5 Reasons Email for Wine Sales ROCKS

Times have changed. Have YOU?

Wine buyer in his wine shop
Wine buyers read email

If there was ever a time to introduce NEW plays into your wine sales playbook, now is most certainly the time. Face-to-face, in-person selling opportunities are minimal (if existent at all), and this is not likely to change for quite some time. What a great time and place to talk about EMAIL for wine sales.

One of the easiest-to-learn, lowest-cost strategies “street reps” should add to their repertoire is email marketing. Using email to sell more wine to the TRADE is easier than you think. But first you need to forget what you think you know about email marketing.

Shred that email newsletter

your newsletter is so boring. Please stop sending it to me!
250250no more boring newsletters

When most wine sellers think of email marketing, the first thing that comes to their mind is NEWSLETTERS.

Wine marketers do not like to admit that most people do not enjoy their newsletters. We get so enthralled by the “beauty” of our newsletters, we forget to ask if anyone bothers to read it.

Your open rates will tell you how engaged your newsletter audience is. Of course, SOME people will read your monthly missives. So, send it to only those people. And thanks to modern email marketing software, you know exactly who those people are. Once you hit an open rate of 50-80%, you will know you have found your newsletter audience.

3 Fatal Flaws of Email Newsletters

But audience targeting is not the only problem with winery newsletters. Most winery newsletters suffer from 3 fatal flaws:

  1. They are too self-promoting
  2. Just like vacation photos, they only amuse the sender
  3. They are just too dang long

Why email gets a bad rap

So why do so many wineries keep cranking out annoying newsletters? My guess is because they do not know what else to do. I submit to you that because we have SO MANY wineries using newsletters poorly, they have given email marketing a bad reputation. It is a false impression because done correctly, using email for wine sales is one of the lowest-cost, highest-return ways to SELL WINE.


But I am not here today to talk about how winery DTC departments might improve their email marketing usage. I would instead prefer to introduce this idea that the use of email marketing software (i.e., MailChimp, Constant Contact, and ConvertKit) is leverage-able in the pursuit of incremental TRADE sales. Specifically, customers within the 3-tier system: package stores and restaurants.  

From my vantage point, I see just about every wine company using email marketing for DTC sales but almost NO wineries using email marketing to attract and retain TRADE BUYER relationships to sell more wine.

Wine buyer standing in front of the shelf full of wine
250wine buyers will read your email IF your content adds value

With that in mind, I am pleased to present these FIVE reasons to start doing so immediately:

1) You can talk to your customers electronically (instead of in-person).

There exists a deeply held belief in the wine trade that “true selling” of wine can must take place in-person. I vividly remember my early days selling wine to restaurants and package stores for a distributor in Houston (’84-’87). It was frowned upon to talk to a customer by telephone. “Real” salespeople always sold face-to-face. It was considered anathema to sell any other way.

Even though it is 2020, many wine sales pros (especially those from my generation) still think the same way. They cringe at the thought of speaking to customers digitally. If there was ever a time to get over this flawed rationale, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is it. You simply must get past this mental hurdle and do it as soon as possible. Phone and email are all you have to work with these days.

2) You Can Speak to Many People at Once using Email

Now, here is an excellent place to dispel any notions you might have of using “blasts” to communicate with large numbers of people at once. Impersonal blasts are NOT the correct way to do email marketing. Using tags and segmentation is the way to speak to multiple people AND focus on their preferences and needs. Here is an excellent example of this:

group of women enjoying wine
250250Email marketing is scale-able

Say you want to send an email to all the restaurants in your sales territory, letting them know your distributor just received a pallet of your top-selling wine in the 375ml size. As you are aware, one of the bright spots of the pandemic is restaurants in many states can sell wine to go IF the package is 375ml or smaller. Using “tags” is the key here. You might have a tag for current customers and another tag for restaurants open during the pandemic). Instead of sending this new information to EVERYONE on your email list, you send it ONLY to subscribers with both the “open during pandemic” tag and the “current customer” tag. Voila! You have just sent a broadcast communication to many buyers at once, but only to the buyers that care to receive that particular type of information.

3) You Can Grow Your Customer Email List Continually and Automatically

One of the best benefits of using email marketing software like Mail Chimp or Convert Kit is the addition of handy tools like forms, landing pages, and automated email sequences. Here are just a few nifty things you can do with these powerful features:

  • Create a place on your company website, especially for members of the trade to sign up for your trade-only email list.
  • Run a Facebook ad (aimed at restaurants and package stores) offering a piece of valuable content in exchange for their email address. These are called “lead magnets.” The key is the freebie must be valuable enough to cause the trade buyer to want the information. For example, check out this short video. When I mention “Facebook advertising,” I am NOT talking about boosted posts but, preferably, “real” Facebook advertising.
  • Build a simple landing page that “covert” visitors to email subscribers.

4) It is Easy to Measure the ROI of Email Marketing

3 wine glasses. One empty. One with money stuffed into it. One with red wine pouring into it
You must be able to measure the ROI

Some forms of digital marketing are difficult to measure. Social media posts and brand awareness ad campaigns most assuredly add value, but quantifying the ROI is tough. Clicks, Likes, Shares, Comments, Reach, Impressions do not always point directly and conclusively to sales – especially when it comes to who-bought-what.

Not so with using EMAIL for wine sales. Hard and fast metrics abound. For starters, there is the size of your email list. Next, there is the open rate and click-through rate. You can easily measure conversion rates on your landing pages as you test various lead magnets. Lastly, you can connect the dots between subscribers and purchasers using click segmentation. Measuring your “return on ad spend” is well within reach with email.

5) It Feels Fantastic to Have Something Tangible to DO

A wine sales person leaning back at her desk with a bit smile on her face
Busy salespeople are happy salespeople

Among the wide assortment of uncomfortable feelings salespeople are experiencing during the lock down, is the sensation of not knowing what to DO. The standard, familiar routines have vanished. Sales pros are, by nature, DOERS. Pounding the pavement, pressing palms, and sitting kneecap-to-kneecap is the way it is typically done. It is a helpless, hopeless feeling for a salesperson to be grounded and stuck at home.

But email is so tangible. Finally, something to do that will move the needle. Organizing your list of subscribers, learning to use the software (it is way easier than you think), growing your list of subscribers, planning out your email broadcasts, and then engaging those who respond. Sending valuable emails to trade buyers is as close as they can get to turning your hard-won trade buyer relationships into actual sales for your company.

