Roundtables conjure images of high ideals, swords raised in pledge and lots of chain mail. Some of those characteristics from the ‘old days’ remain remarkably similar to ours today.

We do have high ideals and expectations in the conduct of our members. (“What happens around the round table stays at the round table!”) We raise filled wine glasses instead of raising swords. Our wardrobes at the table can vary dramatically, from direct off the crush pad to major wine event chic. (But you’ll not find any chain mail in sight.)

Similar to King Arthur’s Round Table, Women for WineSense’s round tables are steeped in a bit of mystery. Information shared at table is frequently labeled, “Not to leave this room!” Of course, this isn’t due to some NORAD missile defense system sensibility of ‘it’s us or them!’ It’s far more attributable to sense of sanctuary at the round table.

Like any industry, topics arise of a sensitive nature. Proprietary programs and knowledge are key to business success, from sales to viticulture. We’re here to help – not create a Cuban Missile Crisis!

On that note, I think you’ll understand when I say the following recap of one round table’s meeting would read like a heavily redacted document from the C.I.A. (the Big Brother agency—not the culinary training center Upvalley)!

Making Sense of a Sales Strategy for both DTT (Direct-to-Trade) and DTC (Direct-to-Consumer)

The Marketing/DTC Round Table was recently lucky enough to get Scott Forrest, National Sales Manager for Three Sticks Wines in Sonoma, to speak about developing and working various sales strategies both to the trade as well as to consumers. Scott brought his DTC specialist, Prema Behan, to the meeting as well to discuss some of the strategies she has employed for her target market.

While we didn’t have a round table, per se, at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, the discussion around the heavy, rectangular European table was lively. Scott indicated some of his first strategies upon joining Three Sticks was to determine which states to distribute to and how many cases to allot as target sales goals across the country. (This was concurrent to developing a direct-to-consumer strategy that dovetailed with the master plan.)

Though Three Sticks Wines is a relatively new label, Scott thought it was essential to make long-term plans (and subsequent action steps) to gain market penetration in key states early on in its development. Why? The marketplace gets more and more crowded. You can’t wait until your brand has a stellar reputation years down the road and wide visibility to begin pushing open the crack in the door.

Questions he put to the attending marketing and direct-to-consumer members included:

  1. If your goal is to sell 5,000 cases in Texas next year, how are you going to get there starting from zero case sales?
  2. How many accounts do you need in any given state to sell X number of cases there?
  3. What is your point of difference from the other brands that will help to gain distributor sales as well as restaurant sales?

Fortunately, he didn’t leave us with a cliff hanger. The questions weren’t intended to stump anyone or put them on the spot. Scott’s point was simply that it’s crucial to map out your strategy to distribution step-by-step. Start with your sales goals and then begin figuring out how you’ll attain them.

Build Solid Relationships with Distributors

From all the information Scott imparted about dealing with distribution management on down to their sales staff, it was clear he could have written a multi-volume manual on how to do it successfully. Therefore, highlights here will be extremely abbreviated.

Here are some of his recommendations and observations:

  1. It’s all about the relationships. Build them for the long-run. Nurture them frequently. This business runs of the strength of relationships from the top down.
  2. Do your homework and be very organized! Do all your research; know your competition; know their other accounts’ margins, markups and so on before you begin dialing for appointments.
  3. Above all, be courteous and respectful of their time. It’s possible you may be shut down on the first phone call simply because you called at the wrong time. Hone your approach at every step by asking if it’s a good time to talk or meet. Give them recognition for taking time out of their busy day.
  4. Don’t be discouraged. If you get shut down on the first try, work on how you can get that door back open. Perhaps you weren’t clear in your delivery of the Point of Difference.
  5. Remember distributors and their sales teams are driven by quotas. They’re focused entirely on numbers and often don’t get to sample products. You’ll have to think on your feet and quickly adapt to shifting attention spans.
  6. Think twice before promoting the most original and clever marketing idea you’ve ever come up with – they’ve heard it all before, truly.
  7. If you get to ride with sales staff or managers to retail or restaurant accounts, be very respectful of their time and space. If you’re getting into their car, remember you’re invading their space. Acknowledge their generosity. Turn off your phone completely. The best way to kill a relationship at this time would be accepting an outside phone call. (That includes shutting off all email on your smartphone.)
  8. Working with distributors can be similar to working with shifting sands. Just when you get good rapport going with one branch you could find the entire team has been replaced, and you must start from scratch. Surprises abound.

