Demystifying Wholesale Wine Distribution

By: Becky Garrison

  At the virtual Oregon Wine Symposium held February 16-19, 2020, Jeff Lewis, Director of Education & National Sales, Revana Portfolio, and Colin Eddy, National Sales Manager, NW Wine Company, presented a seminar titled “Demystifying Wine Distribution: A Winery Toolkit to Help Build and Navigate Wholesale Distribution Across the United States.” They designed the seminar for winemakers looking to enter the wholesale channel for the first time, and those with existing distribution looking to expand their markets.

  Lewis and Eddy opened their conversation with a brief history of the 21st Amendment ratified on December 5, 1933, which repealed the 18th Amendment that launched prohibition. The 21st Amendment left it up to the states to govern the production and sale of alcohol. While every state has its own specific regulations, most stuck to the 3-Tier System separating producer, distributor and retailer.

  According to Lewis and Eddy, this 3-Tier System has multiple benefits. From a regulatory and educational point of view, this system ensures the safe handling of alcohol so that the final prod-ucts are safe for consumers. From an economic angle, this creates billions of dollars of local, state and federal tax revenue. The commercial benefits prevent a given winery from dominating the marketplace.

  Eddy said a key advantage of expanding into wholesale distribution is a daily representation of your brand. “You’ve got salespeople out there telling the story of your brand and letting custom-ers sample your wares. No one can be everywhere.”

  Distribution also ensures the ability to deliver products to licensed accounts in designated territo-ries and collect payment in accordance with state and federal laws so that both the manufacturer and producer get paid on agreed-upon terms.

  Another development that began in 2020 was a rise of online wine sales, with consumers pur-chasing bottles directly from a winery, a website like wine.com or an online service such as Drizly. Large wholesalers rolled out online purchasing websites that allowed retail shops, bars and restaurants to purchase wines online without the presence of sales representatives. “The les-son here is that people are comfortable having wine delivered to their home, and online platforms are getting future customers easier and safer access. That is something that’s going to continue,” Eddy said.

Achieving Success in the Wholesale Distribution Market

  Winemakers interested in expanding their sales should first ask themselves why they are inter-ested in wholesale distribution. “It’s important to remember you’re creating a whole new sales channel, and with that comes a whole set of variables,” said Lewis.

  Among those variables include how existing sales channels will interact with this new wholesale channel and how a wholesale distribution channel will impact the sales of wine clubs or winery-only wines. Is there enough wine in production to execute this plan?

  Lewis and Eddy broke down their approach into a toolkit designed to help winemakers achieve success in the wholesale distribution market. Their first recommendation is to review the current distribution landscape. Currently, there are 1,126 unique wine distributors across the U.S. In breaking down these numbers, 37% of these distributors reside in four states, with 141 distribu-tors in California alone. Also, the list of distributors continues to shrink and consolidate market share. Presently, the top ten distributors as follows: 

Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits

https://www.southernglazers.com

• 45 States

• 119 offices

• 1100+ wineries represented

•225 Oregon Wineries Represented (total U.S. market share 32%)

Republic National Distributing (RNDC)

https://www.rndc-usa.com

• 23 States

• 94 offices

• 1000+ wineries represented

• Major recent acquisitions in Young’s Market (2020) and Opici FL (2021) (total U.S. market share 19%)

Johnson Brothers

https://www.johnsonbrothers.com/suppliers

• 23 States

• 36 offices

• 430+ wineries represented California only

• 70+ Wineries represented (total U.S. market share 10%)

Breakthru Beverage Group

https://www.breakthrubev.com

• 16 States

• 40 offices

• 660+ wineries represented

Empire Distributors, Inc.

https://empiredist.com

• 4 States

• GA, NC, TN, CO 580+

• wineries represented

WineBow

https://www.winebow.com

• 22 States

•. 600+ wineries represented

• National Wholesaler R. Importer

Heidelberg Distributing Company

https://heidelbergdistributing.com

• 2 states OH/KY, 90+ wineries represented

• Services 26,000 retailers

Wine Warehouse

http://winewarehouse.com

• California ONLY

• 70+ wineries represented

Horizon Beverage

https://www.horizonbeverage.com

• 5 States

• Northeast Based

• 260+ wineries represented

Empire Merchants

https://www.empiremerchants.com

• New York only

  At present, there are 11,000 wineries, with 80% producing less than 5,000 cases a year. Another 16% of wineries are classified as small, producing 5,000 to 49,999 cases, 2% are medium pro-ducing 50,000 to 4,999,999 cases, and 1% are large wineries that generate 500,000 cases or more.

  Next, they said to explore what markets to target. An analysis of the desired markets will help determine which distributors would work best for those particular products you’re looking to sell. Where are people consuming wines, and which wines are they drinking?

  Along those lines, look at regulations in these particular states to assess if this is a market where it makes sense to enter at this junction.

  Presently, 13 states are one-price states. In these states, there’s no different pricing for restaurants or retail outlets and no quantity discounts.