Engaging with your buyers via email can be exhilarating. It provides the “juice” that salespeople crave. But you first must learn how to do it right.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for crushing this new skill:

  • Do not put or keep anyone on your subscriber list without their permission.
  • Write each short “broadcast” as if you were writing to just that one person. The recipient needs to feel like you are writing to them personally. So, write as if you are.
  • Make liberal use of “tags.” There is no limit to the number of tags you can create and assign in your email marketing software. Think of tags as tiny little identifiers attributed to each subscriber according to their individual preferences and interests. For example, a single trade buyer on your list might have all of the following tags assigned to them: WSET Level 2, On-Premise, Pinot Noir lover, Been to France, Cornell Grad, Speak Italian and Collects Antique Corkscrews.  Tags allow you to tailor your communications, so each subscriber receives ONLY the content of interest.
  • Like all forms of communicating, less is more. Strive for brevity and clarity. Forget newsletters. Good “trade” correspondence should be incredibly brief and to the point. No pictures/image is best. If you must include pictures, use only one and keep the size of the file small.
  • Use a CTA (call to action) in every email. It could be something as simple as “Click here to request a sample,” or “Click here to RSVP for our virtual tasting with the winemaker,” or “Click here to watch the video.” You get the idea. Use click segmentation to “capture” all the actions taken by the subscriber. Over time, you will learn to gain incredible insights into the interests of each subscriber.

Here’s a FREE 28-minute email marketing video tutorial

To help as many wine sales pros as possible get started on this journey, I have created a free video tutorial that walks you through all the things I talked about in this article in more detail. It is 28-minutes long, but I promise it is well worth your time. To access the video, click here.

Are there more than five reasons to add email marketing to your wine sales repertoire? Absolutely! But I hope these 5 convince you to get started right away.

As always, I will be standing by to help if you need me.

7 Things I Learned from Spending $10k on Facebook ads

Ben Salisbury, Founder/President of Salisbury Creative Group, Inc.

Facebook ads transformed my business (and can transform YOURS, too)

I completely transformed my wine & spirits sales consultancy using Facebook ads. And I am about to share the lessons I learned with YOU.

I use Facebook ads to find, attract, and nurture hundreds of prospects (wineries and distilleries) and have built a half-million dollar per year business as a result.

In addition to using Facebook ads to improve my own business I have also used it to help many different wine and spirits companies improve their businesses.

Facebook ads can be used for both DTC and B2B

Facebook advertising is one of the most effective platforms for improving both DTC and B2B wine sales. But many wineries/distilleries (and even their agencies) do not know how to do it correctly. Part of the reason is it is so darn easy to do it wrong but incredibly difficult to do it right.

The learning curve is incredibly steep. So many things must come together. To learn how to master the platform, you must be willing to let go of and “unlearn” much of what you think you know about it.

Before you settle on a strategy (or choose an agency to help you), you would be wise to seek the advice of someone who has enjoyed PROVEN success with Facebook advertising.  

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Lesson 1: Facebook ads are not effective for selling (at least not directly)

There are over 2.6 billion users worldwide scrolling their Facebook feed daily. While only 10% of those users can be found in the USA, almost half of all the ad revenue from Facebook is spent by US companies. If you want to be successful with Facebook advertising, it helps a great deal to understand what the users want when they log into the app.

People primarily come to Facebook for two things: to be entertained or to socialize. They do NOT come to the platform to buy. If the call to action button you are using in your ad is “SHOP NOW” or “BUY NOW” you are not only going to waste a lot of money but will potentially squander the good will of your would-be customers.

The goal of advertisers using the Facebook platform should be to grow their email list and then use email marketing to nurture (slowly, patiently, and skillfully) those “leads” until they buy. Failure to understand this process is why so many wineries say, “Facebook advertising doesn’t work.” Oh, it works alright: but you just must learn how to do it correctly.

Lesson 2: Test, test, and test some more

One of the very first things I learned when I began my Facebook advertising journey was no matter how good I thought my ideas were, I would never really know for sure until I TESTED them. There are four different things you can test: image, ad copy, headline, and audience. I have found it is best to test several audiences first (using the same image, ad copy, and headline for all ads in the test). Once you have found the best performing audience, you can then test 2-3 different images on that “winning” audience. Then I take the best performing image for that winning audience and test 2-3 different headlines. THEN I am are ready to proceed with the full force of my ad budget.

It takes 4 to 5 days for Facebook’s algorithm to “learn” which users are most likely to engage with a new ad. So, using the testing scenario above, it could take 2-3 weeks before your campaign comes out of the testing phase.

Your patience will be rewarded many times over by getting better RESULTS.

Sonoma County Zinfandel Vineyard
Sonoma County Zinfandel Vineyard

Lesson 3: Your Facebook ads should not LOOK like ads

This is a common mistake that is easy to make. Facebook has made it effortless for literally anyone to jump into the advertising game. But nothing will hasten the scrolling thumbs of users more than something that looks like an ad. If you want people to engage with your content, you would be wise to avoid any whiff of self-promotion. For example, a stunning beauty shot of a vineyard is far more effective at stopping the scroll than a bottle shot of one of your wines (no matter how you dress up the background).

The same goes for your headline and ad copy. Stay far away from any language that highlights the attributes of your product. Instead, focus on your STORY. Upload an old photograph of your owner/founders and use the ad copy space to share how and why they came to be in the wine business.

It might seem counter-intuitive to spend money on advertising without directly promoting your products. But, the power of social media can only fully be unlocked by understanding what users want to see on their feed (and what they DON’T want). The good news is Facebook has provided a handy “report card” for your ads via their Ad Relevance Diagnostics. If you are not consistently getting Average and Above Average rankings, there is your first clue you are missing the mark with your ads.

PRO TIP: If you currently employ and advertising agency to help with your Facebook ads, insist they provide you with the Ad Relevance Diagnostics as part of their “results” dashboard for each ad. It is the one of the most reliable metrics of what kind of job they are doing for you. High relevance is directly correlated with high performance (ROI of your ad spend).

don't you dare boost that post
Don’t you dare boost that post!

Lesson 4: Boosting posts is not “real” Facebook advertising

It might feel like it is, but it is not. In most instances, boosting posts is a giant waste of money. The reason is it severely limits your audience targeting. It is like stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime. It is like filling your belly with free bread in a restaurant while sitting 5 feet away from a smorgasbord. Boosting posts is the lazy person’s idea of Facebook advertising.