Scott emphasized focusing on the factors most important to distributors:

  1. What is the profit per case you are offering? An average profit per case can be $30 – $35. If your brand offers a much greater profit margin, make this crystal clear to management and the sales staff. Their attention will perk up.
  2. What are key points of differentiation between your brand and everyone else’s? If you try to convey your wine’s quality is superior to everyone else’s you are unlikely to make headway. (Everyone has great quality wine!)
  3. Can you offer sales incentives? If so, be creative and offer an ‘in demand’ carrot. Cash prizes may work, but often they don’t. Competition is stiff to create adequate drive for a prize. Can you consider offering a trip to wine country? Electronics?

Target Comparable Restaurant Accounts

Scott’s recounted experience made it very clear successful restaurant sales are a combination of skill, timing and resilience. (I should note that while I’ve reduced the discussion to a short list on each topic, there was a great deal of discussion between attendees, telling of amusing stories, and rounds of Q&A throughout.)

Restaurant sales are the wine business’ equivalent to getting your music played on the radio. Restaurants are a fabulous conduit through which much of the public first learns about a new wine. And once enjoyed, that consumer will be off to her local wine shop to purchase it for home consumption. Therefore, the ability to gain the right balance of restaurant sales in various geographic areas can shape public perception and sales volume in that area. Nurturing these accounts may be a critical component of your overall marketing strategy.

Scott’s own ideas on gaining restaurant wine list space were multi-faceted. Here are a few of his observations:

  1. Gaining space on a prestigious restaurant’s wine list may be a coup. But, if the list is pages long, it won’t result in many case sales. However, it may be possible to leverage that position to obtain other accounts in that geographic area.
  2. Determine your key competitor brands and your strategy to position yourself next to them. Scott mentioned several luxury wine brands (withheld so I don’t get in trouble with him) he specifically seeks out on restaurant wine lists to determine if he should pursue the account. If he finds them there, he works on tactics to get his brand on the same list.
  3. Do your homework (again)! Know a restaurant’s wine list and style. Will your wine pair well with their food? Do they offer similar brands as yours to their guests? What do you know about the restaurant’s relationship with their distributor? (You don’t want to walk into an ambush if they’ve just chewed out the account manager for a problem with replacing someone else’s corked wine.)
  4. Target short wine lists. Your sales volume will be much higher than on the ‘extensive’ wine lists.
  5. Have a meal there. Get to know some of the staff when possible. Take interest in what is or isn’t working for them so you can determine if you can help.

After our lengthy discussion it left little time for Prema to offer some of her winning DTC strategies. But several were built around key principles of hospitality: Thank your biggest customers generously. Prema mentioned carefully reviewing her DTC sales results for the year and sending Christmas gifts to her best customers (who were most grateful for her extra recognition of their patronage).

We could have gone on for hours with this round table discussion, but there are only so many hours in the day. A big ‘thank you’ and round of applause was given to Scott and Prema for their insights and expertise (and is repeated here)!

Post event I ran into several recent blog posts relating to DTT and DTC sales you may find of interest:

  • Franchise States provides an excellent summary of the effects of ‘premature distribution.’ Rather, the author recommends you do considerable homework on each state in which you wish to sell your wine and on each distributor you consider doing business with since it is often an undivorceable relationship.
  • In The Biggest Challenge to a Winery Jeff Miller discusses what happens when your broker decides to close up shop and how this affects sales and your relationship with one or more distributors.
  • Paul Mabray looks at wineries’ relationships with their customers (and exactly who are they?) in Direct Through Trade – Social Media Redefining The “Customer”.
  • Alder Yarrow has a few words to say on where wineries are missing marketing opportunities in Social Media and the Wine Industry: A New Era.
  • Wrapping it up, Leah Hennessy Matteson offers commentary on some very interesting fresh sales statistics from the Wine Market Council in Millennier, Millennial Wine Buying Behavior Mirrors High End Consumer. In her analysis find that wine reviews are important to consumers for determining what to buy to drink at home and that folks are more than willing to try new luxury brands.