•    Kansas,

•    Missouri

•    Oklahoma

•    Oregon

•    Virginia

•    New Hampshire

•    Utah

•    Idaho

•    Montana

•    New Jersey

•    Mississippi

•    Pennsylvania

•    Ohio. Also,

  Channel pricing is prohibited in 16 states. In these states, you cannot separate on- and off-premise pricing.

•    Kansas

•    Oklahoma

•    Virginia

•    New Hampshire

•    Utah

•    New York

•    Arizona

•    Washington

•    Idaho

•    Oregon

•    Montana

•    New Jersey

•    Mississippi

•    North Carolina

•    Ohio

•    Pennsylvania

  In addition, quantity discounts are restricted in Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Oklahoma.

  Next, Lewis and Eddy addressed state-controlled and franchise markets. Unless one has particu-larly strong relationships in an individual state, these markets do not represent an ideal place to start, and it can become difficult to change distributors should the need arise.

  The state-controlled markets are in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Utah, Wyoming, New Hampshire and Maryland (Montgomery County), where the wholesaler acts as a broker to the state, or you sell directly to the state as the manufacturer, creating another “tier” to sell through.

  The franchise market is loosely defined as a market or defined territory in which one has a con-tractually binding agreement of representation with a wholesaler. Generally speaking, franchise markets protect the wholesaler or distributor from losing revenue and brands they’ve worked to build over time. Before entering into one of these markets, research the franchise law agreements for that particular state and define the parameters around potential future releases. If possible, sign a contract with these parameters. Thirteen states are currently under a franchise market.

•   Connecticut

•   Georgia

•   Idaho

•   Maine

•   Massachusetts

•   Michigan

•   Montana

•   New Mexico

•   North Carolina

•   Ohio

•   Tennessee

•   Vermont

•   Virginia

  The final market type they addressed was price posting. In certain markets, the winery and dis-tributor must post their wholesale pricing in advance with the state. The five states that require monthly price postings are Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. Also, they touched briefly on special situations like SS packs, Cuvée cases, and other “work-around methods” in pricing wines for different premise-types.

Choosing a Wholesale Distributor

  Lewis and Eddy advocate asking your pre-existing relationships which distributors they would recommend. Also, define the distribution partner’s territory and assess if their market focus is in sync with those markets you’re looking to target. Then look at those distributors and determine where your positioning might be within their portfolio.

  Examine the number of their active accounts with a particular focus on those deemed their key accounts. Will a new brand get buried because they represent other similar varietals that will re-ceive greater attention from this distributor, or can they market a new brand effectively? Does the pricing for your wine fit in with this distributor’s portfolio? Where are their most active sales channels? For example, if a distributor primarily targets bars and restaurants for sales, they will not be the best fit for a winery looking to enter the retail market.

  Lewis added that another huge part of this equation is the sales team and territory. “You might end up splitting a state up because these mid-level and smaller distributors aren’t big enough to cover an entire state.”

  Be sure to explore the distributor’s overall operation. What is the size of their staff, and is this staff commissioned? Who are the key decision-makers, and what is their overall reputation with-in the wine industry? Is there an ownership change or other management issues? Are they look-ing to consolidate or expand? What is their timeline for paying their wineries, and do they pay them on time? Does their warehouse and inventory practices work for your particular needs?

  They recommend the SevenFifty website https://go.sevenfifty.com/ as a valuable source in identifying brand competitors and researching distributors, as well as price positioning and mar-ket positioning. The website also allows you to look at which producers wholesale distributors have in their book.

Launching a Wholesale Distribution Program

  Before releasing a particular wine, be sure your sales reps and brand managers have adequate resources so they can tell the story behind this vintage. Be clear where you want your wine sold, as well as the pricing for placements. Along those lines, register your labels when applicable, and allow for ample time for this registration process to be completed. Determine if you need addi-tional staff to manage both this new sales channel and inventory.

  When planning a market visit to a distributor, timing is everything. Many distributors hold their general sales meetings on Mondays and Fridays, with most of their sales staff in attendance. Hence, these meetings represent an opportunity to tell the brand’s story and have the staff taste these wines.

  When going on a distributor ride-along, be mindful that most ride-alongs occur Tuesday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The typical visit is six accounts, though it could be any-where from five to nine with a break for lunch. (You will be expected to pay for lunch). Ask to see a list of accounts you will be visiting in advance. In particular, you need to know if you are visiting on- or off-premise accounts, as that will impact your attire and the sales materials you need to bring. Know your pricing and be prepared with collateral. During these visits, be flexi-ble. The distributor arranged an entire day of appointments around your wines, so be mindful when they need to do tasks such as putting in an order. Also, expect the occasional cancellation.

  A few things Eddy suggested to keep in mind once you have a distributor in place include monthly tracking to check your inventory and update your distributor on progress versus goals. He said wineries should know when it’s time to change pricing and be aware of chain presenta-tion schedules. “You need to be clear with your distributor regarding where you want your wines sold.”

  Finally, nothing is more important than having a plan. “Have a plan going in. Check up on it, and follow up,” said Eddy.

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