The 3 best and worst sales tools for small wine & spirits brands

The modern sales environment has never been more challenging for small wine & spirits brands, and it won’t be improving any time soon. But thriving and surviving IS possible if you’re wielding the right tools for the job at hand which is building high quality distribution and lots of it.

At the top of the list for the 3 BEST tools is your mindset. “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” should be your mantra. “If it’s important to us, we’ll have to do it ourselves,” is what you should say every day to the face in the mirror. With every fiber of your being, you must avoid the temptation to reach for one of the 3 worst tools (below). YOU are responsible for building distribution. YOU are responsible for generating demand. YOU are responsible for absorbing the learning curve necessary for survival in the modern era.

Next is leveraging digital & social media to generate demand for your products. Facebook advertising, landing pages, email marketing and, of course, your website. Everything must me optimized to capture data. Data that can be used to target and build relationships with both consumers and trade. Some of this data will be captured by the Facebook Pixel. Some accumulates via your various lead-gen forms on your website and landing pages. If you think this stuff is confined to the realm of fancy pants marketing gurus, you’d be wise to reconsider. YOU or someone on your team needs to not only learn about this but master it. If necessary, find a TRUSTED expert to help you.

The third best tool is awareness of your options. It continually amazes me how shockingly unaware most small producers are of the options for selling, distributing and managing sales activities of their products. If you’re not familiar with following companies, strategies, and platforms, I suggest you give yourself a crash course asap. LibDib, SevenFifty, GreatVines, Provi, BevStrat, Green Glass Global, Equinox Technology Partners, Bevology, winery direct programs, clearing distributors, Merchant 23, BlueCart, Tennessee v. Blair just for starters. What you want to be aware of is anything that disrupts the status quo because, quite frankly, your livelihood and life’s work depends upon it.

My list of the 3 worst tools is counter-intuitive for most and downright offensive to some. But, don’t shoot the messenger. Somebody must tell you the emperor has no clothes. Might as well be me.

For decades and decades, working with distributors was the number one tool in the small brand sales tool box. Unfortunately, due to the astonishing proliferation of new brands (most of them small) and the rich-getting-richer consolidation of the wholesale tier, this is no longer the case. I can’t overstate this enough: when it comes to small brands, distributors just can’t do much for you. The best they can do is match your efforts and even that is a big stretch. Accept it. Adjust to it. Move on. The good news is most of your competitors simply refuse to accept this new reality so, for at least the next 3-5 years, you’ve got a first-mover advantage. Start relying less and less on your distributors now so you can enjoy a thriving enterprise for many years to come.

The second worst tool is product knowledge. Nothing wrong with it. Got to have it. But having it, investing in it and spending time on it won’t move the needle on your sales in any meaningful way. It’s simply not enough. Most of the wine & spirits industry reveres product knowledge over business acumen. I implore you to get the heck off that train. Again, nothing wrong with product knowledge, just don’t expect too much from it. The wine & spirits industry suffers from two powerful but opposing forces: romance & hedonistic passion on one end and cruel & pitiless competition on the other. While your top salesperson is describing soil types and degree days through moist eyes and tremored discourse, his competitor is on the phone confirming a winery-direct order for a 20-foot container.

The third on the list of worst tools for wine & spirits sales is activity. Not really a “tool” per se but it is high on the list of things-to-do-to-sell-more for most small brands. I’m talking here about the flawed mindset that more sales calls equal more sales. Or that more activity means more achievement. Not necessarily. When a small family winery or craft distillery goes out of business, a post-mortem analysis will reveal they had no regard for the 80/20 Rule. They tolerated way too much low-value activity from their sales team. They sacrificed the best on the altar of the good. The path of the productive, however, is one of prioritization, focus, and discipline. Less really is more. And it’s a good thing because small brands have so much less of everything than the larger players.

About the Author:
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
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The Single Best Way to Accelerate Your Wine & Spirits Sales

Of all the things you could do to accelerate your sales, this one is by far the most impactful -shift your time, energy, investment and focus away from low value accounts and restrict yourself to only the high value target accounts. Not all accounts are equal – not by a long shot. In fact, the accounts capable of the most volume do about 20 times more volume the average accounts.