What to do instead? Create a Facebook Business Manager. Then create an Ad Account. Then assign your new Ad Account and your Facebook Page to your new Business Manager. Learn how to create and use the Facebook Pixel. Learn how to use the Audience Insights tool. Learn how to create Custom Audiences and Lookalike Audiences. Learn about the different campaign types and how and when to use them. Learn the difference between “warm” audiences and “cold” audiences and how and when to use them. Learn how to use the Ads Manager dashboard and how to interpret all the metrics and insights provided by Facebook (especially the Ad Relevance Diagnostics).

After that, learn how to write effective ad copy. Especially LONG ad copy.

Whew! No wonder so many people default to the idiot-proof boosting of posts. There is so much to LEARN! You bet your a__ there is. Look. There are over 10,000 wineries in the US and at least another 50,000 wine brands from outside the US vying for the same consumers you are. If you DON’T invest the time to learn how to effectively use Facebook (or hire someone who knows what they are doing), you will achieve very poor results. The wine business has become a deadly serious business. Take some of the money you have been wasting on other dumb things and reinvest it in “real” Facebook advertising.

Rose wine bottles
Rose wine bottles

Lesson 5: Know your audience (and what they want)

The most effective use of advertising is to either solve a problem for someone or to satisfy some need or make someone’s life easier or more enjoyable. For most consumers, wine is a terribly complex product with an overwhelming array of options. Before you can sell someone your wine, you must first earn their trust. And the best way to earn someone’s trust is to build a relationship with them. The best way to build a relationship is to provide something of value. Here’s where Facebook advertising (done correctly) really shines.

For example, maybe you produce an exceptional Pinot Noir. Instead of spewing all manner of “facts” about your Pinot Noir in your ad, why not offer consumers a “free guide to understanding Pinot Noir.” A downloadable PDF that provides useful information about the various regions where great Pinot Noir is produced (i.e. Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Willamette Valley, Burgundy, Central Otago, etc) and how they differ. To download the free PDF, they must “opt in” to your email list (via a FB Lead Ad or a landing page). If you continue to consistently provide value over time via your broadcast emails, you will slowly build a relationship with them. A sale should be merely a by-product of a much larger relationship. Facebook advertising is a horrible vehicle for selling wine, but it is an extremely powerful tool for building your email list. Use that email list to sell.

Offering various “lead magnets” like this is a powerful way for you to learn about your customers and what they want. The use of “tags” to segment your email list will enable you to put the right content in front of the right customers.

whiskey bottles
Whiskey bottles

Lesson 6: It is NOT about you or your products

We are talking about a “mindset” here. Using Facebook advertising to promote your products (under the guise of “brand awareness”) is a losing, money-wasting strategy. This is why, for example, newsletters are (generally) useless. The focus of the typical winery/distillery newsletter is on you and your products. This “inward” focus serves only to lump you in with the tens of thousands of other ham-handed advertisers trying to sell the same type of product.

If you want to help consumers develop an appreciation for your wines/spirits, simply “telling” them about the products’ attributes is a highly ineffective way to do it. Oh, if it were only as easy as swipe right or swipe left. Are they just supposed to take your word for it based on a picture and a few tasting notes? And don’t even get me started about awards and medals and scores. Want to get better results from you Facebook ads? Get the focus off yourself and your products and put it where it belongs: on your customers (see #5 above). Facebook adverting, executed properly, is merely the entry point for building a long-term relationship with wine consumers.

Ad Relevance Diagnostics
Ad Relevance Diagnotics

Lesson 7: Results (sales) is the best measurement of success

Likes are nice. Shares are even better. Clicks are encouraging. Growing your fan base is exciting. But NOTHING is better than actual sales. Most Facebook advertising agencies love to proffer reports and dashboards that measure “engagement” as if those metrics alone justified the expense of Facebook advertising (or the agency’s fees). I am not saying there is no value in engagement. There absolutely is. What I am saying is engagement pales in value compared to actual RESULTS. What I want to know is for every dollar I spend on Facebook ads, how much new REVENUE did I gain? I also want to closely track what it costs me to acquire a new customer (defined as someone who purchased something).

Go ahead and measure impressions and reach and click-through rates. But do not STOP THERE! Hold your advertising budget (and agency) accountable for RESULTS. This CAN be measured. If you are not sure how to do it I am happy to show you how (for free).

empty wine bottles
Empty bottles- a sign of success

Time to put this learning to work for YOU

Are you ready to take you take your Facebook advertising to the next level? Start by looking at each of the 7 lessons above and asses which ones you are already doing well and which ones you need to improve upon.

This industry is too competitive not to get this right.

the all powerful Facebook pixel
The all-powerful Facebook Pixel

Tear it down to build it up

You do not have to be a fan of professional golf to understand this analogy. One of the things that separates great golfers from the average ones is the commitment to continually disassembling, reconstructing, and improving their golf swing.

When was the last time you took a step back and thoroughly evaluated how, why, and what you do with your Facebook advertising budget? These 7 lessons above area great place to start. You may also want to download my Facebook Advertising Success Checklist for Wineries & Distilleries.

Which of the 7 lessons will you tackle first? I would love to hear your comments! And please share this post with the people in your organization (or ad agency) who need to see it.

3 Ways to SCALE Your Ability to Sell Wine & Spirits

Thinking small is holding you back

wine on fast moving bottling line
wine bottling line

When it comes to the ability to sell wine and spirits via the 3-tier system (trade sales) you don’t hear a lot of talk about selling “at scale.” Most in our industry believe selling is about pulling samples and sitting face-to-face with customers. That’s certainly ONE way to do it. But, it’s just not a “scale-able” way.

For decades now, there’s been only one way to “scale” your efforts to sell more wine and spirits. By signing on more distributors in more states. Or maybe moving from a small distributor to a large one. But my oh my how times have changed!

As is widely known by now, the capabilities of distributors to help small-to-medium sized wineries and distilleries have been significantly diminished. It’s not their fault. There are just way too many brands. Way too few distributors and that “ratio” is getting worse every year. The burden of growing sales & distribution now falls to the producer.

But I bring you good news: There ARE ways a winery or distillery can dramatically SCALE their sales efforts. Most of these new options are truly NEW, meaning they did not exist just a few years ago.

