I Just Called to Say…[ ]

One of my old bosses used to call me up and ask me random questions, like what my brand manager’s children were named and how old they were, or what featured wineries were on the pre-recorded promo tape that played on XYZ Distributor’s phone line while you were on hold. If I didn’t know the answer, he’d accuse me of being out of touch, and therefore on thin ice with my territory’s sales. I was so paranoid that I started getting into the habit of randomly calling up my brand managers just to say hello so I could check the box. I literally would ring them up and ask them, “So… how’s it going?” And then I would wait for the awkward pause because I had no agenda or any real business to discuss with them, and we’d shoot the breeze for a few minutes before the whole uncomfortable phone call was over. But at the time, I just knew I was supposed to be getting “mind share” from my brand manager and that was how I thought you did it.

If you know me, you know I am obsessed with reading Wine Industry business publications, and something I have been thinking about a lot lately is a picture I saw in the September 2017 issue of Wines&Vines.


If you sell wine for a small or mid-sized family winery, you are already painfully aware of this – competing for attention not just from your brand manager, but with distributor sales reps AND accounts, up against hundreds of other wineries in the same portfolio.

Obviously as someone who works on the wholesale side of the (fine wine) business, I believe in the need for wholesalers – the ones who do it well are partners with their wineries and believe in the stories they have to tell and the value it adds to everyone’s business. But the three-tier system is harder than ever to navigate. Consolidation is happening everywhere, and getting time and attention from anyone at a distributor is a challenge. With hundreds of brands in books, and managers stretched thin, time with a distributor brand manager is critical, but how do you make it count? As one friend who works for a winery recently asked me, “How often should I be reaching out to my distributor, and when I do, what do they want to hear?”

On average, wholesalers should be getting monthly emailed updates about inventory and any pertinent vintage changes/releases/personnel news you have going on at the winery. Depending on how much wine you sell in a given market, you may speak to your brand manager once a week, or two times a year. Any time you reach out, you should be adding value to the business relationship by providing useful information in a timely, expedient manner.

To that end:

  1. If you are emailing, keep it short and sweet. The sweet spot for email length is between 50-125 words. Otherwise it’s TL;DR. If you have extra information you just HAVE to share, like a story about the inception of a new wine, or something like that, include it as an attached PDF.
  2. If you are calling, have an agenda and be prepared. Distributors send you depletion data that takes a lot of energy to compile. Please use it and familiarize yourself with the market you are calling about instead of asking them to do it again for you. For example, if you are emailed monthly depletion reports by account, you probably shouldn’t call up your brand manager to ask what restaurants are good supporters so you know where to dine when you visit their market in x amount of days. Just look at the reports.
  3. Call with good news occasionally. Use that depletion data to say, “Hey, I noticed that you made 8 new placements of our Red Blend in restaurants last month. That’s fantastic!” Sometimes brand managers don’t have time to look at data that granular on a daily basis, so being reminded of specific successes helps keep certain wines at the front of their mind and can lead to further sales. Also, most of the time wineries call to complain or push for more business. I am a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey. Recognizing when things are working well often is inspiring enough to get people to continue doing what they are doing, and do more of it!
  4. If you are sending excel files, please for the love of god – format them correctly so they are easy to read. The formatting should be uniform and pages should be optimized for printing (headers repeat across pages, formulas line up. My biggest pet peeve is #DIV/O!. If you don’t know how to fix this, use Google to find out how, or just take a few online tutorials. Excel is the greatest business tool in the world, but only if you use it right. I love when winery reps send me beautiful spreadsheets.
  5. Never call just to ask, “So, how’s it going?” Your job is to know your business – if it’s up or down, and you’re not sure why after going over depletions and IRI/Nielsen data (if you buy it – if you don’t, this is a great resource to look at trends around the country), ask them about specifics. Brand managers appreciate when wineries take the time to learn about their market and understand their business – it feels like a partnership when wineries are familiar with the market, it’s laws, quirks and customers/key players.
  6. Don’t send important business information in a text message. Send it in an email. Otherwise it will be forgotten/ignored/misplaced.