But, please don’t take my word for it. Look no further than the Comptroller’s office in Austin which shows the top 50 on premise accounts in Texas buy 19 times as much wine as the average of the top 10,000 accounts. (I didn’t even include the bottom 16,000 accounts in my analysis). If I had, these comparisons would be even more dramatic. Even if you narrow the analysis to just the top 500 on-premise accounts in the state, the top 50 do 3 times the volume of the average of the next 450 accounts. The 80/20 Rule is real, folks!

So, let’s say the average wine & spirits salesperson can reasonably take responsibility for 50 accounts over the course of 1-2 months’ time. WHICH 50 ACCOUNTS ARE YOU GOING TO CALL ON? Keep reading for a few clues.

Now YOU know the single best way to dramatically grow your sales. Narrow the focus of your time, energy, and investment to ONLY the most attractive and responsive accounts. This means if you’re not already practicing this discipline, at the very least you should be able to triple your sales by adopting this simple strategy.

Naturally, this begs the question: why don’t more salespeople do it? Several reasons. First, no one above them is directing them to do it. Second, they allow themselves to be led around by the distributor sales folks who, in spite over their best efforts, lack the freedom to apply the 80/20 Rule to their jobs. Lastly, very few if any sales people or sales leaders stop to analyze the account base and identify the highest value targets in each market. Even if they committed themselves to the exercise, most wouldn’t know where to begin. BTW, don’t waste your time asking the distributor and lists like Zagat and Wine Spectator don’t show you where the VOLUME is being done.

Texas makes it easy. They identify the exact accounts for you (for free). But what about the other 49 states? How do you identify the richest targets in those states? Well, the truth is all you need is a high-speed internet connection and a little help from someone like me who knows exactly where to look and what to look for.

Just one last thing. For those skeptics reading this article who might say, “Most of the top accounts aren’t accessible to small family wineries and craft distilleries,” or “What you say is true in theory, but in the real world the top accounts are controlled by the big suppliers and big distributors.” To these doubters, I simply reply, “Would you like to visit The Post Oak Hotel, the Gaylord Texan, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, B&B Butchers, Nick & Sam’s and III Forks (all in the top 10 on premise accounts in Texas) with me to see if we can find evidence of them buying wines or spirits from the ‘little guys?’” If you accept, you’d better bring a toothpick because crow tends to get stuck in your teeth in the worst way.

About the Author:
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The Secret to Selling Wine & Spirits On Premise

I call this is a “secret” because, it seems, so few people know about it. I recognize there are a solid number of you reading this who will say, “Duh, I’ve been selling this way my whole career.” And, I for, one salute you for it. We need more of you so keep setting a good example. But, for the rest of you ham-handed, self-centered hacks who don’t have a clue what makes someone buy one product over another, allow me to use this forum to enlighten you. Selling wine, spirits, beer (or anything) is not about you or your product.

Here’s what else it’s NOT about: price, taste, ratings, presentations, and all manner of “product attributes.” I’ve got news for you. Your wine is not that special and there are a thousand others just as good at the same price. You can sit there and talk until your blue in the face (or the buyer’s is red) and babble on about your oak regimen and lees stirring and soil types. At the end of the day, in a restaurant operation, none of that matters.

The best place to start having success selling wine and spirits (or anything else) to restaurants is to take the focus off yourself and your wares and put it on the buyer and the restaurant operation you are selling to. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, what makes a restaurant buyer choose one product over the other rarely has anything to do with the product itself. It has to do with the person selling it and that person’s ability to service the account.

Service. Dependability. Trust. THESE are the things that matter to restaurant operators! Will you make sure they don’t run out of product? Will you be there for them when they need an emergency delivery? Will you take the time to educate their staff (not just on your products but on all their products)? Will you honor the price you quoted? Will you keep all the promises you made? Can they reach you when they need you? Will you keep your excuses to yourself? Will you put their needs ahead of yours?

You see, restaurants are all about service. They “get” service and place a very high value on it because that is the “currency” of their business. As a seller to restaurants, you must understand what is important to your buyers. Every restaurant wants three things above all else: grow revenue, control costs, and improve guest satisfaction. How will doing business with YOU help them achieve those objectives?