Not scale-able: 1-on-1 in-person selling, automobiles, and telephones

Scale-able: websites, software, direct response marketing, and outsourcing (brokers)

This article highlights 3 of the most powerful ways wineries and distilleries can SCALE their ability to sell a lot more product. Use one, two or all three for maximum effect.

Online Platforms

There are two categories of online platforms for selling wine & spirits in 2020. The first is business-to-business (B2B) and the second is direct-to-consumer (DTC).

The most well-known and established platform for selling wine & spirits in a B2B context is Liberation Distribution, otherwise known as LibDib. LibDib holds distributor licenses in 5 states currently (CA, CO, FL, NY, WI) with many more on the way including (I think IL is next). Their business model is 100% online. Trade buyers (called Resellers) and small-craft wine & spirits producers (Makers) can connect virtually and transact business 24/7. The best part of the model in my opinion is you don’t have to deal with a salesperson. This alone should bring a site-crashing surge of traffic to their platform!

Like all great ideas and innovations, complimentary platforms will most assuredly follow in LibDib’s footsteps. One to keep your eye on is new-kid-on-the-block, GrapeIn. The still-in-beta GrapeIn platform aims to be a global  “online community.” It will bring together foreign and domestic producers, importers, distributors, brokers and retailers (both on and off premise). GrapeIn is “distributor agnostic” so it really doesn’t matter what your distribution network looks like in the US. Anyone can jump onto the platform and start consummating deals.

When it comes to platforms for direct-to-consumer sales there are options than ever before. I just want to highlight a few of my favorite.  For producers of craft spirits, one of the best platforms in my opinion (and experience) is Speakeasy Co. This CA-based tech company makes it easy to sell spirits right off your own website to multiple states around the US. They have a very clever way of integrating with a distillery’s website for a seamless shopper experience.  We have several clients of ours who are leveraging this platform now.

Another bright star on the horizon is Spirit Hub (formerly known as Big Fish). They only sell in IL now but watch for them to expand soon. You don’t need your distributor to introduce you to these platforms. Just contact them directly.

If you are a small winery that does not have e-commerce capabilities on your own website there are many options you can pursue such as wine.com, VinConnect, and Bounty Hunter.

Lead Generation

wine buyer - woman
wine buyer- woman

The responsibility for building lots of high-quality distribution has shifted from the distributors to the producers. You must learn HOW to generate your own demand in the trade (restaurants, retail wine shops, etc). The very best and most scale-able way to do this is this powerful combination of Facebook Lead Ads and automated email sequences (using a tool like Convert Kit) or MailChimp, etc.

I have found that most wineries and distilleries have no idea this is even a thing. It’s a shame because there are few elements in the 3-tier sales game that are 100% within a producer’s control. If you’d like to a greater command of your own destiny, you owe it to yourself to explore this process more deeply.

There’s a steep learning curve, no question. But the time & money you invest in learning these new skills pays off many times over. Besides, the alternatives look mighty bleak! Not familiar with this game-changing strategy? Check out this recording of a recent webinar I hosted that walks you through the whole process from end to end.

The heart of this strategy is your email list of trade buyers. The goal is attracting these buyers to you (with your messaging, your targeting, and your content) and get them to sign up for your trade-only email list. From there, you “nurture” those contacts by providing a continuous “drip” of high-value content. Just imagine if you had a list of 1,000 well-qualified, engaged trade buyers who looked forward to receiving correspondence from you. Imagine what you could you do with such a powerful asset? But we’re not talking about annoying newsletters and obnoxious offers to buy stuff. Instead, focus on exclusive trade-only access and personalized service you can provide America’s top buyers. These trade pros WANT direct access to producers. So give it to them!

Independent Brokers

Independent wine & spirits brokers
Independent Wine & Spirits Brokers

With the distributor bottleneck being what it is, we have certainly entered the age of the broker. What the world needs right now is lots more independent tech savvy, well-connected “agents” who can get your products in front of all the buyers on your wish list. Hired guns.

Now, I’m not talking about “traditional” brokers here who focus on getting the distributors to act on your behalf. That way of operating is deader than disco. The days of “managing the distributor” are gone and you should severely limit your spending on that activity. I have a whole series on my YouTube channel called “Question Everything” to help give you a reality check.

The modern brokers, by contrast, don’t see “managing distributors” as the best way to get things done. What they do instead is leverage all their well-earned relationships with key buyers (both on and off premise) to bypass the distributor bottleneck and SELL for their clients

Two of the best examples are Edge Beverage Consulting and Green Glass Global. Both have small armies of sales pros with all the right connections. And it’s those connections that allow them to build new distribution and sales despite the distributor bottleneck. Most small wine & spirits producers desperately need these services, but few even know they exist.  

The great separation

The great separation
The great separation

When we emerge on the other side of this plague (and we will), I predict there will be a great separation among wine & spirits producers. On one side will be those who stubbornly cling to the OLD out-of-touch belief that distributors are primary engine that drives sales & distribution in today’s marketplace.

On the other side will be those who’ve not only accepted the new realities but have taken steps to ameliorate them. To learn NEW skills and NEW strategies.

For the former will continue to drink from the bitter cup of status quo. But the latter will move forward to enjoy the power and freedom that comes from taking control of their own destiny.

How To Sell Wine Without Samples

Practically the whole wine industry uses samples to make sales. I mean the logic is simple. How can they commit to buying the wine if they haven’t tried it, right? I’ve always had a bit of a problem with this because it is a stroll down a dead-end street. All the buyer needs to do is say they don’t like the wine and your sale is deader than disco.

sampling a fine wine
Buyer sampling wine

Therefore, I believe this product-centric, sample-centric style is a terrible way to sell wine. In fact, I’m against anything that smells like a “transactional” approach. So, allowing the sample to be the fulcrum on which the sale turns is a bit of a trap. A better way is to step back from the product and transaction itself and look at the larger relationship that is in play. The results is you can let the sample play a different role in the process. It should be merely the final confirmation in a tying-it-all-up-in-a-bow kind of way. Allow the sale to be a byproduct of a much larger relationship.


Now, here’s one of the problems in utilizing a product-centric approach to selling (as opposed to an adding business value approach). It can and typically does rapidly devolve into a simple matter of PRICE. Your Chardonnay is not so unique that the restaurant needs to carry it. There are probably HUNDREDS of Chardonnays just as good at the same price. The snare that you’ve tripped is now the buyer’s decision will very quickly come down to who has the best price.

