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Ben Salisbury

Ben Salisbury

Ben Salisbury is the founder and president of Salisbury Creative Group and a former sales executive with Constellation Brands, Ste Michelle Wine Estates, and Glazer’s Distributors.

For the last six years, Ben and his team have been providing new solutions, new skills and new strategies to struggling wine & spirits brands giving them the edge they need to survive and thrive in the new reality.

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6 Keys to Selling Fine Wine

6 Keys to Selling Fine Wine
6 Keys to Selling Fine Wine

Whether you call it “fine wine,” “high image wine,” or your “luxury portfolio,” I’m sure you’re looking for ways to sell more of it. This post will give you six keys to selling fine wine. There’s no question: when it comes to selling higher-image wines, you’ve got to be strategic and plan ahead. I hope these six keys will help you do that.

1. Stay out of the chains

My first point is this: stay out of the chains. I know that it’s very tempting to go after this business. I have nothing against the chains, there is a tremendous amount of volume to be had there, and there are plenty of chains with very high image and luxury wines. The problem is that once you get into one or two of these chains, you immediately alienate many (if not all) of the independent restaurants and all of the independent retailers. It is very challenging for restaurants and independent retailers to compete with the chains.

Stay out of the chains
Stay out of the chains

Consider this. Armed with the power of the internet at their fingertips, all a buyer has to do is go to winesearcher.com, put in the name of your brand, and they can immediately see who else is selling it. Worse than that, they can see what price they’re selling it for. So it’s easy to alienate one of the most important markets (independents). Yet, I see people do this all the time. They go after placements in chains because, in the wine industry, you’ve got to have cash flow.

But if you really want to be in this business long term, and you have a fine wine portfolio, you need to keep those particular brands out of the chains. Many wine companies have both a large commercial portfolio and a part of their portfolio that’s designated more toward the higher end of the business. You have companies that only sell fine wine. In both cases, if you want to be successful with the fine wine end of your portfolio, you must have the discipline to stay out of the chains.

2. Don’t rely too heavily on distributors

I’ve written about this point a lot, and people tend to take me out of context. I’m not saying, “don’t use distributors.” I’m not saying, “distributors aren’t important.” Of course they’re important — they’re essential. What I am saying is: don’t rely too heavily on them. When you’re selling luxury wines, it’s a lot of detail work. You’re selling a six-pack here, a case there, to a lot of different restaurants.

It is just not realistic to expect the distributors to do that kind of pick-and-shovel work. In the last six or seven years, something crazy has happened. The number of distributors in the US has gone down dramatically, while the number of wine brands in the market has blown up tremendously, creating this incredible bottleneck. Because of this, if you want to be successful with your fine wine, you can’t rely too heavily on the distributors who are overrun with business. What do you do instead? You’re going to have to go and build most of this distribution — which brings me to point three.

3. Put the right wines in the right places

For your long-term success, it is essential that you put the right wines in the right places. I spent many years working for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. We represented the Antinori portfolio, and I learned many things from Piero Antinori. One of the things he used to say is that he didn’t want his wines to elevate the restaurant; he wanted the restaurant to elevate his wine. 

Put the right wines in the right places
Put the right wines in the right places

For example, one of the wines he produced was Tignanello, one of the most sought-after wines in the world. He didn’t want a mom-and-pop spaghetti joint around the corner putting Tignanello on their wine list and saying, “Look at me, look at me. I have Tignanello.” That wasn’t accretive to his brand image. But if his wine was on the list that Per Se in New York, well, now that was something altogether different. That concept is very valuable. Put the right wine in the right places, meaning that you’re going to have to plan it out and do some research.

On Premise

Where are the highest-image restaurants? More than that, where are the highest image restaurants that are busy, that do private dining, that have brunch, outdoor seating — places that have the potential to go through a case or two of your wine in a month?

Some of these restaurants serve very expensive wines by the glass. It’s not uncommon for them to use wine preservation systems like Coravin or Repour and have a $50 glass of Burgundy. You have to research and find those places, put them on your target list and then go after those accounts specifically.

Off Premise

One of the most attractive account types to go after in the independent off premise is those accounts with a very robust e-commerce business — meaning they sell more wine from their website than they do in their brick-and-mortar store. It’s like having a virtually unlimited inventory. They don’t have to physically carry the product to sell it online. So, a fine wine buyer comes to the website; they see your brand, they place an order. That retailer turns around, orders a six-pack or a case from the distributor, and no one is the wiser that it wasn’t in stock. Putting the right wines in the right places is key to selling fine wine, but you’re going to have to do your homework and do some research.

4. Beware of blitzes and distribution incentives

This one might hurt a little bit, but hear me out. Our industry has been relying on these two tactics for decades. Take blitzes — also known as “crew drives” — for example. You get everybody together, focus on an item, pull a bunch of samples, spend a bunch of money on lunches and dinners, and everybody gets together and chants, “Rah, rah! Look how many new points of distribution we got!” 