Put down your spit cup and your aroma wheel for a second and ponder these things: The keys to growing revenue in a restaurant operation are to increase foot traffic, increase incidence, and raise the check average. Can you help your buyer do that? Controlling costs is about reducing inventory, increasing efficiency, minimizing waste, and stabilizing prices. Can you help your buyer do that? Improving guest satisfaction is all about delighting guests with quality, value and experiences. Can you help your buyer do that?

When you walk in the door with your sample back full of products you need to sell, where is your focus? It’s certainly not on the customer. When you do more talking than asking questions, are you exhibiting sales professionalism? Absolutely not and your ineptitude offends not only the buyer but every professional salesperson out there. You give sales a bad name.

Would you like to sell more wine or spirits? Would you like to blow away your quotas and consistently pocket hefty bonus checks? Would you like to win more incentive trips? Would you like to keep your boss off your back? Then, here’s the secret: the more you act like a “salesperson,” the less you will sell.

Selling is not about product presentations, overcoming objections, and closing skills. Not real selling, anyway. It’s about service, dependability and trust. It’s about providing business value to your customer relationships. If you consistently seek to provide these things to restaurants, bars, and hotels, you will “own” the by-the-glass list, the wine list, the room service list, the banquet list, the happy hour list, the late-night list, the well, and the back bar. You will have earned the right to dominate your territory. And all your competitors will scratch their heads and wonder who you slept with or who you bribed because their feeble minds are incapable of “getting it.” To the amateur, success in selling will forever remain: a secret.

The No 2 Problem in the Wine Sales Game

What makes wine sales a “game” is there are winners and losers. These days, the losers outnumber the winners by a significant margin. And, like all games, there are strategies and tactics to not only increase your chances of winning but decrease your chances of losing. Pat Riley, one of the smartest coaches ever in the NBA famously said, “Figure out what causes you to lose and stop doing it.”

The No. 1 cause of losing in the wine sales game is depending too much on your distributors. But a close second is tolerance of low value activity. I call this “heat loss.” A lot of time, energy, money, and sweat poured into activity with extremely low return on investment. Lots of “heat” being generated but most of it evaporates into the atmosphere.
Examples? Treating all retailers and restaurants as if they had the same value. Selling to accounts incapable of buying serious volume (say, 5 cases per week or more per SKU). Selling one case at a time to an account that never buys that wine again. Ever. Spending lots of time and money traveling all over the place. Wasting precious marketing funds on trade activities that are more show and not much go.

Whatever you measure, you get more of. Measure accounts sold, you’ll get a lot of accounts sold. No two ways about it, this is an industry metric that needs to taken out behind the barn and put down. It’s a “hollow” metric that assumes all accounts are equal which they most certainly are not.
While there is some value in knowing how many accounts in each market are buying your product, it only tells a tiny part of the story. Winners want to know how many accounts buy every month (# of engaged accounts). Winners want to know how many cases each account buys when they buy (velocity). Winners want to know exactly which 20% of the accounts are capable of purchasing 80% of all volume in the market.

What we’re talking about here is the QUALITY of distribution. Here’s something to tattoo on your brain: activity does not equal achievement. Whenever I hear a salesperson talk about how busy they are, I immediately get concerned. What they’re saying is, “I don’t really have a disciplined, strategic approach to my territory.” Show me a salesperson who is harried, and I’ll show you someone without a plan. Whose fault is this? NOT the salesperson’s. It’s the leadership’s fault for not providing direction and accountability for results.

Here’s another thing wine companies do wrong – measure the number of sales calls made or days-on-the-street required. More sales calls rarely equal more sales. You want more sales (and who doesn’t)? Put a hard, cold stop to low value activities and re-allocate the hours, headcount, investment to higher value activities. A less-is-more approach, while hard to wrap your head around, truly is the ticket to accelerating sales performance. Working smarter not harder is not only possible, but mandatory. But, my oh my how few people in our industry know how to execute this.

So, what is the best way to measure and re-calibrate the value of sales activities? Disciplined use of a CRM system embedded with the highest quality RAD data you can buy. Very expensive. Steep and time-consuming learning curve. Lots of push-back from your sales team. But, let’s cut to the chase, here. If your sales are not what you want them to be, can you really afford to maintain the status quo? Fire the bottom 10% of your sales team that consistently under-performs and use the money to buy RAD + CRM. The wine business has become a very serious business. Which means its time to take the gloves off and get serious. As always, I’m happy to show you how.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

The Environment for Selling Wine Has Changed. Have You? Introducing the “Modern” Playbook

The “game” of selling wine in the US has changed a great deal in the last 5-10 years but you’d never know it because most wine companies are still operating out of the “old playbook.”