So, what’s the alternative? Strive to have the sale be a byproduct of a much larger relationship. One built on elements such as service and dependability and trust.


When I first started selling wine to national restaurant chains in the early 90’s, I quickly learned that what the chain buyers cared more about than anything else was receiving the goods at the quotes price and not running out of stock. The truth is no national accounts buyer ever laid awake at night fretting over their inability to find a good Chardonnay to pour by the glass. Rather, the primary cause of their insomnia was the daunting task of finding a wine supplier who was CAPABLE of servicing all the store across the US. THAT was the big “selling opportunity.” So, the key to selling more wine to the on-premise chains was demonstrating your ability to manage the supply chain. Not very sexy, but man-o-man was it effective. By putting the focus on the buyer’s needs, it was possible to gain a competitive advantage.

wine stocked on shelves
A restaurant’s wine storage room

I submit to you this is ALSO TRUE of independent restaurants. If you’ve ever been in a buyer role in a restaurant, you know what a total pain the ass it is to chase down wine sales reps to remedy pricing problems or out of stock situations. As I reflect on MY days as a wine buyer for restaurants, I recall giving most of my business to the most dependable and trustworthy sales reps. It was a no-brainer.


After I had a few times, I got smarter. I asked better questions. When wine sales reps came in with their bulging sample bags, I was like, “Now, before you take out any samples from that bag, tell me what you plan to do to guarantee me I won’t run out of stock if I start pouring one of your wines by the glass?” Most sales reps came at me with one thing in mind: to sell me whatever wine was on their quota sheet for that month. But I had a problem. My problem was I didn’t like to have my precious time wasted chasing sales reps to remedy service issues. My problem WASN’T trying to find good wines to service in my restaurant. You see the point? Most wine sales reps were trying to solve a problem I didn’t have.


Years later, when I started selling wine to restaurants, I remembered this lesson. I carried this attitude and perspective into every buyer-seller relationship. By solving the BUYERS problem (instead of my own) it made all the difference. What an irony! In order to solve my own problem (pressure to make my quota) all I had to do was shift my focus to the buyers’ problems. As a result, I made my quota every month.


What we are talking about here is a MINDSET. You can sell anything you want in life if you help enough people get what they want. Your focus needs to be on the customer’s needs and their motivation to buy. In order to do that, you must put yourself in their shoes. Look at the wine-buying/wine-selling world through their lens.

This is how you develop the ability to sell without samples. It takes a long time to prove you are dependable. But, once you’ve achieved that reputation, it’s not unusual at all for a buyer to place an order for a new product WITHOUT SAMPLING. You see, TRUST, is the most important attribute of a great wine salesperson. Not wine knowledge. Not wine quality. Wine quality is assumed. It’s a given. After all, you would not try to sell crap wine to your best customers, would you?


I’ve sold LOTS of wine over the years without a sample. Not every time, of course. But MANY times. And the reason I was able to do it was I consistently put the buyers needs before my own. I made service and dependability and trust the “currency” of my business relationships. So, when I told a buyer, “This is a great Chardonnay for the price and your customers will love it. AND I promise to always ship it at the quoted price and NEVER run out of stock.” “Send me 3 cases, then,” was almost always the response.

In many cases, all I had to do was wait for my competitors to screw up. Let THEM run out of stock (or be hard to reach or slow to respond). As a result, over time, more and more of my competitor’s business would shift over to me because I was dependable and kept my promises. “You, Mr. Customer, come before me. Every time.”


The funny thing is, when you learn how to sell without samples, on those rare occasions when you DO show up with a bottle in hand (preferably just one), the buyer tends to take you a lot more seriously.  “Oh, he brought in a sample. This must be something really special.” What a refreshing departure from the here’s-eight-wines-pick-one fiasco. Any idiot can pull a bunch of samples and put them in front of a buyer. But, it takes a special kind of person with a servant’s heart to become a true professional. Which one are you?

3 Ways to Help Your Distributors Help You!

Man reaching out to extend a helping hand
Extend a helping hand to your distributors

Welcome to the new reality

The longer you’ve been in the wine & spirits sales game, the harder this concept is to grasp – what distributors used to be able to do for their suppliers they can no longer do. Why? Quite simply there are too many suppliers & brands and way too few distributors. As a result, that sets up a new reality that if you fail to appreciate will leave you seriously frustrated. You need to help your distributors help you!

So, YOU must adjust to the new reality and let go completely of any notions that you can somehow get your distributors to perform at a higher level. Let me be clear. The diminishing of distributors’ capabilities is not a matter of “motivation” or intention. It’s simply a function being in a very overwhelming situation. So, stop the seriously flawed belief that somehow more training, more communication, more accountability, and more incentives will improve your distributors’ performance. Put your bleeping “trackers” in the paper shredder where they belong!

How could so many people be so out of touch?

When I look at a typical wine sales job ad, I’m astounded to see evidence that this way of thinking is still very much alive. As I peruse the “essential functions of the job,” I see bullet points that are so out of touch with reality it’s sickening. How could so many people be so wrong about something so obvious? Here’s why: people are making the fatal assumption that what used to work still does.  

Now, for those of you reading this who are finally ready to accept the new reality and DO something about it, consider this article to be a nickel’s worth of free advice. It’s time to start helping your distributors help you.

What can and should the distributor do?

Image of a typical distributor warehouse
Distributor warehouse

I think it’s wise to re-calibrate your expectations to the lowest common denominator and slowly, incrementally move up from there. Think about the most basic capabilities you NEED from your distributors: a) purchase pallets of your products and store them in their warehouse, b) ship them to accounts as ordered, c) do it at the correct price, d) don’t run out of stock.

Then the next level is to have their sales reps actively building new distribution for you. But here’s where things start to go wrong for most suppliers. This is not going to (and should not) happen without YOU doing your part. I’ve said this before but unless YOUR footprints are all over the marketplace, you’ve got no right to expect the distributors to do it. In fact, a good rule of thumb is the best you can expect the distributors to do for you is MATCH YOUR EFFORTS. Once again, help them help you!

Now, if you are one of the countless supplier “partners” that feel it’s the distributors’ “job” to do these things you simply must wake up and recognize those days are long gone. It’s not a question necessarily of whether not a distributor CAN sell your products but more one of WILL they sell your products. And whether they will or won’t is completely up to YOU. You need to be the lead dog on the sled- not them.

What should YOU do?