Please add your observations and comments by clicking on “Leave a Comment” at the top of the article here or at the bottom with “Leave a Reply.

Our evening was a prime example of the wonderful benefits of participating in one of our professional roundtables. These meetings provide in-depth expertise on a specific topic either requested directly by the round table’s members or fit within the round table’s category of focus.

My participation in the HR Roundtable facilitated a job offer from Silver Oak only six days after my position was eliminated at Jackson Family Wines. I credit landing on my feet to my active participation on the roundtable which afforded me visibility as an HR professional and allowed me to build relationships with other winery colleagues and provided immediate access to networking when I personally needed it, and luckily, securing new employment.

Linda Higueras
Employee Relations
Silver Oak & Twomey Cellars

For all eleven roundtables each meeting provides ample opportunity to network with others working in the same field (or related field). Share ideas, brainstorm, and build new relationships to continue your career development.

We are currently looking for an Education Director to oversee the roundtables as well as our scholarship program. If you know anyone who may make a terrific match for this position and would like to dig deeper in their Women for WineSense participation, please contact Chris Mueller, Chapter President, for details.

Do you have some great stories about what you’ve learned at a recent roundtable meeting? We’d love to publish your blog post about the event. Please send them to Marcia Macomber, Communications Director.

What's in the GlassIn the past week and a half, a number of wine events occurred in my life that got my gray cells working overtime. First, I attended a lovely dinner of wine bloggers, wine writers, wine critics and wine makers. I am none of these, but I am an avid reader of wine publications. And this is due to my desire to learn as much as possible about the business, its marketing and sales, and what makes great wine.

There were reportedly upwards of nineteen bottles on the table, a few of which I did not, sadly, get to sample. Conversation was quite lively as various parties chimed in with their opinions on specific wines, geographic characteristics for growing and farming techniques, alcohol levels, and much more. My goal was pretty much to soak up the knowledge floating across the table and try not to embarrass myself too much as the least knowledgeable one at the table. Overall, I don’t think I did too badly.

The second event was a small blind tasting. I have historically been horrible at these, and the trend continued that night. It should be noted that the majority of wines poured were French, an area of wine knowledge for which I have far less understanding than I do for the wines of the U.S. (But I usually completely bollix domestic blind tastings as well.)

After the blind tasting I felt suitably humbled with a rather permanent sensibility it will always be three step forwards and a minimum of two steps back for me in wine knowledge, from my lips to my brain. Somewhere along the way the synaptic connections just don’t get made as the libation slips past my olfactory senses, over the taste buds, and down my gullet.

My wine education of domestic production has always been more along the lines of knowing where the edge pieces of the puzzle are located–even if the pieces in the middle are missing or heavily jumbled. I can make sense of what I’m drinking, where it came from, and the general characteristics of the terroir. The wines of France, on the other hand, seem something akin to Mr. Spock’s 3D chess games – way too far beyond my ken to even grasp the outer edges of the game.

Since the French use an entirely different system of identifying their wines (by geographic location and not by varietal), I can’t compare puzzle to puzzle or the sizes and shapes of the pieces of French wines to U.S. wines. France’s wines are a whole separate game, and I’ve yet to get a handle on the rulebook.

Sure, there are regions from which I love the wines the French produce. There are wineries whose product I love. But it’s continually frustrating because I can never compare wines from the U.S. with wines from France. It’s an apples-to-oranges exercise in futility. (And it’s not that I’m trying to determine if one wine is better than another in comparison.)

We humans seem to have a ongoing desire to compare things. It’s one way we learn, evaluating one similar item against another. Our brains are just wired this way.

They even managed to compare wines in the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when the real experts were able to compare U.S. wines side-by-side with some of the finest French wines. (Why can’t I makes sense out how to line them up side-by-side?)