What’s changed? Two things, primarily, and then a whole bunch of smaller things. The two big shifts are a) consolidation at the distributor level and b) an explosion of new wines available in the market from all over the world.

The smaller shifts are positive things, actually, but many are overlooked or under-utilized by most wineries and these include: Direct-to-trade advertising (Facebook + Landing Pages + Email Marketing); Alternatives to “traditional” distributors (Merchant 23 and LibDib); Better RAD data (SRS data from VIP); Adoption and use of CRM.

If your winery is still running plays out of the old playbook it’s likely you weren’t happy with your sales results for 2018. What are the most popular plays in the old playbook? Educating the distributors; working with the distributors, meeting with the distributors; creating incentives for the distributors, etc. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, these plays used to be wildly affective but no longer pack the same punch – not by a long shot.

Well, it’s a brand-new year and, with the reset button pressed, you’ve got an opportunity to do things differently in 2019 (and the years ahead). Why not try running a few plays out the NEW and more modern playbook? If you’re not sure what those plays are, here are some of the real game-changers.

1) Rely less and less on your “traditional” distributors to build distribution for you. Adopt the mantra: if it’s important to us, we’ll have to do it ourselves. For more details, click here.

2) Leverage the 80/20 Rule in everything you do. For example, you should identify the highest value “targets” in each market you are in and narrow the focus of time, energy, and investment to ONLY these targets.

3) Measure the right things. Accounts sold is a hollow metric. It assumes all accounts are of equal value which they most certainly are not. Instead, measure things like points of distribution within your target accounts, sales per POD (velocity), and customer engagement (how many accounts buy your products month after month after month).

4) Hold your sales people accountable for RESULTS. Activity does not necessarily equal achievement. Nothing matters but results. No excuses. No blaming the distributor. No blaming the market conditions. You do this by acquiring your own RAD data and tracking all activity using a CRM system (preferably one that is specific to our industry). Relentlessly prohibit “low value” activities.

5) If you are a small family winery, don’t use “traditional” distributors. Instead, approach major accounts (both on and off) DIRECTLY. Use “clearing distributors” to get the goods delivered. This is called the “winery-direct” approach and was popularized by Total Wine & More. In response to the competitive threat of Total Wine & More, major retail chains like HEB, Spec’s, ABC Liquors, and many others (all over the country) are very keen to establish their own relationships directly with wineries. This strategy is all about providing MUCH greater margins to the retailer. Funds that used to go the traditional distributors are used to accomplish this. The other element that makes this work so well is providing wines that are not in broad distribution, so the consumer has no way to compare prices.

6) Take advantage of opportunities provided by Merchant 23 and LibDib to sell to the trade without using a traditional distributor. It is vital small family wineries become intimately familiar with these options.

7) Establish a very robust “direct to trade” marketing strategy using a combination of Facebook advertising, Landing Pages, and Email Marketing. It is essential that small wineries create, grow and nurture their OWN relationships with on and off premise wine buyers. You must learn how to reach them, get them to “opt in” to your email list and how to market to them.

8) Engage tens of thousands of consumers directly using social media advertising and email marketing

In the nearly five years I’ve been consulting for wineries and craft distilleries on their sales & marketing strategies, I continue to be shocked at the scores of companies who aren’t even aware a new and modern playbook exists. But the winds of change are in the air and I, for one, am going to beat the drum and sound the trumpet much more loudly in 2019. As if my life and business depended on it. Yours certainly does.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

Resolve to Have a Lean, High-Performance Sales Team in the New Year

As a consultant to wineries and craft distilleries, people sometimes pay for my advice and then don’t take it. But, I’m about to offer some free guidance you’d be wise not to ignore. The 80/20 Rule is most definitely real, and it applies to your sales team as well. You can dramatically accelerate your sales in 2019 by dismissing the (consistently) worst performing 20% of your sales people and re-allocate the money you’ll save to invest in the data and technology you’ll need to get even more production from the rest of your sales team.