Once you’ve come to terms with the cold hard facts that you’re going to be limited in what you can expect the distributors to do for you, you can then get busy executing a newer, more modern approach to building distribution. I suggest these 3 important steps:

  1. Have a plan. A REAL plan. A REALISTIC plan. A plan that based on solid research of the market, the competitive landscape, and the “complexion” of the market. By this I mean chains versus independents, on premise versus off premise, etc. Where’s the business being done? Where are the highest value targets? What’s trending? I’m not going to go too deeply into this in this article but suffice it to say you need to do your homework and lots of it.
  2. Create your own target list(s) of accounts. Start with a “profile” of the idea customer for your brand. Then start researching accounts that fit that criteria. Adopt the mindset that less is more; fish where the fish are; not all accounts are equal, and the 80/20 rule is real.  Let’s face it: time, people, money will always be very limited. Therefore, you can’t be everywhere calling on everyone. The results-by-volume approach is extremely foolish. Being more selective in the use of your resources will provide a much greater return on your investment. In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the target list is for YOUR efforts. Don’t just hand it over to the distributor.
  3. Take responsibility for generating demand for your brands with both trade and consumers. How do you do this? There are several powerful ways, but I highly recommend a combination of Facebook Lead Ads and email marketing. We use Constant Contact and recommend it to all our clients. Use the highly targeted Facebook Lead Ads to grow your email list (one for trade and one for consumers) and use the email list to market and “sell” your wares. There is a learning curve to all of this but isn’t it wonderful to have something that is completely within your control?


Look, there are no doubt varying degrees of successful collaboration between suppliers and distributors. There are those who do an exceptional job, those that are average and those that truly suck. I suggest you figure out where YOU are on the spectrum and resolve to move up the ladder to the next wrung. I will just say this in closing. There is a magical correlation between how hard YOU work in the market and how hard your distributor works for you. So, go forth and leverage it! Help your distributors help you!

This One Little Metric Could Have A Big Impact on Your Wine or Spirits Sales

When it comes to measuring and tracking the right things in the wine & spirits game (KPI’s to those of you pulling on the oars in the belly of corporate slave ships), there are far more options than there used to be. Oh, sure, you still have the old Reagan-era metrics like depletions and accounts sold. No doubt important but not very insightful if you’re looking for deeper understanding into the quality of your distribution. It’s nearly impossible to tell from these rudimentary dimensions if you’ve got the right products in the right places. In fact, for those of you given to impatience, “right places” is very much where I’m headed in this article.

And what about top ten and bottom ten? There are all kinds of ways to apply these whiffle balls (accounts, territories, distributors, states, etc.). But while this is certainly something that’s good to know the best it can do is indicate where YOU’RE doing or (not doing) business. It will never tell you where you SHOULD or should not be doing business. If it was me, I’d much rather learn about the most valuable “white space” accounts, the 20-percenters, the honey holes, the big tunas. Well, who wouldn’t, you might say? Good luck with that, some might say.
Given the unprecedented level of the competition today, it’s a fatal error to assume something can’t be quantified. I encourage all of you reading this to immediately start questioning everything- starting with what you measure and why. Sometimes you’ve got to be like Yoda and unlearn what you have learned. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a very flat world. Literally everything can be optimized. Now I do think optimization as a concept has been overdone in certain applications (Fitbit comes to mind) but the wine & spirits business can never be accused of going overboard with it.

Which brings me to what I regard as the single most important metric: sales per point of distribution aka velocity. I know for a fact that not all accounts are equal so what I want to know is precisely which accounts are the most unequal – especially on the biggest-bang-for-the-buck end of the spectrum. “Wide and thin” used to be a popular and noble strategy for distribution but with so many more SKU’s chasing much fewer square feet of shelf space, it just isn’t a practical pursuit any longer. Fewer accounts but the RIGHT accounts -now that’s using your noodle.

And with less total points of distribution available, we must pay close attention to the retention and longevity of each placement as well. “Churn” is the mortal enemy of modern distribution and if YOU don’t pay super-close attention to it, you’ll be among its many victims. Churn is the most insidious byproduct of the too many brands / too few distributors dilemma we find ourselves in nowadays and God help you if you’re not monitoring it DAILY. Like cancer cells feed on sugar, so does the distribution machinery feast on churn. And guess where you won’t notice churn? By measuring depletions and account sold, of course.

Once you commit to relentlessly measuring velocity, like proverbial scales falling from your eyes, you’ll notice opportunities everywhere. You’ll begin to see crystal clear correlations like the one between foot traffic and velocity. You’ll see with Clark Kent clarity that certain “attributes” of one high volume account can easily be extrapolated to twenty more just like it. Look, we’ve been so used to relying on distributors for so long now, we’ve forgot how to think (and research) for ourselves. Remember when we used to set goals for “HT and MT” accounts (high traffic and medium traffic)? Maybe people still do, I don’t know. But nowadays you can apply “High Traffic” to just about everything – and you’d be very wise to do so.

Foot traffic is KEY when it comes to high velocity placements. And the data is staring you right in the face. Take on premise accounts, as an example. Restaurants with lots of private dining space and/or outdoor seating have far more foot traffic than an average restaurant. I’m not talking one or two times the traffic. I’m talking factors of ten and twenty times. Have you identified these accounts? Are you tracking them? If you were, you’d already know that these are among the highest sales per point of distribution (velocity) accounts in every market. Why do you think hotels do such high volume? You guessed it: foot traffic. Lots of people. A hotel with 1,000 or more guest rooms and 100,000 or more square feet of meeting space is typically the highest volume account in the city. Hint: they can usually be found near city centers and convention centers. Starting to see the correlation?

A quick side note: to those who say, “That’s great, Ben, but those hotels are all ‘corporate.’” To you I say don’t buy that malarkey for one minute. I spent 17 years as a VP of On-Premise chains for the US. I know from firsthand experience only about 40% of any given hotel’s volume is from the “mandates.” The other 60% is up for grabs, locally. Not only do your distributors know this, they leverage it to the hilt.

I could go on and on with many more examples of high-volume account types driven by high foot traffic (both on and off-premise). The point is if you start paying close attention to velocity, you’ll deepen your appreciation for how powerful this metric is. From there, it won’t be long before you start asking yourself, “Where are the other high traffic accounts where we’re NOT doing business?” Not only is it possible to do more with less, in today’s brutal environment, it’s mandatory.