How to Have a Successful Year End Planning Meeting

I have this really clear memory of a distributor review meeting, sometime in my mid-twenties, that makes me cringe every time I think about it. Not because of the ridiculous outfit I was wearing, though it was – I have pictures of myself from this time period and for some reason I thought super flared jeans and wispy bangs were a good look – but because, knowing what I do now after many years of brand/sales management on the wholesale side of the wine business, basically everything I said in that meeting was a complete waste of my distributor’s time.

Y Tho

Y tho

I think I showed up to the meeting with a legal pad and a pencil, and only possibly my laptop with a wifi connection so I could glance at some shipment reports, but really I just thought you showed, up, asked for increased shipments, and gave the distributor a target list (I think I literally copied and pasted something from Wine Spectator’s restaurant awards) and hoped for the best.

I remember sitting there, asking the owner of the distributor why their numbers were so far down and getting an exasperated sigh after he walked me through their depletions (way up) and accounts sold (also way up). Evidently I hadn’t thought that loading up a distributor the previous year on wine that they didn’t need yet didn’t necessarily translate into increased depletions. (Andy Pates, I am so sorry. I owe you so many cocktails for your insane levels of patience and politeness.)

To come full circle, I had lunch recently with a girlfriend of mine recently who runs sales for her family’s winery. We don’t work together, but she did ask my advice about how to successfully execute a year end planning meeting with her distributors, and so, upon reflection of my many poorly planned meetings of yore, I have come up with a list that, while no means exhaustive, should be a good jumping off point for your own planning meetings.


  • Do not bring up shipments. These are irrelevant to any wholesaler. They make their money off depletions and in theory, if the wine is depleting well, shipments should follow.
  • A year end meeting is not a chance to air all your grievances – if there are serious issues, by all means, bring them up. But this is not a time to nitpick every small detail.
  • Come prepared with depletion data so you are both on the same page. This means:
    1. Sampling data (ie how many sample bottles vs how many sold – if the number is low, offer to support 100% sampling for certain periods or certain wines. If the wines are not being shown, the wines will not sell. If sampling is high, and sales are soft, perhaps the problem is with your wine)
    2. Overall depletions by wine
    3. Your account universe – is it getting bigger or smaller? What about sales by channel? Are sales to one retailer or restaurant disproportionately large? If you have targets for accounts sold or actual accounts, have these ready too.
    4. A comparison of your sales in that state with your other national markets
  • Be transparent about goals – starting with sharing your production levels, what your winery growth for the year (and years ahead) looks like, and understand that though 2016 might be the biggest vintage you’ve ever had and it was unexpected, just because your production grew 20% doesn’t mean your distributor can grow 20% too, unless the market/distributor is new for you and is also having explosive growth.
  • Make sure you have pricing information/price grid* and any budget for incentives or deals already figured out. It’s always better to be proactive than reactive – and also to let your distributor know that if you DO have to be reactive, that you have a budget to work with if you need to stimulate sales by dropping prices for a short period, or support sampling, or run incentives.
    1. To that end, if you want to run incentives, have them ready before the meeting. Hammering out details of these things during planning meetings takes an inordinate amount of time and 99% of them are rarely effective anyway.
  • Don’t ask, “how can we help?” unless you mean it. Are you prepared to either pour at retail tastings (or pay to have someone do it for you), work with reps in parts of the market that don’t have all the cool somms and Instagram-worthy restaurants but nonetheless have potential for sales, or host wine dinners at clubs where most people will be drunk before the first course, but again, you still might sell a lot of wine (but you also might not)?
  • Don’t go over an hour. Anything beyond that is a waste of time for one winery.


Did I miss anything?


*To figure out the gross profit margin and gross profit margin percentage your distributor is making on one of your wines, here’s how you calculate:

Wholesale Price minus FOB (with taxes/freight)=gross profit


Gross profit/wholesale price=gross profit margin percentage

So, for example on WINE XYZ:

The distributor’s wholesale price is $13.99 (that would put the wine at $19.99 retail on a shelf)= $167.88/case wholesale

WINE XYZ FOB price is $120/case.