The truth is almost all sales teams have “fat” or waste or at the very least terrible inefficiencies. This waste (which I like to call heat loss) occurs when leaders allow their salespeople to operate without strict adherence to a disciplined strategy and without reasonable accountability. Left unchecked, the money, effort and time spent on sales activities results in an unacceptably low return on investment. The activities are there, all right (along with a shoebox full of receipts). Just not the results.

All salespeople who do not achieve their distribution and volume goals have one thing in common: a well-rehearsed arsenal of excuses. And these excuses often flow upstream to the C-suite. The New Year is a good time to put a stop this nonsense and begin holding people accountable for RESULTS.

The formula I preach on how to consistently and profitably achieve your distribution and volume goals is no secret: 1) depend less and less on your distributors, 2) leverage the 80/20 Rule, 3) measure the right things, and 4) hold people accountable for results. Sales leaders and owners: if your sales team is falling short and you are NOT doing these four things, it’s up to you to do something about it.

The calendar is about to turn to 2019. The data, technology and best practices exist to eliminate all excuses for nonperformance. The days of your distributors being able to do most of the heavy lifting are long gone. The sooner you accept this reality, the sooner you can begin to make the necessary adjustments. The New Year is a good time to throw out the old playbook and start running plays out of the NEW and more modern playbook.

For example, stop coddling your sales people by allowing them to draw a fat paycheck but not log every sales call in your CRM system. Stop revering wine knowledge and certifications above solid business acumen. In case you haven’t noticed, its ten times more competitive today than it was ten years ago. Wine knowledge is great, but it is nowhere near enough.

Perhaps one of the best New Year’s resolutions you can make for 2019 is stop treating all accounts as if they are of equal value. The outdated measurement, “accounts sold,” assumes all accounts are capable of the same volume which they most certainly are not. The #1 factor in accelerating sales performance is to severely restrict all activity and investment (time and $$) to only the most attractive and responsive accounts. Aside from the obvious fact you must first identify these accounts, you must also have a CRM system in place to track and monitor progress against them.

In just a few weeks, the clock will stop ticking on 2018 and you’ll know for certain what kind of year you had in terms of business results. If you are among the thousands of wineries and craft distilleries who will fall short of their goals, its time to make some serious adjustments for the New Year. And, as always, I am standing by to help.

About the Author
Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.
Contact info:

How to leverage email marketing to sell more wine & spirits to the TRADE

Don’t let anyone tell you email marketing is dead. It’s only the people who don’t know what they are talking about that spout such nonsense. Almost all wineries and many distilleries currently leverage email marketing on the DTC side of their business. But, it’s on the TRADE sales side of the business that email marketing is drastically underutilized. A big reason for this is the actual people (team members) who design and execute DTC email marketing campaigns are not the same people responsible for TRADE sales.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work. Email marketing – done right- IS hard work. There is also a steep learning curve because you’ve got to master a new piece of software (i.e. Constant Contact or MailChimp, etc). Besides, isn’t it the distributors’ job to sell wine to the trade? Right. So, how’s that workin’ for ya?

If your winery or distillery is not using email marketing now to sell more products to the trade, you might want to take a few minutes and read the rest of this article.

Just imagine for a second you had in your possession, say, one thousand email addresses of sommeliers, restaurant owners, independent package store owners, and other various buyer roles in the trade AND you understood how to market your wares to them using email marketing. You would have one of the lowest-cost, highest return routes to market on the planet. You could generate so much new revenue you could easily afford to pay a person to do this full time at a fraction of the cost of a “traditional” sales rep. No company car, no travel allowance, no bloated salary. When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” he was surely talking about email marketing.

This strategy should appeal to smaller producers of wine & spirits with a tiny (or no) sales team because they don’t stand a chance in the 3-tier environment. Once you know how to a) reach potential buyers and b) get them to “opt in” to your email list your fortunes will surely improve. This is best accomplished by using a magical combination of Facebook ads + Landing Pages + Email Marketing. You use the Facebook ads to target potential buyers and you collect their email addresses along the way. That’s where the Landing Pages come in – this is the key to “converting” all the traffic you’ve generated to actual email addresses. Once you have the email addresses, you can start building relationships directly with the buyers.

