To many a wine buyer, curation was a silver bullet for navigating the wine aisles. We like to believe that a similar minded philosophy in its broadest possible sense will help us feel secure in our choices. With a product as complex and complicated as wine, a carefully curated selection is music to the ears of an eager wine consumer. But this is not the case for the thousands of wineries around the world who are competing for limited shelf space and spots on wine lists. Thanks to the power of large distributors with massive books and large wine corporations with a myriad of brands, the hyper curation that we have relied on today is hurting small wineries.
The uphill battle for shelf space
For small wineries to get spaces on to the curated shelves on wine stores and hip restaurant lists there are many obstacles that are nearly impossible to overcome. The winery itself is more often than not removed from the decision making process, with the decision coming down to the buyer at a store and the distributor who carries your wine. You would hope that the distributor is going to be a champion for your wine, but for them to do their job right they need to listen to their client and offer up solutions to their needs. The distributor will have a portfolio of many wines at their disposal to solve that problem, and then they will have to taste with the buyer. A great distributor with a broad and deep portfolio will easily be able to muscle their way into a store or restaurant, all but dictating the selection. The small winery is fighting against thousands of wines for limited space and is handing over their livelihood to a champion. Basically the small winery is Tyrion Lannister hoping that the spear wielding stranger they just met can take down the gigantic beast his sister put him up against. We all know how that turned out.
This is of course assuming that your distributor and their sales people are actually good at their jobs. Small distributors can often be stretched too thin, a salesperson might not actually like your wines, or they are so stiff and boring that they fail to get people excited about the wine. In my experience I have met all of these people. What amazes me is that small distributors are so stretched to get their wines into as many places as possible, that they forget to target the places (restaurants and shops) that have the biggest influence. Your amazing brand, your story, your work and your effort could be in the hands of person with the personality of a wet towel.
What ends up being the case is that no matter the type of store there are 50 chardonnays on the shelf, 40 sauvignon blancs, and maybe room for one interesting wine. Most of those classic spaces are made up of bigger brands from bigger wineries, or even wine centric corporations. These bigger brands with broader offerings are easy to move for distributors and their salespeople whether through the trust of consumers in the brand, or combining products into offerings like case drops. All of a sudden one big winery can occupy anywhere between three and ten spots on a shelf. This makes the rest of the space in a shop extra valuable, and it is only natural for owners and buyers to be highly selective.
Turning the battle on its head
So how can we turn this challenge around for wineries? Well, for smaller wine businesses it has never been more important to be as close to the end consumer as possible, to make your way to their heart and circumvent the tiered process as much as you can. This can seem like a daunting task, monumental even. Tasting rooms are a start, but they only draw in those who are physically close to you. Websites help, but how do you get people to visit?
Being accessible online, and having a storefront that is both easy to use and attractive, is the new frontier of wine sales. Information is your greatest weapon, and you can fill the imagination of your would be customers with words and pictures that tell your story.
If your focus is on these more direct channels, where the margins are much higher, then you start to see the traditional channels in a different light. Instead of your business needing the traditional three tiered system to survive it becomes a marketing channel for you to get your products into the hands of unsuspecting consumers everywhere. Instead of salespeople, retail buyers, and sommeliers being the gatekeepers to your wine, they instead become the promotional folks for you and who you are. By providing them more information about who the winemaker is, where the wine comes from, and how it all came together, you give the people selling your wine a lot more ammunition for them to make the emotional connection with the consumer, which in turn intrigues them about you more than just the wine. Its all about…
Telling a story
In just about every industry the products that win the battle for the hearts and minds (and wallets) of the consumers have two key characteristics.
- You have a great product
- You have a great story
In wine people focus on characteristic number one with very little attention paid to characteristic number two. For decades now folks have tied success purely to quality by means of ratings. However this also resulted in an unprecedented homogeneity of wines from around the world. By chasing what was perceived as top quality or desirable by wine critics and consumers, wineries came up with the same wines and ended up getting lost in a melange of shit.
Very few focused on the story, or they never realized the impact that the story had on how well the wine sells. One anecdote from my retail experience comes from a well known Sicilian producer and his niece. The store carried both wines and both wines had a following long before I got there. However when selling the wines to people who had never heard about them I would often say something along the lines of…“Well she learned everything from her uncle, who’s bottle sits right next to it.” That one line was enough for people to feel a deeper connection to BOTH wines from BOTH producers. Even if the consumer knew nothing about the uncle’s winery, they still found the story intriguing and were more open to taking a chance on the wine. That line could have meant many things to them, a sense of tradition, of evolution, of family ties, or whatever, but it went to their heart and because they are damn good wines they often came back for more. Or to try the other if they had not already!
