Putting the Business Back in the Wine Business

People get into the wine business for various reasons but the most obvious one is they love wine. A quick Google search of the phrase, “Why I love wine” yields more than half a billion results. Half a billion! Once you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you are helplessly and hopelessly carried along on a never-ending quest for knowledge, discovery, and hedonistic pleasure. Wine quenches not only your soul’s thirst but your mind’s as well. History, tradition, geography, and health are just a few of the more cerebral facets of wine.

But, for all its romance and sensuality, wine is also serious business. Its commonly accepted that the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large fortune.  Between land, buildings, equipment, employees, and reams of regulations, starting a winery is one of the most capital-intensive endeavors on the planet. And even if you do everything right, you still must wait many years before you’re ready to bring your precious vino to market. And that, my friends, is when the proverbial s*#t gets real.

Selling all the wine you make is a hundred times harder than it was ten years ago. The consumers are there, no question. With the Baby Boomers on one end and the Millennials on the other, there is no shortage of people who want to buy wine. The problem is two-fold: tens of thousands of competing brands and fewer and fewer distributors. There is a bottleneck that continues to gets more constricting every year.

What remains shocking to me (and I addressed this at the Wine Industry Technology Symposium two summers ago) is how few wine companies have made the appropriate adjustments. A reasonable person would think, in the face of massive headwinds, sales executives would be ripping pages out of the old playbook by the dozen and sweating feverishly in front of their war-room whiteboards. But, nope. They just keep running the same old plays. Wine education. “Managing” the distributors (it hurts just typing those words). Creating incentives. Planning crew drives and “work-withs.” Organizing trips to the wine country. Standing up and boring the snot out of people at a wine dinner.

So for those still asleep at the switch, and as a free public service, allow me to put a few modern strategies on your clipboard. It’s time to put the business back in the wine business. First, stop depending so much on your distributors. The days of distributors being able to do everything for you are long gone and they are never coming back. Next, invest in data, technology, and the best practices that go with them. Put down the Riedel and pick up a keyboard and mouse (or better yet, an iPad). The 80/20 Rule is real, and you ignore it to your peril. The data and the tools exist to be much more strategic in the use of your sales resources (time, people, dollars). The key to accelerating sales growth is to narrow the focus of your activity to only the most attractive and responsible accounts. The data will tell you what accounts those are. Thirdly, throw out the “old school” measurements like shipments, depletion, and accounts sold and start tracking POD against target accounts, sales per point of distribution (velocity), and level of market penetration. Lastly, hold people accountable for results. CRM is the answer and since you now have a keyboard in front of you, start searching the internet for articles on why it’s so valuable. Don’t worry about how your sales team will respond.  If you can’t change your people, change your people.

Nothing I said in the previous paragraph is sexy. None of it is romantic or hedonistic or even remotely sensual. But it is absolutely mission critical if you want to survive. There will be a time and place to put up your feet and watch the light play off your magical elixir. But not before you’ve sold all that wine stacked up in the warehouse.

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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