Best Practices for ultra premium wineries that want to distribute to restaurants & retailers

By Mindy Joyce

Getting your head around how to sell to restaurants and retailers can seem daunting at first. There are a lot of considerations for a small winery, particularly around pricing, volume and how much time it takes to be successful. Mark Enlow from Zeal Wine Imports shared his expertise on a recent coaching call for Commerce clients at The Wine Foundry. To simplify what we learned, I’ve distilled our conversation into three key points; doing your homework, the importance of a compelling brand story and what it takes to secure and maintain restaurant accounts.

It’s easy to want to jump in and talk to a distributor or restaurant. The best bet for your first step is to do your homework. Look at the distributor’s portfolio and figure out where you fit into it. Understand who they are in terms of which brands they specialize in (mass market, boutique, artisan, organic, biodynamic, etc). Consider who your competition is in their portfolio. Consider the price points they specialize in. If selling to restaurants yourself, first understand as much as you can about them.   Understand their challenges and consider where you fit into their range of wines and price points i.e: Cabernets must be competitive in the category. Keep in mind the restaurant will generally mark up the price of your wines three times. Start with restaurants you already dine at, where you can or already have relationships.

The next step is to have your brand story ready to tell. What you tell the distributor or buyer should be a succinct and compelling story about why your wines are so special. Solid winemaking is a given at a certain point. Your story needs to go beyond the fact that your wine is high quality. You will need to tell this same compelling story to the servers and sommeliers (if you can attend pre-shift meeting). When it comes to restaurants, customers are really looking for entertainment value and this comes through in the story the service team tells on your behalf. Ensure they know who you are, what you are, what the name means, and what is so special about your wines.

When it comes to restaurants you may not be able to get an appointment with the buyer on the first try. If all else fails, then make a reservation and go out for dinner. Ask the staff who the buyer is, how they determine their wines, have them try your wine and pay the corkage. Understand where your opportunity lies. The volume is in the by the glass sales, however when you consider that the by the glass price will end up about the same as your retail price for your wines, the bottle list may be your only option. To be successful on the bottle list your wines should be priced in a manner that makes your wine competitive in the category/varietal on the list. Once your wine is on the list, your work doesn’t stop there. You need to keep going back on a regular basis to train staff, support the restaurant and keep your wines top of mind amongst the service staff. Keep in mind that the restaurant industry has a 300% annual turnover rate. You need to continue & maintain the relationship with the gatekeeper over time.

Enlow’s word of caution was to be careful about which retailers or restaurants you place your wines in. Placements at restaurants can be used to help customers buy into the rarity of your product. You can leverage these on your website, and also tell your fans about the restaurants on social media. This can also result in the helping the restaurant see the value of your relationship. “Whatever placements you make, that is where brands are built,” said Enlow.