Wine Knowledge Matters, But WAY Less Than You Think

I’m sure to draw some fire for uttering such blasphemy, but if you take a very hard, very honest look at what’s really going on in the wine business today, you’ll see that wine knowledge, while very necessary, is no longer sufficient to compete and win. And, that’s my whole point. No matter how much you know or what levels of certification you’ve achieved, it’s not enough to overcome the intense competition for wine menus and shelf space. Too many wines, too few distributors, and a generational shift in buying habits have changed the rules of the wine-selling game so dramatically, most wine companies who operate in “traditional” ways are struggling. A quick look at the latest US Nielsen data shows that of the 67 manufacturers who produce and sell 84% of all wine in the Nielsen universe, 55% of them are down in volume over the last year.

It should be no surprise that focusing on the where, how and by whom each wine is produced would be first and foremost in our minds. With the possible exceptions of cheese and child-rearing, wine is the most complicated and difficult subject on the planet to master. And this fascinates us because in addition to being complex, it’s also intensely pleasurable. For most of us, wine is literally essential to joyous living. But, wine is also a business. And being successful in business requires skills and knowledge that are as far less stimulating to our base instincts.

Take for example the chore of selling wine. For whatever reason, our industry is stuck on the notion that if salespeople just knew more about the product, they’d be able to sell it much better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve showed up at the annual national sales meeting of a wine company, saw “training” on the agenda, and knew exactly what that meant: we’ll be tasting a lot of wine.

OK, so now I’m really going to piss a lot of people off. The key to successfully selling wine (or anything, for that matter) has very little to do with product, presentation or persuasion and far more to do with solid business acumen and strategy. This is so difficult for most wine sales people to grasp because they didn’t join this industry to be “business people.” They want to learn and teach and pair stuff and feel superior and memorize as much as their brains will allow. Now, hear me out, please. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things. The problem comes when there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

The scales are tilting. It’s a dog fight. New abilities are needed. It’s about margins, not mid-palate. It’s about segmenting, not seamlessness. It’s about prioritization, not phenolics. While most are left-banking it and right-banking it, the REAL bank wants their money! I am not exaggerating when I say there are salespeople on the street today that can rattle off all the Crus of Beaujolais but don’t know the difference between markup and margin.

Even the measurements of success have changed but very few are paying attention. We think because (after 90 minutes of talking and tasting) we sold a case or two of wine that we’re doing our job. Distribution is one thing, but QUALITY distribution is something altogether different. Business savvy wine companies today measure the “stickiness” of high quality placements and the “velocity” that each point of distribution generates. There is rigor and discipline in their ground game.

Wineries today (especially those who are not profitably and consistently meeting their business objectives) need to take a hard look at their sales strategy and sales process. It is too skewed towards product knowledge? A solid foundational mastery of the product we sell is compulsory. But, it’s not enough. Let me just rewind that for emphasis: it is not enough. It’s time to start weaving in the disciplined best practices so essential to the business. If you’re not sure where to start of where to go for THIS type of training, my door is always open.

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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