It would seem I am not the only American with this frustration. As I lamented my lack of French wine understanding (for which I frequently turn to the blog stylings of Samantha Sans Dosage to up my educational level), lo and behold a number of articles landed in my inbox on this topic.

The first grabbed my attention as a marketer: “French wine industry ponders shift in marketing strategy.” That’s a pretty substantial move for an entire industry. What could possibly spur an entire industry – one long steeped in history and tradition – to shift its thinking and strategy so dramatically? The answer dropped in my box but a few days later: “French wine consumption drops by three billion bottles.” Ouch!

The message (to the French) appears to be coming through loud and clear: Adapt or perish! The latter is unlikely and undesirable to happen. But given the sorry state of wine consumption in France alone (the intake per capita has dropped precipitously in one generation), they know some dramatic changes are in order. But what should they be?

The French method of organizing and categorizing wine is vastly different than here in the States. (And remember, I have a hard time myself understanding how it all works. So this explanation will be quite bare bones!) Given French wines have been around for thousands of years and the formal system of ranking and categorizing their wine has been around for hundreds of years, it was originally based upon the most common logic of its time: geography.

Rule #1: Sell your wine to everyone close by. Transportation costs are then lowest. They’ll remember your wine if you describe it as being ‘over two hills in that direction.’ This system has worked for hundreds of years.

Rule #2: Once you’ve sold to everyone nearby, expand your market further geographically. Now the folks farther away need more information in order to remember if your wine is better than the guy’s ‘three hills in that direction.’ Along comes a ranking system to designate if the wine ‘two hills over’ is of better quality (for a variety of reasons) than the one grown ‘three hills away.’

Are you confused yet? Well, this system worked just dandy for a few hundred years when folks with but a single horse and buggy didn’t travel far (nor did the wine), so it was easier to keep straight in their heads what wine came from which location.

Fast forward a century or two and several major changes have taken place which have resulted in this long-standing system not working nearly as well as the French would like. Aye! There’s the rub!

The biggest monkey wrench is that the U.S. doesn’t categorize, organize or prioritize its wine production by geography. (Napa Valley wineries and producers will vociferously argue this point – and they’re right to a certain degree – but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Much to the French’s endless frustration, American wines (above and below the 49th Parallel) are identified primarily by varietal before geographic origination. The French probably gave little thought to this deviation from their own system when it was established long ago–before the U.S. producers made wine that amounted to a hill of beans.

But now this is a problem, the U.S. is gaining market share and France is losing market share – even in their own backyard. Furthermore, Italy’s wine exports continue to kick *ss in the U.S. (And they do actually list the varietal on their labels!)

So what should we all do about this conundrum? How should we make sense of it all? I, for one, do not wish the French to change how they make their wine one iota. I aspire to understand it and identify it better (and to drink a lot more of it!) I do believe the time has come for the French to squeeze varietal names onto their labels (however small they wish to make it in size). This option was granted to them in 2004, but it is difficult to change an industry’s practices so entrenched in tradition and history. But a second challenge remains: the French are far more accepting and understanding of blended wine, of which a great deal of production includes several varietals. They won’t all fit on the label! (We don’t squeeze them all on our labels here either.)

Americans have less understanding of and greater resistance to making blended wine purchases. Some are suspicious that a blend must represent a great vat of unknown leftover wine that’s been dumped together (which is hardly the case). Others simply view blends as a great gamble to purchase than something that’s identified as “California Chardonnay” – another misconception.

As a consumer, I see my wine education much as Lewis and Clark must have seen America: “What? Another mountain to climb on the other side?!” I’ll continue to lumber off to blind tastings in hopes that my abilities improve the longer I’m at it. I’ll continue to try new (to me) French wines, seeking out mnemonic devices so that I get one step closer to identifying them correctly in a blind test.

As a marketer, I hope French wine producers evaluate their options from the point of view of what will best help the consumer better understand their product(s) faster and easier. (Speed and simplicity improve the ‘likability’ factor of a product much more, spurring purchases.) A little sensibility in marketing goes a long way in increasing sales.

For another perspective on wine education, check out The Return on Investment of Wine Education.