Sounds too far-fetched? Sounds too good to be true? Well, truth be told, there is a catch. Using Facebook advertising linked to Landing Pages that are integrated to your Constant Contact account is very difficult to do without expert assistance. But so are a lot of things in life that hold great value and potential. The good news is whatever it costs you to acquire this knowledge will be returned to you many times over. What would it be worth to control more of your own destiny? What would it be worth to rely less on your distributors? What would it be worth to have steady, predictable sales results?
I realize this very modern, very new approach to trade sales is tough to fully grasp and accept. But don’t let that discourage you from forging ahead. There are capable, knowledgeable people standing by to help you get started. Among these is our firm, of course, but also Merchant 23 and LibDib. Demand for smaller wine & spirits producers IS skyrocketing. Retailers DO benefit when distribution is done differently. And I’ve got news for you, many small wineries and craft distilleries are already doing it – even as you read this post!

Until May 6, 1954, no human being had ever run a mile in less than 4 minutes. Just 46 days later, a second person broke the barrier. A year later, three more did the same (in a single race, no less). In the 50 years since, over 1,000 runners have bested the 4-minute mark. My point is it’s too late for you to be the Roger Banister of email marketing trade sales. But, for heavens sake, don’t wait 50 years to get moving on this stuff!

About the Author

Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness. Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients. Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.

Contact info:

Keys to success selling wine in the US -What’s IN and what’s OUT?

I recently completed a survey from a wine trade organization that was seeking insights about what wineries from outside the US need to know to be successful in this market. I could tell by the questions they asked, this organization was clueless. I kept looking for “none of the above” as a response to the questions they asked.

So, once again, I find myself providing a public service to all wineries (both foreign and domestic) who are still operating under the delusion that somehow their story, their wines, and their marketing programs are unique enough and distinct enough to merit placement on wine lists and store shelves.

“Winning” in the marketplace today requires much more than product, package, price, and promotion. The four P’s are important, no doubt, but they are no where near enough. So, the big question is, if those things aren’t enough then what CAN you do?  What, then, ARE the keys to success selling wine in the US Market?  For those who are ready to hear it, here’s my list of what’s “in” and what’s “out.”

What’s “IN”

Working smarter not harder.

Less is more. Leverage the 80/20 Rule in everything you do. For heavens sake STOP confusing activity with achievement. Too many sales people spend their time on extremely low value activities. Selling one case of wine at a time should be a first-degree felony if you’re drawing a salary plus a company car and an expense account. Don’t step over a dollar to pick up a dime.

Direct to Trade.

Just about every major retailer – both on and off premise- plus any wine buyer with an IQ above room temperature has realized cutting deals directly with small, independent wineries and using clearing distributors to fulfill their orders is the way things get done nowadays. Why? Fatter margins, that’s why. Go to the websites of Merchant 23 and LibDib and read everything you can. Or don’t- and continue to wander aimlessly in the desert of despair.

Data and Technology

Buy your own RAD data. Implement CRM and then develop the intestinal fortitude to have everyone use it. I’ve got a short message to owners and sales leaders who pay good money for these things but let their highly paid sales team skip out on using them: grow a pair.

Key Account Targeting

Don’t rely on anyone outside your organization to determine where your products should be sold. Don’t rely on anyone outside your organization to identify the 20% of the accounts that drive 80% of the volume. Use your data and technology to restrict sales activity to only these accounts.

What’s “OUT”


This is really very simple. If it’s important to your winery and your brand, you’re going to have to do it yourself. YOU take responsibility for your own outcomes. Don’t blame it on the distributors if you’re not meeting your distribution and volume goals. They are doing the best they can amidst unimaginably challenging circumstances. The best they can do is amplify YOUR efforts. Help them help you. I guess it’s not so much that distributors are “out” as your unrealistic expectations of them are “out.”

Wine Education

Is it important? Yes. Is it compulsory? Yes. Will it drive sales and distribution? F— No! Wine knowledge is important but it’s nowhere near enough. Put down the wine glass, pick up a calculator. This is a BUSINESS! In fact, it’s one of the most capital-intensive businesses on the planet. Go have coffee with your CEO. Ask her about the company’s return on assets. Ask to see the Statement of Cash Flows. Ask her which she thinks is more mission critical to the company’s success – achieving the next level wine certification or a shit ton of revenue.