Same thing with distribution incentives; salespeople get so much money for every new point of distribution at a minimum of six or three bottles — it doesn’t matter. Here’s the problem with both of these: those placements don’t stick. In fact, the entire industry is built on the churning of this type of activity. You spent a lot of time and money bringing people in; you did a big blitz. Guess what? There’s another one next week. And another one the week after that.

The Hamster Wheel

These retailers and restaurants are used to the revolving door of products in, products out. The only people who benefit from this are the distributor sales reps because they’re cashing in on the incentives. You, as the brand owner, don’t benefit at all from this type of churn. You must wake up and realize that these tactics are not effective anymore. They’re expensive, time-consuming, and generally a waste because these placements don’t stick.

Distribution Hamster Wheel
Distribution Hamster Wheel

See for yourself! Go check out how many of the placements from your last blitz actually stuck. Make a list of the new distribution you’ve got from your last distributor incentive. You will see that 90 days later, most of it is gone. The percentage of restaurants that buy your product only once should never be higher than 10%-15%. Indeed, you’re always going to have some of that. But if 50% or more of the distribution is fleeting, you have a big problem.

5. Avoid wine knowledge overkill

I know this will be another point that people are bound to get upset about, so hear this: there is nothing wrong with fine wine knowledge and accumulating certifications. My hat’s off to people who can do that. It’s very impressive. Unfortunately, it’s easy to overdo it in today’s competitive environment and assume that because I have this certification and I have a very gifted palette, I will automatically be good at sales. It is important, but it’s not enough. There are hundreds of people who have the same skills, including the buyers.

Balance your wine knowledge with solid business acumen
Balance your wine knowledge with solid business acumen

Instead, make sure you are balancing wine knowledge with solid business acumen. You need to understand the businesses you’re selling to, whether fine wine shops or high-image restaurants. You need to understand what motivates them, what their concerns are, and what keeps them up at night. This includes things like the amount of money they have tied up in inventory, how much they turn the inventory, how they go about attracting customers of their own.

Wine Restaurants Want

When it comes to restaurants, it’s pretty straightforward. There are three things that every restaurant wants: to optimize their revenue, to control their costs, and to improve guest satisfaction. How is your wine going to help them achieve one or more of those things? You need to be able to talk about that in the presentation.

For example, let’s say Spanish varietals are enjoying a season of popularity. Try having a conversation with the restaurant about how it’s going for them. Are they leveraging that trend? Are they finding their customers like those styles of wines? Get in a conversation about what is and isn’t working for the account. Do not just go straight to the sample bag and start talking about your product. The style of “features and benefits” selling is dead and outdated.

Balance is Key

If you want to be successful selling fine wine, go ahead and accumulate lots of wine knowledge, but you must balance it with some solid business acumen. Make sure your pricing doesn’t get jerked around. Check that it gets shipped at the price you quoted. Ensure that you don’t run out of stock. Some of the most basic service-oriented things are equally, if not more important than your wine knowledge. Because I got news for you, there are plenty of great wines in the market to choose from. Your wine is not so distinct that you’re going to win people over with your wine knowledge and your product attributes alone. 

6. Fully leverage social media and email marketing

If you’re in the fine wine game today, you must leverage these tools. They’re very low cost but profoundly effective. They’re two of the highest “return on investment” tools that you can use.

Social Media

If you’re a salesperson, you should have a social media presence. Period. You should be following all the customers on your target list we talked about back in point number three. You should be following them, engaging with them, studying them, learning about what’s important to them through the use of social media.

For those of you that say, “I’d like to keep my personal life separate from my business life,” or maybe “I don’t have time to be on Facebook,” sorry, but I call BS on that. It’s 2021. You need to have a social media presence if you want to sell business-to-business (i.e., your winery to that restaurant, your winery to that fine wine shop, etc.). You better be spending a lot of time on Facebook and Instagram — studying, learning, and watching trends.

Social Media for Selling Wine
Social Media for Selling Wine

Email Marketing

It’s great that you have a little black book of all the right buyers in your market, all the people on your wishlist that you want to sell to. But you need to be using a tool like Mailchimp or Constant Contact. Load all your buyer contacts into it and segment them into groups. Do they prefer old world wines? Maybe they like to be the first to know about things. Whatever your groups are, segment all of your customers and then communicate with them in a way that they want to be communicated with.

This could be a whole topic in itself. “How to use email marketing to sell fine wine and be very, very effective at it.” But if you’re not leveraging it now, take the first step. Study more about how people use these tools in a B2B context. There is a lot I could talk about regarding this topic, but that’s for another time. Wherever you are today, stop and take stock of where you are and see what it might look like to go to the next level.

Watch my video on the 6 Keys to Selling Fine Wine

For more information on these and other topics and to avail yourself of free training and resources, we invite you to visit our website. We also have more than 50 free videos on our YouTube channel!

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