I have been on maternity leave for the last seven weeks, and for the duration (including the day I got home from the hospital), I’ve been getting terse voicemails on my cellphone from a winery representative (one who my company does not represent) complaining that they need me to call them back about getting their wines into the wholesaler I work for, and that it’s very rude of me not to call them back because they’re on a sensitive timeline. Let me just say this now: if you’re trying to make a good impression on a potential wholesaler, don’t do this.
Having said that, one of the most common discussions I have with my winery friends is about finding and establishing a relationship with a good distributor in various markets throughout the country.
As someone who receives multiple queries a week, and who spent many years building distribution networks, I’d like to share my thoughts on the best way to do it, whether you are a newer winery looking to establish distribution for the first time, or your relationship with your current wholesaler has run its course. These suggestions apply only to those seeking distributor relationships in the USA. International relationships are a different story and worthy of an entirely different post.
First, you need to figure out how many cases you need to sell in that market and what kind of wholesaler partnership you are looking for. I will address that in a separate post.
Once you have identified a potential wholesale partner and you have not met them in person or have not been formally introduced you will most likely need to send a query email. Email is my communication method of choice because it allows me to address it on my time, it is a record of all the information so I can easily search for it in my inbox if I have questions or want to share information with more team members (and is probably better as a record than my note keeping), and if for some reason we decide that now is not the time to work together, but some months down the road I want to re-open the conversation, I will be able to go back to the email and find your information.
The Blind Query Email
#1 most important rule: Keep it brief.
Pro tip: Before you write it, find out to whom it should be addressed. A simple call to the wholesaler or a click on their website should get you the requisite info.
In the body of the email, include the following information:
- Start with a concise statement about the winery and its history – 3 sentences tops. You can attach more info and pictures, but don’t make the files too large.
- Pricing and priority wines – I can’t tell you how many people send queries without including FOB pricing on their wines. Additionally, you may make 47 different wines, but I need to know what wines are the sales drivers (don’t say all of them). You should ideally have 2-3, but 5 tops – the rest you should be selling to your mailing list or via direct sales.
- Volume/Where you see your wines fitting — How many cases you produce, how many cases you are currently selling in that market (if you don’t have it established yet, share volumes for comparable markets), and how many you would like to sell (and generally what channel mix you see – mostly on or mostly off premise, or what percentage mix). DO NOT BE COY here. I have picked up brands I may otherwise have not have given a second look because I saw how much their existing distributor was doing and thought to myself, “Huh. If THEY can do that much, we must be able to do better.” Additionally, it’s important to be as transparent as possible in all of your communication with your wholesale partner, so if these are the people you will be working with (for years to come, hopefully), you will need to set clear expectations and get off on the right foot.
- Scores from Wine Spectator, Advocate, Tanzer, Galloni, Enthusiast or W&S. They don’t necessarily mean much to distributors, but they can help. Do not include any gold medals won or anything from wine competitions. No one in the wine trade cares about these. Seriously, do not include them. They make you look like a hack.
- Don’t send samples blind, unless you are cool with admin staff using them for their party on Friday night
- Don’t call or text the brand manager/owner on their cell
- Don’t try to get distributor sales reps involved – it puts them in the middle and they usually don’t have much sway over what brands get picked up
- Don’t offer to spend time in the market unless you are willing to either send principals to do sales meetings and wine events, or if you are a rep that is willing to stand in a retail shop and do in-store demos and go on crappy ride-withs or do work on your own. Offering to go on ride withs is something LITERALLY every winery person will do. That won’t help your distributor, other than to say you will do what literally everyone else will do.
Finally: If you are contemplating leaving an existing relationship with a wholesaler, be prepared. First make sure you are following all the state laws to the letter – you do not want to open yourself up to a lawsuit, especially in franchise markets. Make sure you are current with them (ie make sure you get paid for everything they owe you before you part ways with them). Be prepared to have them dump their inventory of your wine at or below their cost – this can potentially affect your depletions for the next 12-18 months. Lastly, be aware that those “friendships” you created with the wholesaler you’re leaving and all their reps may be completely done. It’s the saddest, most heartbreaking part of doing business in our industry.
Good luck and happy selling!