If you make great wine, the world will beat a path to your door.

Such was the mantra for winemakers years ago.

But selling wine today is quite the opposite. Wooing wine lovers directly, enticing them with club memberships, special food and wine events, email blasts and more is essential, especially for small wineries.

“These were concepts unheard of years ago. But direct to consumer wine sales is huge. It’s the future,” said Tom Eddy, and founder and owner of Tom Eddy Winery, and president of the Calistoga Winegrowers Board of Directors.

Going the traditional route these days and paying a third party to put wine in retail stores or restaurants can cut a vintner’s profit by as much 30 percent. That’s why small- to mid-scale producers strive to sell at least half to three-quarters of the wine they make directly to consumers, retailers or restaurants, without a wholesaler, where regulations allow.

And, with consumers who are internet savvy and surfing for deals, a digital strategy is vital to growing sales, with customized advertising regionally and nationally, said Paul Leary, president, Blackbird Vineyards, a small winery with a tasting room in downtown Napa. Leary will participate in a panel discussion on direct to consumer wine sales at the Journal’s Impact Napa Conference Aug.30.

“Direct to consumer sales are growing at a phenomenal rate. Like with other things, consumers are going straight to the producer. With more and more U.S. states (allowing wine) to ship to the opportunity is massive. Just pay attention to your price point. Don’t (waste time) trying to market a $100 bottle of wine to someone who buys wine at $15 bottle,” Leary said.

From April 2016 to April 2017, direct to consumer shipments in the U.S. were up 13 percent, according to Peter Mitham and Wines Vines Analytics/Ship Compliant.

In 2012, direct to consumer sales represented 49 percent of overall revenue for wineries. Five years later, in 2017 that number is 61 percent, according to a Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine industry report.

Also in 2016, Sonoma County led the way in value of direct-to-consumer wine shipments with an industry-leading growth of 29 percent, twice as fast as Napa, according to the 2017 Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report.

But Napa is catching up.

As president and CEO of C. Mondavi and Family Brands, which includes Charles Krug Winery, Judd Wallenbrock points out that wine clubs are nothing new. In the early 1900’s the winery was the first in the Valley to have club members. Wine clubs generally ship members wine monthly or quarterly that they otherwise would otherwise have to fine and purchase on their own.

The irony is that the winery, which puts out about 60,000 cases of wine per year, has only started to ramp up direct to consumer sales in the last few years, and constitutes only 4 percent of sales.

Newly at the helm in June, Wallenbrock, who will also sit on the panel at the conference, said he expects the winery’s direct sales number to rise to about 40 percent in a few years.

Recently, the company heavily invested in a tasting room renovation in its historic building in St. Helena, and it also travels across the U.S., bringing its wines to privately hosted parties in people’s homes.

While a typical portion of direct sales revenue for smaller wineries is 30-40 percent, Jessup Cellars, with a tasting room in Yountville, puts out about 9,000 cases per year and 100 percent of its sales are direct to consumer, Wallenbrock said.

Eddy’s operation in Calistoga is also a little unusual in that more than 80 percent of the winery’s sales are direct. Eddy’s wines have developed a following, and most sales are from visitors to the winery, he said.

But while visitors readily travel around Napa, getting them further north to Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga is a challenge, Eddy said.

Recently, instead of luring visitors to travel further north, Calistoga Winegrowers brought their wine to consumers in San Francisco.

Following in the footsteps of other organizations, like Howell Mountain Grapegrowers, in the Napa Valley community of Angwin, who have orchestrated such events in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Calistoga Uncorked brought representatives from 31 wineries to an event for wine shop buyers and the general public at the Presidio.

For its first year, the turnout was good, Eddy said, with 120 trade groups and 160 wine lovers. Not a lot of wine got sold, as most were not prepared to do so, but that wasn’t the main goal.

“This was mainly to bring attention to the AVA and the community (of Calistoga),” he said. “A lot trade people commented that the reason they came is because they never had a chance before to see all the Calistoga winemakers in one room. Next year we’ll be prepared to sell. That’s the number one comment when we got back. Have brochures with prices, room to make notes, that’s really the key.”

Calistoga Winegrowers also hold an annual public tasting in the town’s Pioneer Park. Due to state regulations, winegrowers technically cannot sell wine at the event. However, Eddy is happy to take down a consumer’s information and what they want, and deliver it later.

“It’s kind of a gray area. Is that a sale you just made?” Eddy said.

Also pushing direct sales are partnerships for food and wine events, said Eddy and Wallenbrock.

“There’s an amazing amount of momentum that’s building (with partnerships). I get at least an email a week from someone who wants to partner with us for something, some event. Some are even outstate wanting to bring groups in,” he said.

The Napa Valley Vintners also assist members in direct sales by sending weekly emails about opportunities for wineries to host different groups.

Direct phone sales is another option. A winegrower can hire a company to go through the company’s mailing list and call consumers about a new wine, offer a discount, and build a relationship.

One way to move a lot of wine fast is through a “flash” sales site. Flash is an internet-based sales event whereby a company- which could consist of two guys in a conference room- to sending an email blast to their email list—which could be more than 50,000—pitching wine over a 24-hour campaign. A winery could move 200 cases of wine overnight.

“The trick is they (flash operators) want it at wholesale price,” Eddy said.

It’s a dangerous mechanism, he added, as the winegrower has no control over what price a bottle will be priced at. There are about 15 well-known flash sites in the industry, and by nature they need to move product fast and could drop prices drastically, and there goes your reputation.

“If the flash people sell a $45 bottle of wine for $29.99, somewhere along the line there’s going to be a good friend or buyer who sees that. It’s like dealing with the devil,” Eddy said.

“Some (sites) I just can’t deal with because they are out of control (with pricing). A lot of small wineries may not know about flash sites, but they are contributing a significant portion of small winery sales.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.