Stories connect people, to each other, to products, and to wines, but most importantly when they are unique they stand out, they are memorable. Too many wineries have similar stories, like a husband and wife left their big city high paying finance lives behind and bought their favorite winery. Good for them, but if the story sounds familiar then its because there is no more soul to it. It might have been romantic once upon a time, but sometimes stories can lose their luster, especially when there are copies of it. In order to be effective a story has to be unique, be that in its entirety or in a small detail.
Oh, and DON’T FORGET YOU STILL HAVE TO HAVE AN AMAZING PRODUCT!!!
A beginning, middle and no end
Every great story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But when your story is a vital corner of your business the story can have no end. End of story means end of business. Your story has its beginnings, what inspired you, what got you started, and what set you on your path. Your story has its middle parts, the actions you took to make your dream a reality. But your story has no end. The consumer is not meeting you at the end, but they are meeting you at a place where you are ready to show them.
In wine each vintage can represent a new chapter, and the story of any winemaker is about how the beginning and middle have given them the tools to write each chapter. How you choose to write them is up to you. You can aim to keep things consistent, or yours can be a story of change and adventure while seeking out new vineyards to work with. In any case the story continues, and this is what gives wine such a strong selling point…it evolves! The customer is not just listening to your story but joining you in it. They move along with you from vintage to vintage, chapter to chapter, some they will love and some the wont.
With wine, the story never ends. It just keeps going and can take the wine lover on what could end up being a lifetime journey.
Having greater online accessibility is a fantastic way for wineries to sell wine direct to consumers, but the fight does not end at simply having a website and some social media profiles. The opportunities afforded by Supreme Court rulings in recent history have made the direct to consumer channel much broader and all the more valuable as additional states have opened themselves up to direct wine commerce.
What’s old is old
Most analysts and business people will say that the current direct to consumer channels are the most crucial to a small winery’s profitability and existence. However these traditional DtC channels are expensive to run and maintain. Winery tasting rooms have to be manned, supplied, and serviced with great attention to detail while wine clubs have significant churn rates over longer periods.
While the magic of a tasting room visit can never be matched by any other occasion, and its ability to convert tastings into sales is unrivaled, we have to acknowledge that the memories will fade over time. A visitor from another state will have a long memory of your wine, perhaps even sign up for a wine club. It sounds awesome right? As a winery you have given someone a few sips of wine and then been able to send them three bottles a month for an infinite amount of time. While churn rates are low in the first few months, as the memory of the visit fades the churn rate will inevitably increase. Industry experts put the average lifespan of a wine club member at 18 months. So what happens to your relationship with that consumer after that? Or do you focus on new and keep churning through them? This is an old business model, and while still valuable, it neglects some of the core opportunities afforded to businesses through other channels of communications, channels that allow businesses of all sorts to maintain closer, more intricate, and more enthusiastic communications with their consumers.
Direct to consumer channels can be more valuable to a winery than any other channel if they manage to leverage direct to consumer communications. Email lists, social media, and the constant innovations in new digital platforms allows small wineries to put themselves deeper into the mind space of wine lover in the same way that bigger wineries, and even other bigger brands and companies do.
Though the task seems daunting, keeping a closer relationship through digital channels allows the end consumer to feel closer to you. For someone who visited a tasting room it is an opportunity to extend that magic, but perhaps the greatest part of all of this is the thought that your greatest advocates, lovers, and most hardcore wine fans may never set foot inside your tasting room at all.
If we look back to the idea covered earlier in the article of traditional channels as means of discovery for consumers, channels that essentially drive trial, then can be further engaged with and acted upon. The idea behind the tasting room is to bring the wine lover into the world of the winery and winemaker, traditional sales channels can open the door to doing just that through digital experiences, experiences that can be easily maintained and activated.
Real engagements for real consumers
These digital experiences also lighten the burden of the wine club by acknowledging the reality of the wine consumer of today. While in the past wine consumers were more likely to find a winery (or a few wineries) which they loved and build extensive collections, verticals of different vintages, and eager to build upon their favorite wines, today’s consumer is more open that ever to experiment and enjoy wines that are ideal for drinking right away, rather than stashing away. Ask yourself if a subscription model of monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly wine deliveries really makes sense to that consumer.
Consumers today want to play around, drink different wines, made from different winemakers, and from different places. But that does not mean they are never going to come back, or exercise some sort of loyalty. Amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, loyalty is more about rewarding the brands that you love rather than remaining adhered to one or a select few. The key to unlocking that is a string of engagement, keeping them informed, in the loop, and up to date on what is going on in your world. If your story is continuously unfolding, then you have to continuously
In the end
As retail and restaurants make their selections ever more selective combined with the consolidation of the distribution side of the industry and its excessive power and ever deeper selections, it has become more and more difficult for smaller wineries to break through. So instead of battling through crowded channels it is important that small wineries make their own way by turning everything on its head and focusing on direct. If small wineries can focus their direct channels on customer engagement instead of old school wine clubs they will have more consumers who stay longer and spend more.