The nine rules for landing a US distributor

Friday, 14. July 2017 - 12:00

Picture by Geoffrey Fairchild

An Italian winery snagged the cell phone number of an executive at the largest distributor in the US, and without the executive’s knowledge.

“They called me directly, without any initial communication regarding whether I might be in a position to talk to them about importing their wine,” says the executive, Alfonso Cevola, the import wine director for Southern Glazer’s D&E Fine Wine Group in Dallas. “I was caught off guard, and was polite, but explained to them that our company already had more than enough commitments for wines from the region. She didn’t even know if I was the right person to talk to. And to call straight away is a bit too assumptive.”

Sound like an exception? It’s something that happens all too often, say distributors, brokers, and importers in the US. Wineries who are desperate to find a US wholesaler too often forget that the proper etiquette in these situations is almost as important as the quality of the product.

“You’re not going to make a sale if the first thing you do is irritate the distributor,” says Andrew Stover of Siema Wines and Vino 50, an importer and distributor in Washington, DC.
The decision-makers at the biggest distributors – and even smaller ones – are contacted many times a day by producers looking for a wholesaler. Too often, say the decision-makers, the wineries know little about the distributor’s portfolio, whether they need a product from that part of the world, and how the distributor makes decisions. They just assume because it’s their wine, it’s wonderful enough for the distributor to take. That won’t work. Instead, say the experts, there are nine important points of etiquette to keep in mind.

The nine rules
First, does the distributor have a need for that wine? Is there a hole in the portfolio? If there are already 17 wines from your part of the world, it doesn’t matter how good your wine is. The distributor won’t need it.

Second, be patient. You’re going to hear a lot more nos than yeses, and even if you get a yes, the process can take months – or even longer with the biggest distributors.

Third, be professional. Don’t send form-generated emails addressed to ‘Dear Wine Buyer’. Know who needs to be contacted – most of the time, this is as simple as a Google search – and send your query to the correct person. And don’t keep nagging them if you don’t hear back immediately.

Fourth, don’t send unsolicited wine samples, says Stover. For one thing, they’re likely to go to waste, since no one will taste them because they’re unsolicited. For another, if they’re imports, the distributor may have to pay US customs on them, which will hardly endear you to the distributor.

Fifth, don’t make cold calls or try to set up a meeting if you don’t know the distributor. This, said the people interviewed for this story, may be the worst thing you can do. “Why should we give you our time if we don’t know you?” asks Stover. “That’s just being pushy, and not being smart.”

Sixth, trade shows are your best bet in attracting a distributor’s attention, says Jeff Dixon, who has worked for both producers and distributors. “At my distributor, probably 90% of the new brands we picked up came from existing relationships,” he says, “whether it’s new labels from existing suppliers or new brands that came to us through our existing network of contacts. The other 10% came from encounters at trade shows. To my knowledge, cold-calling a distributor or [sending] unsolicited emails never succeeded in gaining distribution for a brand.”

Seventh, figure out what makes your wine different. Is it unique – grapes, terroir, family history? Has there been significant media attention or high scores?

Eighth, know the answers to the distributor’s questions before they ask them, says John Bratcher of Rockridge Wine Traders. Is your wine priced competitively? Can you supply market support, either in money or personnel, or both? Is the winemaker available to work the market? What are projected sales? And why? How much of your product is available?

Ninth, the US is a diverse market, and one place is not like another. You must understand this complexity and be prepared to do what’s necessary to deal with it. A wine that may sell in Iowa may not sell in New Jersey, and vice versa.

Follow the rules, however, and not only will you have a better chance, you may end up building valuable relationships.
Jeff Siegel

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2017 of Meininger's Wine Business International. For more great information, why not subscribe? Or sign up for our free newsletter!