Distributors, brokers, and buyers discuss the importance of connecting with niche-focused wine shops
“You’re the only one who can tell your story,” says a long-time broker and winery sales executive.
“You’re the only one who can tell your story,” says a Manhattan wine shop operator.
“You’re the only one who can tell your story,” says a top Spanish wine importer.
That all three—from different parts of the wine business in different parts of the country—agree on the same principle speaks volumes about how smaller producers can get their products into independent wine shops. Which, given the way the wine business works these days, is more important than ever.
All the old, pre-pandemic obstacles are still here: too many SKUs, too few wholesalers, and increasing consolidation in the second and third tiers. Throw in the collapse of the on-premise business during the pandemic (and its agonizingly slow recovery), and smaller producers need independent retailers more than ever.
“Smaller producers can give independent retailers exactly what they’re looking for,” says wine marketer Paul Tincknell of Napa’s Tincknell and Tincknell. “That means exclusives—wines that aren’t available in the big chains, and pricing to make those exclusives work.”
Which is where story-telling comes in. “No one knows your brand better than you do,” says John Bratcher, owner of Rockridge Wine Traders in Austin, TX. “If you don’t sell them on your story, who else will? Who can do a better job than you can?”
The idea is to sell the independent retailer a story and product that they can, in turn, sell to their customers. “Think of them as sommeliers who want the best wine possible at the best price,” says Patrick Mata, co-owner of Ole & Obrigado, a Spanish importer and producer selling predominantly to independent retailers. That means knowing everything about your wine: vineyard altitude, soil types, Brix at harvest, case production—and anything else, even trivial details.
“We need to be able to tell your story when you’re not around,” says Ben Aneff, managing partner of Tribeca Wine Merchants in New York City. “The producer needs a representative who is as passionate about their wine as they are. Otherwise, the brand will get lost in the sea of SKUs.”
In some states, where legal, self-distribution may make sense—if the producer knows the market intimately and understands why one retailer would be a fit over another. It’s the difference, Bratcher comments, between knowing the inventory of a regional chain versus that of a one- or two-shop operation.
Otherwise, a wholesaler is important. Arneff says producers who contact him directly usually aren’t successful, given the limited time and resources he has to reply to blind queries. “One way the buyer sees their job is as an editor,” he says. “We filter through the options available to find what’s best for our customers. To do that, we need to find people we can really trust, and there are always a limited number.”
Even a smaller wholesaler specializing in your kind of wine may not be effective if there are already a dozen similar producers in their book. Size and reputation aren’t as important as approach and attitude—in other words, passion for your product
“The distributor has to have a similar mindset to the producer,” says Andrew Stover, the portfolio manager for DC-based Siema Wines, a wholesaler and importer focusing on smaller producers and independent wine shops. “The distributor has to know where your wines need to go, and that it isn’t Costco or Wegman’s. That’s why smaller producers and independent shops are pretty much our bread and butter.”
And where does price fit in?
“The very first thing producers should understand about pricing is that they have to throw tasting room prices out the window,” says Bratcher. “In a tasting room, they’re competing with themselves. In a retailer, they’re competing with every other wine at that price. So, $40 in the tasting room almost certainly isn’t going to work at retail.”
The key, says Mata, is to pay more than lip service to value and quality. “Show them a way they can make 50 to 60 points on your wine instead of the five points they can make on a national brand, but show them they can do a at a price that will sell—and show them on a wine that tastes like more than it costs.”
In other words, show them something only you will know—your wine, your brand, your story.
Jeff Siegel is an award-winning wine writer, as well as the co-founder and former president of Drink Local Wine, the first locavore wine movement. He has taught wine, beer, spirits, and beverage management at El Centro College and the Cordon Bleu in Dallas. He has written seven books, including “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine.”