Distributor laid in costs are $120 (FOB) + $5/cs freight/taxes=$125 (freight and taxes vary wildly from state to state so please check with your distributor. This is merely an example)

Gross profit on a case of the wine is therefore $167.88-$125=$42.88

Margin is the gross profit divided by the case price $42.88/$167.88=.255 or 25.5%

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

I can remember the first time I ever had to “fire” a distributor—I was given the directive by my boss, and for a week, I sat and stewed about how I would do it. I finally wrote myself a little script, and with some resolve got my nerve to pick up the phone to call—my stomach was in my throat, my heart was beating rapidly and my mouth was dry. As the phone rang, I silently recited what I would say. The person on the end of the line answered so good-naturedly—I felt awful for what I was about to do. We exchanged some pleasantries and I awkwardly blurted out, “The reason I called is because I have some bad news. Unfortunately, we have decided we’d like to take the winery in another direction and we have decided to move to another distributor.” Of course, this is when the conversation veered off script. The person on the other end of the line started throwing out numbers and percentages about how our business had grown, and how this was a complete and total shock. As they talked, I realized that they were probably right—that they HAD done what they thought was, at the very least, a decent job, and that the winery had never approached them about the fact that we were unhappy with their performance and given a chance to try to change it.

I mostly just included this picture because it came up when I did a google image search for “awkward phone conversation.”

Even though I’m not working right now, I see my friends at wineries around the country wrapping up their fall travels, and begin looking towards the New Year, while taking stock of the progress and challenges of the previous one. This is a time where people start forecasting for their year-end meetings, and in some cases, start making plans to change distributors. The worst conversation you can possibly have in the wine business is the one where you tell a distributor you are planning to leave, and they have no idea that you were unhappy. I had a friend tell me once that when she left a distributor, it felt like a breakup—they weren’t even on speaking terms anymore.

So before you decide to make a move, please learn from my mistakes and consider the following:

Have you told them exactly what you expect?

  • No one can read minds—and even if it might be obvious to you, remember that distributors have hundreds or thousands of wines they represent so being pointedly honest and well prepared about what exactly it is that you expect is extremely important.

Have you asked them if they think your expectations are reasonable?

  • The sales you want to achieve might seem like a no-brainer to you, but distributors know their business and their market better than you do. They are your partners and so it’s important to remember that you need to listen to their side of the story and take into account their honest assessment of what can reasonably be done.

Have you visited the market regularly or supported them in any way?

  • If you haven’t been to their market, how can you even conceive of how much business they can do for you? San Francisco and Indianapolis have roughly the same population, but the markets are drastically different. Evaluating what one market might against one of a comparable size is like apples to oranges.

Do you have relationships with their Reps?

  • They can often offer valuable feedback about how your wines are received, or if they take them out regularly, if at all.

Have you gone over pricing? Have you offered any programs? Samples?

  • No one can sell your wine if no one knows what it tastes like.

Have you been consistent in your follow up?

  • People have a lot on their plates these days. Gentle reminders (maybe once every month, not daily as I have heard from some brand managers) can be effective—spreadsheets with information on depletions and shipments against expectations have proved helpful for me.

If ultimately you decide you need to make a change, I offer the following suggestions for a smooth transition:

  1. Make sure you are not breaking any franchise laws.
  2. Make sure that before you tell them you are moving, you have paid them for all bill-backs and that they do not have any outstanding invoices.
  3. You have a plan and the money to pay them for their existing inventory—will your new distributor buy it? Will you buy it back?
  4. Make sure IT IS NOT A SURPRISE. One of the people I admire greatly is a guy who has left any number of distributors over the years, but he has been able to do it with class, grace and a sense of dignity—each of the companies he has left has not been surprised—they’ve been a part of the conversation, have been given ample chance to correct or improve business, and ultimately both parties came to the table mutually agreeing that while it was sad, the winery was not a fit for them any more. In all cases, they have remained friendly years down the road. I think that’s something we should all aspire to.