Our prices are too high. We didn’t get a good score. We sold all that wine to Costco last year and now we’re lapping those numbers. Our label won’t stand out on the shelf. We need better POS. We need to spend more on incentives. We need more salespeople. On and on it goes. Excuses are crutches for the weak. This is a very tough, very competitive business. Winery owners and sales leaders, here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice: Fire every sales person who can’t consistently deliver their numbers and use the money to implement the things on the “IN” list above. Don’t put up with excuses for one second. Don’t put it off, either. The best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree? Today.

Our industry puts up with too much coddling. We’re WAY too in touch with our “softer side.” Times have changed. Times are tough and tough times call for INNOVATION, new methods of operating and modern strategies. As a consultant to wineries – both inside and outside the US – one of my greatest joys is watching the light bulb come on for a winery owner. Seeing their eyes brighten as they realize there IS a better way to consistently sell all the wine they make and do it much more profitably. Then we BOTH smile as we realize so few people have really caught on to this. They are still running plays out of the old wine-sales playbook.  And that is great news for the rest of us who are all ready implementing the new one.

About the Author

Ben Salisbury is the Founder and President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. which specializes in helping wineries and craft distilleries achieve high levels of sales effectiveness.  Leveraging his knowledge and experience from three decades in the industry, Ben and his team deliver sales, marketing, and distribution expertise to a wide array of adult beverage clients.  Prior to starting his own company in May of 2014, Ben spent 17 years as VP of On Premise National Accounts for both Ste Michelle Wine Estates and Constellation Brands.

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The Pointlessness Insanity of a Wine Market Blitz

While I’m sure occasionally successful sales blitzes do exist, most of them are a giant waste of time and money. I know I’m going to get some vitriolic responses to this post but someone has to tell the emperor he has no clothes. Might as well be me.

There’s only one reason you would want to keep doing something that is not effective and that is if the thing you’re doing is really about something else. In the case of the time-honored wine market blitz (or crew drive), It’s about demonstrating activity. It is not really about selling more wine or building distribution. For proof, just look at the evaporative nature of these “new” points of distribution.

The standard playbook for the wine sales game has not changed very much, if at all, in the last 30 years. And, by far, one of the most dog-eared pages in that book is the market blitz. The idea is to send lots of people into the market place for a day (or multiple days) to present and taste a supplier’s wines to lots of buyers for the purpose of securing new distribution. In theory, it makes total sense. And, to be fair, there was a time in the late 80’s and early 90’s that it really worked. But here in 2018, anyone with a I.Q. above room temperature knows very few if any of those new placements “stick.”

Our industry venerates activity. It’s why we tally the number of sales calls we make. It’s why we want to see our sales people scurrying around having meetings with distributors, “working the market,” and filling out reports (so we can make sure there’s lots of activity). After all, it costs a fortune to have a sales team! To justify the expense, we expect to see people being “busy.” I read a lot of ads on and most of them include a bullet list of “essential functions” of a sales job. These dockets are rife with activity especially those activities having to do with the distributor.

Now, I have written extensively about the futility of expecting your distributors to get much done for you so there’s no need to belabor those points here. Suffice it to say most of the items on the list of activities to do with (and to) a distributor are useless. But, of all the activities you could squander precious resources on, the sales blitz is the most colossal waste of time imaginable. So, why do so many wine companies still do it? Do they really not “get” that none of those placements stick? Do they not realize the entire charade is orchestrated in advance even to the point of retail and restaurant buyers playing along?

The best way I can explain it is like eating one of those king-size Snickers bars. It feels fantastic when you’re in the middle of doing it. Managing distributors and their accompanying geographical scope is a very difficult job. It’s really hard to get a meeting with their management. It’s like pulling teeth to schedule salesperson ride-alongs. At times it feels like you’re getting nowhere. But a blitz! Oh, my heavens. It feels like everyone at the distributor has stopped what they are doing for a day or two and is focusing solely on you and your products. The happiest day in a winery salesperson’s life is at the end of the blitz day crowded around a small table in a dive bar quaffing cold beers (it’s always beer) with their “crew” swapping war stories and tallying the cases and placements. Sheer euphoria!
There’s only one problem. It was all for show. An illusion. A farce. A charade. And, if you ask me, a very poor substitute for doing the real, very un-sexy work of building high quality distribution that STICKS. Not sure how to do that? Give me a call and I’ll be happy to help you out of your straitjacket.