How to Apply DTC Sensibilities to the 3-Tier System

Paul Mabray of Emetry shared an article on LinkedIn the other day about how the direct-to-consumer model is infiltrating the alcohol industry and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. In case you’re not familiar with Paul’s work, I consider him the EF Hutton of the wine industry. When he talks, I listen. When he posts and article, I read it.

The take-away from the article that’s induced my insomnia for two nights in a row is this idea of “applying DTC sensibility” to the 3-tier system. My post is all about expanding on this idea.

When the supreme court case, Granholm v. Heald, was decided in 2005, it kicked off an avalanche of investment and innovation the likes of which our industry had never seen. It was our Y2K. Only this time instead of stocking up on freeze dried foods and filling our bathtubs with fresh water, it was all about rushing to install CRM systems, e-commerce platforms, legally compliant order fulfillment and a whole slew of new marketing strategies & tactics. Wineries found themselves face to face with the ability AND the platform of permission to connect directly with consumers in a context other than their own tasting rooms.

It’s also quite interesting to recall that, at the time, the formidable Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America had a singular focus for the funds in their lobbying coffers which was to stop the DTC train from ever leaving the station. I remember this well because I was heavily involved in helping to recruit new members to the American Beverage Institute which was up to its eyeballs in the battle against the (successful) attempt to lower the BAC level to .08 in all states. Despite strident efforts by some of the most powerful buyers of alcohol in the country, WSWA’s standard response in refusing to support the ABI financially was they needed to keep all their powder dry for the DTC battle. In the end, consumer choice won out as it inevitably does.

But the Granholm decision was 14 years ago. No one can deny most if not all the wineries in the US have been working overtime ever since to capitalize on the opportunities ushered in by the ruling. I’d go even further to say the epic proliferation of US wineries was enabled by this newfound marketplace. It allowed for small wineries to sell their entire production without ever having to darken the paneled hallways of a distributor. We’ve come a long way and learned a great deal about CRM, email marketing, targeting & re-targeting, data sets and a host of other tech and data driven best practices. And yet, from where I sit, I’ve seen very little of this transfer over to selling efforts in the 3-tier system. I certainly have my own theories of why this is. At most wine companies, the DTC team is siloed away from the “regular” sales team that oversees the wholesale network, which is a shame, in my opinion, because many of the same SENSIBILITIES can and should be applied to the trade side.

For example, take email marketing. What is your strategy for acquiring well-qualified email addresses of trade buyers from all over the country? How large is your list now? How is it segmented? How dialed-in is your messaging and your use of email service software such as MailChimp or Constant Contact? Many wineries have their email marketing tool as a plug-in to their e-commerce system, so they’re not used to operating it as stand-alone platform. What a missed opportunity! Especially considering the low cost of this technology.

Next, let’s talk digital advertising. How often do you upload lists of trade buyers to your Facebook Ad Account, save it as a Custom Audience and then create Lookalike Audiences so you can launch highly targeted ads on Facebook aimed at wine buyers both on and off premise? How well are you leveraging Facebook’s Audience Insights tool to research and create trade audiences with titles like Restaurant General Manager, Bartender and people who have an interests like Master Sommelier and WSET. Do I hear crickets?

And don’t even get me started on CRM! News flash: CRM is not just for DTC! Talk about DTC sensibilities circling the drain (instead of being leveraged). As powerful as CRM is and has been for the DTC channel, it’s TEN TIMES more powerful in the 3-tier realm. I’ve been a street-corner evangelist on this topic for more than 5 years. My poor, ragged cardboard sign is in tatters. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. Cry for yourselves. Because while you’ve been doing what you’ve always been doing (believing the distributor is the center of your universe), many of your competitors have been going to night school at places like the University of GreatVines and KARMA College, putting in the time required to learn CRM sensibilities- but this time for the trade. And now, while you’re asleep at the wheel (blissfully unaware just how dramatically this business has changed in the last 14 years) a new breed of wine companies (armed to the teeth with said DTC Sensibilities) are quietly eating your lunch. Nom Nom.

So let’s go back to the DIGIDAY article that launched this rant in the first place. It’s called, “Direct-to-consumer is coming to the alcohol industry” (dated July 9, 2019). Just for fun, let’s Key Word the crap out of it. Here goes: “infiltrate, shift, branding, opportunity, content, growth playbook, hit mainstream, making an impression, brand equity, natural evolution, growing competition, healthy results.” By the way, I don’t meet a lot of wine sales pros who eat, sleep and breathe key words. Case in point.

Since it’s a Friday, I’d like to end on a positive note. It is by no means too late to start applying these DTC Sensibilities to the trade. If fact, if past performance is any indication of future results, you’ve still got a gigantic head start on the rest of the field.

The Greatest Paradox in Wine Selling

The wine business is full of contradictions. But, nowhere are the illogical absurdities more abundant than on the selling end of the game. The tragedy is the beliefs wine sales pros hold most deeply are the very ones in desperate need of some serious myth-busting.

Take for example the dogmatic notion that there is a direct correlation between the amount of wine knowledge someone has accrued and their ability to sell it. I’ve spouted off on this misguided perception in other places, so I won’t belabor the point here. Ironically (and paradoxically), the higher you go on the learning scale, the less in touch you are with the mindset of the average wine consumer.

Another incongruous and highly unsound bit of reasoning is the belief that the best way to sell wine is to blather on endlessly about its flavor, its provenance, and its “story.” Everything about this approach makes complete sense to our brains. People love stories, we say. Stories sell, we say. The problem is the vast majority of conversation and persuasion around a wine’s “distinctiveness” (in quotes here because there’s a lot less distinction among wines than people think – yet another paradox) takes place between the employees of the company that produces the wine and the employees of the retail/restaurant community. The consumer rarely if ever partakes in this supposedly game-changing storytelling.

But the wine selling paradox that frustrates me most is the persistent belief that the more accounts in which you have distribution the more wine you will sell. The widely used and highly revered metric of “accounts sold” is held up as one of our industry’s most important KPI’s. Yet, while it could be true (and makes perfect sense to our brains), it seldom IS true. The reason, quite simply, is not all accounts are equally capable of moving lots of wine through their operation. Like it or not, the 80/20 Rule is real. A fatally ironic twist in this more-is-more fallacy is it is now 100 times more difficult to put your wine into distribution than it has ever been. So, in reality it’s a very a good thing that not all accounts are equal and wineries who have the presence of mind to aim their time, money, and manpower with great precision will enjoy consistent and profitable sales results year after year.

