Wine Availability

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While I was reading through the posts for Good Reads Wednesday, I saw this post that deserved more than a brief mention:

Wine availability: Whose fault is it anyway?

The Wine Curmudgeon

This is a post about an interesting but seemingly unimportant issue: a reviewer says a wine can be purchased at a particular store, but it turns out it’s not there.

I have no doubt that this is something of a bummer for the consumer. After all, he’s gone to all the trouble of reading the review, deciding he wants to purchase the wine, contacting (or even visiting) the store that is supposed to be carrying it, only to strike out—no wine.

But the problem really points up a far bigger problem, at least for the small producer. If you’re not Gallo or Kendall-Jackson, giant wineries that have the market power to force themselves into, well, pretty much any place they want to be, then getting your wine to the consumer is really running the gauntlet.

For those not in the business, they can’t begin to imagine the difficulty of getting your wine into a local wine store. In most jurisdictions, you can’t legally deal directly with a retailer. Even if there were no legal impediment, selling to individual retailers in a far off state is, as a practical matter, just not going to happen. So, either way, you have to go through a distributor. But getting distribution in most markets is very difficult, and often downright impossible. Going to a market in a far off state and cold-calling distributors there is a bewildering process.

Looked at from the distributors point of view, they really don’t have a lot of incentive to carry a small winery’s products. Unlike Kendall-Jackson, most consumers have never heard of the small winery. And if they haven’t heard of it, they are probably not going to purchase it.

But there’s an even bigger problem, volume. I don’t know how many cases of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay get sold very year, but I would have to think it’s many millions. So if you’re a distributor, do you want to carry the wine that you can sell, at most, fifty or a hundred cases of, or the one where you can sell thousands of cases? And what if the thousands of cases are a much easier sell? The question literally answers itself. Even if the margin on the Kendall-Jackson is less, the volume makes up for it many, many times over. And where the distributor can expect the retailers it services to pick up the Kendall-Jackson pretty much sight unseen (and wine untasted), the small retailer is going to carry only a relatively small number of the myriad of small winery wines that it gets to choose from. So selling a small, unknown brand is a tough, hard sell for the distributor.

Everything I’ve said about the distributor applies with equal force to the retailer, so I won’t repeat myself.

Then the wine reviewer has a somewhat similar perspective. Maybe they are more interested in trying out something small, but they are going to lean towards reviewing wines that their readership can actually find and buy if they are so inclined.

So the path from the winery to the consumer’s dinner table is like a chain—it’s only as good as it’s weakest link. If some ordering clerk at the distributor, or the retailer, falls down on his job, your product won’t make it to the shelf. Or maybe that clerk is just more concerned with making sure the Kendall-Jackson order is placed and filled. I really don’t know the reason. But I do know that to get the product into a state, then into the store, and then reviewed, is a herculean task.

So when the reviewer tells you about this great wine that can be found at Mike’s, or Jake’s or Whoever’s Wine Store, and it’s not there, all that effort is for naught. Whatever the problem, the incredible effort it took to get that wine into the market and reviewed is flushed down the toilet.

So when you, the consumer, try to find the wine that is reviewed, and can’t, you should at least bear in mind that you’re not the biggest loser.

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2 Responses to “Wine Availability”

  1. Martin Cody says:

    The consumer has every right to bemoan the availability of a wine reviewed by a columnist. I think we can all relate firsthand to the frustration of driving to a retail store to purchase something advertised-promoted-pitched only to find out the store is out. It doesn’t matter if it’s wine or snow shovels–it’s frustrating.

    I disagree that “…the effort to get that wine into the market and reviewed is flushed down the toilet.” There’s an important element working in favor of the small winery that KJ or Gallo don’t have–scarcity. The fact that said wine was gone “may” force that consumer to pursue it faster next time. Trust me, I know all too well the trials of the three-tier system as I own a small wine store catering to small, boutique producers. The system is not without fault as a modest investment of 30 minutes time will reveal, however there are ways for small producers to leverage the internet to their favor in many more markets than the distribution channel. Many wineries do a masterful job of creating awareness through FB, Twitter, their email blasts, regional tastings, brand ambassadors, etc., and they have precious little distribution. The three tier system certainly does not favor the sub 10,000 case producer (or 90% of all US wineries) but there are ways to thrive and the customer is slowly learning about channels other than retail to secure these great wines. Those ways are increasing and precisely why the distribution channel is doing everything possible to rewrite laws.

    Good luck,

    Martin A. Cody
    Cellar Angels, LLC

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