3 "Uncomfortable Truths" in the Wine Business

Warning: this post may offend some people. My intent here is not to offend, but rather to talk openly about some of the unspoken business related issues in the wine industry.

Below are 3 statements that you will likely never hear someone in the industry explicitly say, but if you're in the business you have surely seen some examples of these "uncomfortable truths."

1. Distributors are f*cking lazy

Yes, I said it. We all know it. The fact is that distribution is caught in between two very different business models and this dichotomy often manifests itself in the form of "lazy" behavior.

The first business model of a distributor is a pure logistics operation - moving bottles FOB from the supplier's warehouse to the retailer. The second business model is a sales and brand management operation - building up brands in the local market with retailers and consumers.

These two operations require dramatically different skill sets and focus, however the logistics component is not an optional activity (distributors have to move bottles in order to create sales) whereas the brand building is often seen as discretionary activity. 

Brands often see a lack of effort in brand building as "lazy" and have to resort to tactics ranging from sales incentives to the squeaky wheel approach in order to get distributors off their ass.

The point is, given the choice between representing a product with a strong brand vs. taking an unknown brand and building it, distributors will almost always take the former.

If you're a brand and either trying to get distribution or frustrated with your distributor, just understanding this is the reality of our lovely 3-tier system. 

2. Anyone can create a good $40+ domestic wine and we don't need any more of them

I personally love Pinot Noir and I love what many wineries in California and Oregon are doing to make truly fantastic Pinot. 

But, the wine industry doesn't need another $40+ Pinot. And the industry doesn't really need another $40+ domestic Cab, Chardonnay, Merlot or Rhone blend either. There are simply too many of them out there because they are too easy to make.

I am not downplaying the masterful work of many winemakers, but what I am saying is that if I went on the hunt for $4,000/ton grapes I will likely find some options from fantastic vineyards. Then if I seek out a talented winemaker willing to take on a side project at the right price, I will be able to put those grapes in good hands.

The resulting wine will be of very good quality and the economics will work out such that it will most likely price in the $40 retail range. 

There are just too many of these new labels out there and even a 90+ score doesn't do much anymore. Ultimately at this price point the differentiation and success will be on the branding and marketing side, not necessarily the quality of wine. 

3. Your growth expectations are probably unrealistic

Let's remember that wine is a very mature industry and aggregate growth is in the 2% range annually. Even if we isolate the premium segments, we are still in single digit growth territory.

When you build a business plan that calls for 20%+ year-over-year growth, you therefore assume that you will be outperforming the industry in a big way. Mathematics tells us that for every company/product that grows 20%, another company/product must be declining.

The problem is, you never hear anyone saying "we plan to grow by -10% this year."  It reminds me of the surveys of automobile drivers where something like 90% of people say they are an "above average" driver. 

There are of course certain categories that grow much faster than the overall market. Rose, sparkling wines, can wines... but if you're not in one of those categories, what assumptions are you using to arrive at growth rates that are multiples of the overall industry?

You may want 20%+ growth, but the market likely cannot support that. For brands, you might get frustrated with your distributors and call them lazy. For distributors or retailers, you might overstock and get backed up on inventory.

The result? Brand dilution. Wines get put on discount, closeout or flash sites to generate cash for the next vintage.

A better suggestion - develop a business model based on assumptions that are more grounded to the reality of the industry rather than a desired growth number.

There is still hope

Unless you're planning to take a new $40 retail wine to market through the distribution channel and grow 20%+ per year, there are ways to put better odds in your favor.

The first step is just acknowledging the "uncomfortable truths" in the industry and using these to influence your strategy.