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Research and Legwork: Manage Your Distributor Relationship and Get Results Amid Stark Sales Challenges

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Distributors, both large and small, share their thoughts on how wineries
can best work with them to increase sales.

By Kathleen Willcox 

As anyone who has thrown a birthday party for a toddler knows: things are smoother when the adults outnumber the children. Same goes in the sales arena — when distributors outnumber suppliers, the chances of operational chaos (and/or vast quantities of buttercream frosting being ground into the leopard print settee) are greatly diminished. 

For wineries and distributors, the math has changed dramatically in recent years, causing a ripple effect that many brands have failed to fully reckon with. Consider this: in 1995, there were more U.S. distributors than wineries — about 3,000 distributors for 1,800 wineries, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Now, there’s about one wholesaler for every 11 wineries, or about 865 distributors for more than 11,000 wineries

While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it does seem relevant to note that, during that same time, sales of wine have slumped. In 2000, sales were up 20.13%, whereas they were down -0.9% as of 2022. 

WIA tapped distributors both large and small for their thoughts on how wineries can best work with their distributors to increase sales, even in this challenging environment. 

Make the Right Match and Make It Easy

The key to a successful partnership — whether in love or business — is a harmonious pairing that makes sense.

Nick Demos [Tryon Distributing]
Nick Demos [Tryon Distributing]

“Make sure you find a distributor whose portfolio is appropriate for your wines,” says Nick Demos, a wine specialist and brand manager for Tryon Distributing, a family owned craft wine and beer distributor in Charlotte, N.C. “Make sure your wines offer something unique that fills a void for the wholesaler.”

And size may not matter as much as you think.

“There is a fear that large suppliers and producers dominate the landscape of distribution,” says Eric Crane, director of training and business development for Empire Distributors in Atlanta, Ga. “This isn’t necessarily the case. A smaller winery can represent an entirely different set of opportunities that a larger winery might not be able to provide. It doesn’t require gobs of money to get attention, it requires knowing and communicating why you belong in the marketplace.”

Present a Clear and Concise Plan

Patti Signorile [RNDC]
Patti Signorile [RNDC]

Communicating and knowing what your niche is, and how you think you should be presented, needs to be a priority.

“I appreciate it when suppliers come to me with a clear and concise plan,” says Patti Signorile, senior vice president of the Estates Group California division of Republic National Distributing Company. “If you come to me with five goals, such as the SKUs you want to prioritize and specific on- an off-premise accounts you want to land, and a plan for how we can accomplish your goals together, your chances of success will be much higher than coming to me and saying, ‘I want to sell this amount of cases this year. What do you think?’”

Making sure the team on the ground is nice to be around also goes surprisingly far. 

Joe Herrig [Georgia Crown Distributing]
Joe Herrig [Georgia Crown Distributing]

“When a time-consuming day of market work with a supplier is perceived by the rep to be useful to their business, versus a burden, that rep will be much more likely to suggest that wine brand in the future,” says Joe Herrig, director of education for Georgia Crown Distributing Co. “The importance of building a connection between the winery rep and distributor salesperson should actually supersede a short-term goal of ‘number of boxes’ sold. Focus on the long game.”

Position Your Brand 

It may sound obvious, but make sure you’re not trying to sell carne asada to vegans. 

David Parker [Benchmark Wine Group]
David Parker [Benchmark Wine Group]

“Producers need to think through their brand positioning,” says David Parker, CEO of Napa’s Benchmark Wine Group. “Understanding the audience they are aiming for should help them select products and generate appropriate support materials.”

If a producer is targeting Gen Z and millennials, he says, then sustainability, affordable pricing, trendy varieties and “natural” offerings should be prioritized, as should social media marketing and a broad media presence.

“For upscale Gen Xers and baby boomers, classic varieties, small production lots and high scores should be prioritized,” Parker says. “Being able to verbalize all of this, plus desired account types, to the distributor is important.”

Are the wines supermarket material? Do they belong with high-end collectors and on top restaurant lists? While these answers may seem obvious to the suppliers themselves, for distributors with hundreds of producers and thousands of SKUs in their book, this kind of breakdown can be more helpful than you think, Parker says. 

Create a Strong & Compelling Presence In-Market 

When you do visit a market, think strategically; use it as an excuse to kick your brand’s tires a bit and make adjustments as needed. 

“In today’s marketplace, every brand must have a compelling story, a tremendous price-to-quality relationship and fit a need in the market,” says Robert Walsh, national sales director for Europvin. “Emerging brands, especially, must be aggressive in coming into the market to tell their story and offer their ‘why’ to the trade.”

Bonus points if, like one of Europvin’s suppliers, they take it upon themselves to reach out to major retailers and restaurants ahead of time to secure in-person meetings. 

“Once upon a time, a good score was enough to open doors, but today there are so many wines with great scores, a 90 doesn’t mean what it used to,” Walsh says. “During COVID-19, we also learned that putting a brand in context in the market is key. If you’re selling a less familiar grape, such as Godello, explain what it’s like: how is it similar and different from Pinot Grigio?”

And don’t be afraid to think small. 

“All too often, it seems wineries spend all of their money in major markets instead of realizing that there are wine drinkers all across America,” Crane says. “Oversaturated markets get desensitized to events, whereas smaller markets will have their wine communities show up every time. Making friends within the wine community in secondary markets has long-lasting implications and is often one of the greatest things a producer can do for their sales.”

Stay Top of Mind 

The best way to juice sales is to make sure everyone, from your distributor rep to random people on the street, is familiar with your brand. 

“I recently had a conversation with a supplier who was upset we weren’t meeting his sales goals,” Signorile says. “But I hadn’t heard a peep from him since November. Technically he’s right: it’s my job to stay on target with sales. But I find that suppliers who check in with me, who pick up the phone and talk to members of the team frequently are much more successful. Every day for a distributor is a fire drill. We have so many accounts and meetings. But the suppliers who are constantly in touch with us are always top of mind.”

And meeting sales goals can’t just be about focusing on the distributor. 

“It doesn’t matter how good your wine is and how many great scores you have,” Signorile says. “If people have never heard of you, you’re never going to be grabbed from the shelf or chosen off the wine list.”

Signorile says her suppliers with strong social media presences, involvement in food and wine festivals across the country (not just in major markets), ads in lifestyle magazines, with strong websites and tech chops (think: QR codes) are “much more successful with the younger cohort.”

“Remember, these are consumers who have been marketed to by seltzers and RTDs,” Signorile says. “They’re used to a certain kind of marketing and content. And that’s what they expect. Simply buying a half-page ad in Wine Spectator and telling your distributor you want to sell ‘this number’ of cases for the year used to do it. But it doesn’t anymore.”

Selling in this market isn’t impossible, but it does require intense strategic thinking, an operational reset, copious glad-handing and a lot of legwork. 

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Kathleen Willcox
Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

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