I Have A Distributor! Now What? (guest blogger, Sue Jones)

Congratulations, Mr./Ms. Supplier!  You’ve pitched your brand(s) and product strategy to a distributor, and they have agreed to sign you up.  Distributors have the warehouse capacity, teams of trained sales reps, and relationships with accounts across the state to grow your brand.  Time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Wait, what?  Unfortunately, having a distributor does not equate to immediate and automatic distribution, particularly for new brands.  Having worked in two tiers of the three tier system, I’ve experienced this painful reality many times.  Signing on with a distributor does give your company and brand(s) broader visibility to a statewide audience, but that’s when the selling really begins.  More opportunity means more work.

In the current economic climate, competition is especially fierce across all channels.  The beverage alcohol industry has gone through rapid and continuous transformation in recent history.  Consolidation in all three tiers of the industry has changed the dynamics dramatically.  The major suppliers are in acquisition mode and getting bigger.  Distributors are joining ranks and consolidating across state lines.  Retailers are constantly changing their business models to maximize profit, making slow and thoughtful brand building very difficult.  Add the increased number of new categories and entrants into an already crowded space, and we have quite a challenge.

Even so, there is still opportunity for success in beverage alcohol; you just have to be smarter and more focused than ever. Following are some DOs and one big DON’T for new or small suppliers that want to make their mark in the beverage alcohol space and impress their distributors.  Maybe some gentle reminders to large, more established suppliers too?

DO optimize your website for mobile devices.  Truly, this needs to be on top of the list.  Everyone has a cell phone, and everyone searches the Internet if they have a question.  When a user clicks on your website on their phone for the first time, the experience needs to be engaging and informative.  If your website takes too long to load or is hard to navigate, the user will lose interest and move on.  It seems so obvious, but how many websites have we clicked out of because it just took too long to get what we wanted?  There’s so much opportunity with social media, but that is a separate conversation!

DO spend time honing your brand strategy and priorities as well as developing the communication, marketing, and sales tools to support that strategy.  Make no mistake.  This is a lot of work, but the brand message needs to be a clear and concise conversation, from the supplier all the way to the consumer.  If you don’t have those defining points of differentiation, the only selling tool you really have available to you is price.  Price is a hard game to play in and even harder to win, especially when you’re trying to make a profit.

DO get out into the market and sell.   You developed a great brand and story to support it. You and your team are by far the most knowledgeable brand champions that can tell the story most passionately and eloquently.  It’s also the best way to find out how your story is resonating in the market and who is responding to it.  Here’s a little secret:  Distributors know which suppliers are out working the market and the ones that are not.  They will respond to your efforts accordingly.  It may sound strange that they notice, especially for larger distributors, but it’s true.

DO keep it simple.  Sell sheets, PowerPoint presentations, programming elements, the mantra is this:  Less is more.  If a sell sheet has the fine print of a car leasing contract or a PowerPoint presentation reads like War and Peace, it’s too much.  It’s not focused.  Think sound bites, especially when you are working with sales.  They have dozens and dozens of brands to sell; help them help you get your brand message out into the market quickly and easily.

DON’T assume.  A very sweeping statement, but this happens all the time because of lack of priorities and focus.  I have lots of stories around this topic because it’s an easy trap to fall into.  In short, if you find yourself saying “Well, they should know,” there’s likely a reason why they don’t.  From vague or incomplete brand information to lack of clear priorities, there’s lots of room for confusion and miscommunication.  Trust your gut; if you sense something is not happening as expected, proactively ask.  You won’t regret it.

Daunting.  I like the word “daunting.”  It sounds like what it means:  intimidating, difficult, discouraging.  Introducing a new brand in a new market is a daunting task, but it is not impossible.  Start small and build on your successes.  Once you get traction, it does get easier.  Well, maybe a little easier.

We would love to hear from you if you’d like more information about how to accelerate your sales using “modern” strategies and tools.

About the Author:

Sue is currently a Senior Consulting Director for Salisbury Creative Group, Inc. She has been in the beverage alcohol industry for over two decades in various sales finance leadership roles for companies such as Constellation Brands, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Edrington US, and Young’s Market Company.  She has moved across the country on purpose to get a better understanding of the intricacies of the beverage alcohol industry across geographies.  She is passionate about finding and sharing best practices.