call for desperate measures. He decides to approach people and beg.

He walks up to every person, and asks them if they have any money that they would be willing to exchange for pounds sterling. He tells them, “This is what I need to buy a ticket, can you help me?”

Two or three people just refused to speak English to him. One person gave him a few dollars and he thinks he ended up giving him twice the value in pounds because he was so desperate. A few more people gave him money. Finally, one person gave him $100 for 200£ (pounds). According to Ted, “That was a rip off but I was just so happy that I had enough money to buy a ticket.”

And, so, Ted at long last is going to the south. He, his luggage and what’s left of the trinkets, t-shirts and training material get on board. The door closes but Ted is already fast asleep.

Ho Chi Minh City today

The aftermath

If this story was fictional, such as one of my screenplays, Ted’s nightmare would continue (and perhaps get worse) when he landed in Ho Chi Minh City. If you were expecting that, dear reader, forget it. The universe figured he’d been through enough and decided to smile at him.

He arrives, goes easily through customs, meets his Seagram colleagues, who take one look at him and say, “Man, you need a drink, a bed, and a shower. Which do you want first?” They go on to say, “By the way, you have a training session in 3 hours and you need to be there.”

Ted is so thrilled he replies, “Of course I’ll be there.” He checks into his hotel, unpacks and sits in the shower for 30 minutes. All the while thinking about the people in that house, Tran, his friend, the policeman, the people that he met that night, and how everyone was so easy and nice to talk to.

The session with the Vietnam sales team was a big success with the attendees paying rapt attention, absorbing the information like sponges, and the excitement about Chivas Regal was palpable.

Let’s close with a final word from Ted McDonnell:

“I encourage everybody that I talk to, to go to Vietnam because the people are lovely and the country is lovely. Thank you for the opportunity to share my little salesman story. Every salesperson has a door he knocks on or a town he walks into cold turkey. Well, I walked into Vietnam cold turkey thinking all night I was in a city that I was not in at all.”


Ted McDonnell now runs the Liberty Lighthouse Group, an international alcohol beverage sales and marketing agency. The company’s key objective is to support its Brand Companies to either establish new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted at his training session in 1994
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Altaneve Prosecco

A distinctive product deals with marketing challenges

Sparkling Wine in the US has grown twice as fast as the overall wine category over the past five years. Within sparkling wine, the non-champagne segment accounts for over 90% of sales (See earlier post on Booze Business) with prosecco leading the charge.

In fact, in a recent article in Shanken News Daily:

“The Prosecco DOC Consortium recorded a 34% increase in exports to the U.S. market in the first half of 2014, with volume reaching 1.27 million cases.” 

In effect, prosecco has challenged champagne for the top of the sparkling wine domain. In so doing, prosecco has changed the occasions for drinking sparkling wine. While champagne is for celebrations and special occasions, prosecco is for everyday and any time. Further, at $12 to $15 per bottle, prosecco has an advantage for everyday use.

But, just as there are $12 bottles of wine as wells as $20, $30 even $40 still wines, can an upmarket prosecco capture a significant share of that market?

Enter David Noto with Altaneve Prosecco

David Noto
David Noto

It’s quite an interesting story. David’s family has been making wine for 10 generations in Italy and he grew up with a passion for prosecco, particularly the high quality end. So he changed his career from engineering and finance technology and brought this product to market a few years ago.

According to David, “The US market is not deeply familiar with the broad range of prosecco, so we felt it was time to introduce the best.”

In addition, the brand has an interesting story to tell. Altaneve means high snow in Italian and is a reference to the snow capped peaks of the Dolomite Mountains that can be seen from the vineyards in Valdobbiadene where the prosecco is produced. The production facility is the second oldest in the town where the production of prosecco dates back to 200 BC.

In short, Altaneve has it all, provenance, terroir, heritage and high quality. Taste? I’m a huge prosecco fan and, while I’m far from a connoisseur, I think it’s the best tasting prosecco I’ve ever had. It’s versatile (any occasion with or without food), and unlike other

Presecco production area
Presecco production area

prosecco I’ve had, it’s consistent from bottle to bottle.