The massive explosion of the number of wine brands for sale in the US combined with the ever-shrinking pool of distributors has created a very unworkable situation for ALL sizes of wine companies: large, medium, and small. Never in the history of the wine sales game has it been more important to choose your points of distribution as wisely and strategically as possible. My suggestion is to trade off a little bit of time spent amassing wine knowledge and use it to more thoroughly research the market opportunities.

The key takeaway from this blog post is to do your homework and choose your targets wisely. The single biggest determinant of volume in any given account is foot traffic. The best accounts in which to seek distribution are incredibly busy – packed every day. THESE accounts are worth pursuing above all others because they sell so much more wine than all others. So, how can you tell which accounts fit this profile? For restaurants, look for “indicators” of volume like lots of private dining space, outdoor seating, and massive numbers of reviews on Yelp. BTW, “most reviewed” is a much more reliable indicator of volume than “highest rated.” Ratings are subjective. Foot traffic is not only objective but a rock solid gauge of volume potential.

On the off premise side, one of my favorite targets are retailers who sell as much or more wine off their website than they do inside their brick-and-mortar store. These accounts are not limited in any way by their shelf space and can carry a virtually unlimited “inventory.” They are very easy to find if you know where to look, what to look for and are willing to spend time on it.

Taking time to understand, research, and target highly desirable account types is one of the most important ways modern wine salespeople can spend their time in this highly competitive environment. And the good news for those of you reading this post is most of your competitors will continue to cling to the “old playbook” and look elsewhere for keys to sales success.

Less really is more. Not all accounts are equal. Narrow the focus of your sales activity, don’t widen it. Truly, one of the great paradoxes of our time.

The More You Act Like A Salesperson, The Less You Will Sell

I predictably get strange looks whenever I tell salespeople that “real” selling isn’t necessarily about the product. It’s such a counter-intuitive concept to the untrained, amateurish seller of goods that they convulse involuntarily when I espouse the notion.

If you look as closely and as frequently as I do at the profession of selling (which already ranks among the most maligned of occupations), you’ll see very distinct camps or schools of thought and these demarcations are easily put into a hierarchy representing progressive levels of expertise. In a fairly simplified way, I’ve arranged them for you here:

At the very lowest level is the “TRANSACTIONAL” approach. This is the bastion of the much revered but hopelessly obsolete features-and-benefits style of selling. I have a product to sell. You have money. I’m going to keep spewing facts until you buy. The seller sees features and benefits as a logical, linear pathway to fulfilling your prospects needs but the buyer sees only trivial BS. Need proof? Just look at the expression on your prospects face when you’re engaging in transactional selling. You can always tell you’re amid a transactional sale because the salesperson is the only one talking. In the very worst cases, the seller has never bothered to even qualify the need of the buyer with a few simple questions. For those of us who know better, it’s excruciating to see the profession of selling being clubbed to death before our very eyes.

The next level “up” is (clear-throat, put hands around own neck in a choking position) the much touted “CONSULTATIVE” approach. While this was certainly a breakthrough in sales technique when Jimmy Carter was President, this selling style, too, is as outdated as a public payphone. I know, I know! Many of you reading this believe this is cutting edge stuff! For a lot of you, this is as far as you’ve progressed in your sales skills. Completely unaware that “modern” selling has evolved significantly in the last two decades, you continue to hang your hat on the idea that once you’ve asked a few off-the-shelf, qualifying questions, you’re free to launch a diatribe of your products’ features and benefits. The central pillar of both the transactional approach and the consultative approach is still the presentation. And that, my friends, is how you can tell whether you are truly a professional salesperson – how much emphasis you put on the presentation.

Jeff Thull, in his book, Mastering the Complex Sales, says that presentations suffer from 3 major flaws. Too much information presented too early in the sales process to the wrong people. This overemphasis on presentations is so ubiquitous it’s very hard to get anyone to see its futility. A practical tip for getting out of this “trap” (which is exactly what it is) is to ask yourself, “Is this presentation focused on my products or the buyer’s well-qualified, well-researched needs?” I think everyone reading this knows the answer to that question.

The highest level of sales expertise, in my well-qualified opinion is what I call a “MODERN” approach. The distinguishing mark of this level of sales proficiency is that it doesn’t look like selling at all. In fact, in all my training classes, I frequently use the following phrase to vividly capture the spirit of the idea, “The more you act like a salesperson, the less you will sell.” As proof that I’m speaking the truth here I ask you to take a moment right now to conjure up in your mind what it means to “act like a salesperson.”

If you aspire to this level of professionalism (and effectiveness), I know of no better place to start than Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human. Among the many pearls of wisdom put forth by Mr. Pink, my favorite is the shift from buyer-beware (Caveat Emptor) to seller-beware. This caution flag truly conveys why a more modern approach is needed today. The relationship between buyers and sellers has changed dramatically due to the astounding availability of product information, social proof, and transparency via the internet. Buyers no longer lack access to high-value expertise, product information and category insights previously offered by sales people decades ago. As a result, THE SKILLS REQUIRED to be successful in sales have also changed.

A modern selling approach is about taking the focus off yourself and your products and placing it on he needs of your customer. It’s about postponing the urge to talk about your products and services long enough to find out what the buyer really wants. Sometimes THEY don’t even know so you’ve got to do a lot of research and bring real solutions/suggestions to the table. A modern approach is about empathy because, truth be told, quite often your product is not the solution they need. You have to EARN the right to ask for the business and that takes time. So a big part of the modern sales approach is patience. A saying that very much captures the spirit of the modern approach is this: You can get anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.

In almost every instance, I begin my sales training classes with the question, “Selling has changed- have you?” It’s natural to blame individual salespeople for not taking the initiative to keep up with the times and continually upgrade their selling skills. But, instead, I prefer to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of sales leaders and training departments who perpetuate antiquated sales approaches in their organizations. I do a lot of recruiting of salespeople for my consulting clients and I make it my personal mission to eliminate candidates with “old school” sales approaches as early as possible in the hiring process.

I’m sure the same can be said for a lot of sectors of the business world these days that if you’re still operating in the same ways you did ten years ago, you are already obsolete. “Transactional” sales people are a dime a dozen and offer no enduring value to an organization. By contrast, a “Modern” salesperson is one who truly understands a sale is merely a by-product of a much larger relationship and that adding real business value is the key to achieving greatness in sales.

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 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.
Contact info: