In the intensely competitive world of wine sales, wholesale and retail sectors are consolidating. Amazon, WineDirect and other online outlets are expanding direct-to-consumer sales, making wine-buying as easy as clicking a button. Local governments are tightening visitor restrictions on tasting rooms, narrowing a crucial road wineries use to drive sales to consumers. There are more labels today than ever, making it difficult for a wine to stand out from the crowd.
What’s a winery to do? Go old school.
Landing on the wine lists of the top restaurants in the country is still an effective way to distinguish a wine. In an effort to do that, more and more wineries and wine companies are increasing their outreach to sommeliers, or wine stewards, and wine directors to personalize and distinguish their brands.
On-premises sales at restaurants and bars still represent about 16 percent of the average winery’s business, according to one survey, and these tastemakers can help build a buzz for a label or a region that can translate into consumer loyalty down the road. In some cases, such as Meiomi Wines, it can help launch a brand into massive sales.
“You can create the super ambassador for the brand. You can find people who maybe appreciate Sonoma County more,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group. The winegrowers believe so strongly in such outreach that it is hosting a group of 10 sommeliers Oct. 8-10 during the peak of harvest for many grape growers. “It’s really more about giving them a hands-on experience,” she said.
There’s a long tradition of that outreach within the industry. The most notable example is the late Jess Jackson, who personally buttonholed Manhattan restaurateurs in 1982 and convinced them to take the first cases of his Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. He offered steep discounts to skeptical managers to get his bottles placed on their wine lists, and the perseverance eventually paid off, including acceptance at the famed Tavern on the Green. His Vintner’s Reserve label went on to become one of the most popular chardonnays in the country.
Napa vintner Joe Wagner founded his Meiomi brand in 2006. Wagner, in an interview earlier this year, talked about consciously making an effort to get his jammy pinot noir label into restaurants, despite the difficulty of breaking through. “Getting sommeliers to buy into wine can often be almost impossible. You are dealing with such an array of different palate preferences,” he said.
Wagner’s goal was to get placed on wine-by-the-glass programs, especially because they are a less-costly purchase than buying the whole bottle.
“I feel that is a good place for exposure,” he said. “If people like the wines, they will continue to buy them.”
The outreach allowed Meiomi to grow at a more measured pace, he said, before it really took off in the retail marketplace. It sold more than 800,000 cases before it was purchased in 2015 to Constellation Brands Inc. for a whopping $315 million.
“It doesn’t grow at a level that is crazy — like when you get into retail. It grows at an organic level,” Wagner said of restaurant sales.
Still, the market is increasingly harder to crack because of consolidation in wine distribution. In addition, the largest vintners are venturing more and more into the premium market, where their size gives them a big advantage placing their wines on the lists of large chain restaurants and hotels, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division.