Forget the wine…Watch the Ratings…then Act

Let me start by saying some nice things about distributors and those who work for distributors.

Some of America’s most knowledgeable wine people, the kind of people who understand the market intimately, have a keen appreciation of what retailers and restaurateurs want, and have palates that are built on broad tastings, work at distributorships across the country. Many of them care deeply about wine, where where the industry is going and, just as important, where it has been.

But then there are others who work at distributorships who are so lazy that they relinquish their integrity simply to make life easier on themselves.

Listen to this tale. It’s a common one.

Before a distributorship agrees to take on a new winery or producer, they give lots of consideration to many issues: Is the wine good? Will the wines of this new winery fit well with the other wines we sell (Don’t want to have too many Paso Robles Syrah). How much work is the winery willing to put into promoting the brand? Is there room in the geographic market we serve for another wine priced at this level?) A number of questions are asked and answered before the paperwork is signed and the distributor takes its first shipment of cases that it will then sell to retailers and restaurateurs.

Sales begin well as new items in a market often do. The distributor’s sales people show the new brand as they make their rounds. They are selling the wine based on its quality: "You’ll like this wine, we think. It packs lots of California fruit into a tight package with nice acidity. It’s concentrated but you can recommend it to diners too."

The distributor is happy because a newsletter in CA gives the wine a GREAT review. it makes it easier to sell. All’s well.

Then, the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker come out with a score of 84. Eighty-Four. Seems odd to everyone. This is not an 84 point wine. Nevertheless, within days of the score being published the winery can’t get it’s calls returned by the distributor. The sales reps stop pushing the wine. Finally, when the producer of the wine that was once fantastic get a hold of their contact at the distributorship and they proceed to hear the following:

"Well, you know, that score makes it tough. We don’t know if we can sell the wine. We don’t know if it’s the right style for our market."

What happened to all the promises and praise?

What happened is something that happens in the wine industry all too often. Distributor sales reps and retailers have relinquished their palates and their opinions to a small group of critics and reviewers who, taken together, make up a schizophrenic collection opinions and palates. Too few sales people will stand up in the face of the opinion of the wine reviewers and demand that the buyers taste the wine on their own merits.

Why? Because they probably have so many other wines to sell they can easily ignore the ones that got a score or review that, while not matching their opinion of the wine, gives them reason to disregard it.

The problem is that with the number of distributors dwindling by the day, and the number of wineries represented by each distributorship rising each day, there is little incentive for a sales person to personally get behind a brand for he sake of selling good wine.

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to do your best work when you over-commit yourself. Distributors have over-extended themselves now for years. The result is that they have become order takers rather than sales people. Few have any public relations people on staff and most of the training of sales people occurs by wineries who pay for it.

What’s the solution? There are few. This might be a case of having to wait for the distribution market to become so consolidated that you naturally see new, smaller, more nimble, more committed distributorships spring up who are willing to put their palate and sales skills behind the brands they take on. They will have a number of willing clients. There are probably hundreds of very high quality wineries in CA alone who would give up extra margin to work with a distributor willing to put their backs into it.

Posted In: Wine Business


One Response

  1. Ryan Scott - June 1, 2005

    You know what? That’s the kind of distributorship I would like to start. If I didn’t believe in the wines, I wouldn’t sell them. I don’t have any experience or money to start out though.

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