Altaneve sells for roughly $29.99 a bottle and therein is the problem.

The marketing challenge

I suppose it’s because the prosecco category in the US market is still in its infancy. Or, maybe the current image for the category is that it is generally low in price. As a result, David faces an uphill battle getting the message across that high end prosecco is worth the price. After all, all wine categories segment by price, why not this one?

I can understand the consumer reluctance to trade up. The category is still evolving and they came to it originally for an inexpensive alternative to champagne, so why pay for top shelf. That perception will change gradually over time but for producers like David Noto, accelerating a change in perception will take marketing muscle and lots of money. Altaneve is a startup brand.

The hesitation by the trade (especially bars and restaurants) is baffling to me. The mark up and profitability from Altaneve would make the brand more than worthwhile. Yet, the reluctance to change, to accept a segmentation of the prosecco category, not to mention lack of knowledge, all make it an uphill battle. To me, it defies logic.

Bottle_5I guess the bright side is twofold. First, slowly but surely, better retailers like Sherry Lehmann and important chains like Capital Grille are stocking Altaneve. Then there is David Noto himself. If you’re a follower of this blog, you know I often write about startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. Add David Noto to the list of passionate, smart and committed.

As to the Altaneve product itself, try it and let me know what you think. Unfortunately, it currently is only available in NY, NJ and CT, but also online. I’m betting you’re going to love it.

While you’re at it, check out what Wine Spectator had to say about Altaneve, as well as other info from their Facebook page.

Altaneve products
Altaneve products
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How a Chilean Wine came to the US via China…and won awards

labelsDon Mateo Wines started with three global entrepreneurs, a passion for wine making and a vision to become world class.

So, what’s so special, you ask, lots of aspiring winemakers out there.

Yes, but how many have won four awards at the recent Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) convention? And, how many have had a journey that began in China?

I first met the partners running Don Mateo Wines in late 2010 and was immediately struck by their business acumen, gained in global trading, and applied to the wine world. Their story is interesting.

Andy Lam and his brother Matthew were successful exporters of various products and commodities to Chile from China. Over the years, the currency exchange swings hurt their business and so they turned the ship around and began importing wine from Chile. Their passion about wine helped, and they began buying vineyards and wineries. Added to that was the patience and tenacity to develop top quality wines. They hit the Chinese wine market at the right point in time and the business flourished._MG_0417

You can’t be a global wine player without the US market, so a third partner, Peter Loucks, entered the picture and applied his overall business skills to the wine business. Peter is smart and a quick learner so it’s not surprising that he soon realized that, unlike China, the supply of wine (Chilean and others) exceeded the demand. Consequently, growth here would be an uphill battle. Further, the mandatory wholesaler tier has become more and more difficult to deal with, as in “take on another wine brand, are you kidding?”

But, he knew that despite the hurdles, he had some key brand equities and assets. For one thing, Don Mateo is a memorable brand name for a Chilean wine and the brand symbol is both interesting and notable to consumers.


As you can see, the symbol/logo is the Moai (pr. mo-eye). These Moai are the monolithic statues of Easter Island, off the coast of Chile. According to their website “they reflect our commitment to discovery, craftsmanship and passion. These three elements have been the guiding principles for Don Mateo wines from Chile.” Might even stand for the three partners behind the venture. You never know.

If you asked the brand owners what is the single most important asset of their wines, their answer is most likely to be, the wine. Trust me folks, these are outstanding wines. But, in case you don’t believe it, think about the medals they won at the WSWA – three silver and a double gold.

silver and gold

Here’s the irony. Despite the entrepreneurial approach, despite their marketing and branding and, despite the high quality and good value, you would think wholesalers would be beating a path to their door. Instead, getting wholesalers to take on the line has been slow and difficult. Such is the state of the booze business and the plethora of brands on the market.

But, hey, the Moai on Easter Island have stood the test of time, so why shouldn’t Don Mateo Wines.

For you former Seagram folks out there… It might interest you to know that Jim Reichardt introduced me to them and their New Jersey wholesaler is Sam Ellias.

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