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Rise Up, Washington Wineries

National distribution can be daunting for any winery, not just Washington wineries. Distributor consolidation, the pandemic recovery, overworked sales reps, inflation, millennials who love spirits, shipping costs, grumpy distributor managers, weed, the list goes on and on. But…if you are determined, make great WA wine, and work through the challenges creatively and flexibly…you can and will be successful.

NOW is the moment in history for the Washington wine category to claim its rightful place on the national stage.

Why now? Why Washington?

1.      World class wines at relatively affordable prices!

o  Ultra-premium and luxury wines from California were already over-priced and are now trending even higher.

o  This inflationary environment creates an opportunity for unique, independent WA wineries.

2.      No port delays! 

o  Washington wines provide a unique alternative for distributors and accounts who worry about import delays and rising shipping costs.

o  In many cases, distributors are required to pay for imported wine that is still tied up in transit. Alternatively, domestic wines turnaround quickly and can provide instant cash flow for distributors.

3.      Why not WA? Fill a void!

o  In the midst of the pandemic recovery, distributors are looking for innovative, collaborative suppliers and new opportunities.

o  Who can help them pivot? Who can fill a void or a price point or a niche? Who can help them sell more wine? The pandemic taught the best in the business that open mindedness leads to success. Why not WA? Let’s go!

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How do we move the needle?  What do distributors want? Here’s the four key action steps to get the momentum going now:

1.      Don’t just build your brand, build the Washington category first – with ENTHUSIASM

o It’s clear, most markets outside of WA don’t fully understand what’s special about our great state, even members of the trade. In fact, many distributors outside of the NW have struggled with WA wine in the past and may be apprehensive about the category.

o Before you can successfully build your brand, you need to make sure your distributors (the gatekeepers) are as excited about the WA wine category as you are! You need to create WA wine ambassadors.

o They don’t really know much about us. Highlight fascinating Washington state attributes: “The drive from Western WA to Eastern WA will change your life!”, dramatic diurnal shift, longer light hours, ripeness + acidity = AWESOME, latitude shared with Bordeaux, Sustainable WA, unique geography/geology, 20 AVAs, the list goes on…. The Washington Wine Commission’s website has great information to help support our efforts. Washington State Wine Commission (washingtonwine.org)

o Talk about the tight knit winery community in WA. Highlight WA’s pioneering spirit, its kinship, its independent artisans, its humble farmers, its quirkiness, its music, its food, and its overall laidback vibe. Salespeople want to sell wine from people that they love from interesting places.

o When you celebrate your region in a compelling way, the word spreads and you gain credibility and respect within the industry. You become a leader!

2.      There are power in numbers – join forces!

o Find out what other WA brands are represented by your distributors. Collaborate with those wineries, offer to do a joint distributor panel on the diversity of WA’s vineyards, plan a special tasting together going head-to-head with California, organize a WA wine incentive featuring multiple wineries and special educational POS. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

o Talk to other wineries about what is working for them. Look at the category data and don’t manage your national business with tasting room blinders on.

3.      When it comes to your own brand – Focus. “If everything is important, nothing is important.”

o Start with a few markets where you are already doing some business and try to turnup the volume there! If you can’t manage and effect 3 markets outside of the Northwest, why would it make sense to try to open 3 more?

o Start with 2-4 wines to focus on, and they need to be star performers.

o If possible, lead with 1 or 2 (strategically priced) bread and butter offerings (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Red Blend, etc.)

o You may love your $70 single vineyard Grenache, but the odds of that item selling on a restaurant wine list for $150 a bottle in Florida are slim to none. Sell what sells – make your winery relevant, and once your brand becomes “hot”, then you can add on some of your more unique offerings.

o With distributors, stay away from generic “lifestyle” marketing designed for DTC. Distributors expect compelling and specific points of difference for your region, your winery and each of your wines.  They need even more ammunition to sell WA wines effectively.

4.      Communicate consistently and thoroughly with enthusiasm and creativity

o Your distributors sell hundreds of brands. They are inundated with complaints and requests from their suppliers and their accounts. Be part of the solution, don’t become a burden. You are on the same team – you both want to sell wine. Some of them have struggled with WA wines in the past, we have to make it easy for them!

o If there are issues with your brand (pricing, inventory, focus), work with your distributors collaboratively to find solutions. Schedule quarterly meetings with your distributor management team to review progress. If they don’t hear from you, they assume everything is ok. Again, they are juggling hundreds of brands, and they are trying to do their best.

Don’t assume when you leave the meeting your distributor is talking about you and your winery. Follow up your meeting with an email detailing what was agreed upon and keep communicating along the way until your goals are hit via email, phone call, and virtual coffee. Create relationships at every tier: General Manager > National Accounts > District Manager > Portfolio Manager > Pricing Manager > Front Line Street Rep – wherever possible.

o Constantly remind them of the 3-5 things that make your winery unique. Provide them with tools and keep your trade page on your website updated. Provide them with significant developments regarding your winery and about WA wines in general. Stay on their radar. Make it fun and make it worth their while.

OK, Washington Wineries! It’s time to step out of the shadows, let’s do this!

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