The Big-Game Hunt

The ‘Big-Game Hunt’ for producers is on and this year it will be different.

Today we are in the most muddled and fast-evolving wine market I have ever seen.  In distribution, the fastest way to grab attention and a bump in the NYC market is to go on a big-game hunt and pull a prominent producer from their current import/distribution* partner.  In many cases, these prominent producers are represented by historic importer/distributors and have been for years.

The chase to represent top producers is not at all new–it is as old as the wine business.  However, last year saw some notable shifts in distribution that hint strongly at a domino effect towards a new paradigm: Smaller distribution players now have a stronger shot at taking an important, top-tier producer.

So what is different now? There are three primary reasons for the shift:

Old and slow

Up until recently, old-school, historic importers and distributors were close to untouchable. Approaching and taking the top producers from their portfolio was damn near impossible. Their relationships were strong, their numbers were rising, and their market penetration was deep. Further, there used to be a gentleman’s agreement among the historic players in the biz that poaching a producer was bad form**. That is definitely over.  Over time, many of these old-school distributors have grown in size and are now starting to show wear and tear.  They are the big, rusty ship with the small rudder: Immense power with slow turns.

The Brand mid-life crisis

After an incredible run of more than a decade in this market, highly successful producers are coming to a decision point.  The proverbial fork in the road. At the winery, many are experiencing a shift in leadership via a change in ownership or the owner/winemaker is passing along to the next generation.  In turn, the next stewards of these well-regarded estates are being forced to make difficult decisions about how their wines will be distributed.  Do they stay with their current relationship, or make a move to a smaller, more up-and-coming distributor?  It is likely that they have witnessed the change in the distribution landscape of the NYC market from afar and also likely that they understand enough to know that the market is more competitive and complex than ever.  Making a change could provide a much-needed brand reset…

Under pressure

Rampant growth over the years in the sheer number of distributors in combination with the NYC Market volatility creates immense pressure on the importer/distributor.  In this climate, the middle players in distribution have to make a move up, or it gets difficult to retain your current producers, salespeople, etc.  They NEED to get aggressive and pick up some attention, or they begin to go the way of the dodo…

The tide has turned and now a smaller player has a stronger shot at grabbing a historic producer.

The once untouchable, top distributors are going to continue to get beat up this year by up-and-comers.  Which producers will be with whom is up in the air, but for the first time in a decade, the big-game hunt from importer/distributors coincides with a free agency of producers, so I think we see some surprises.

Will these producers and their new distributors get the short-term attention bump and then the mid-term slump? Only time will tell. But I guarantee it will be fascinating to watch.

Note: Agility in distribution will win much more going forward.  Like a great linebacker: You need enough size (but not too much), intelligence, speed, AND agility.

*Above I have avoided addressing the nuances between the importer that is also the distributor (one that works directly), the importer that works with a distribution partner, and national distribution.  There will be changes in all, and I refer to them generally as ‘importer/distributor’.  

**The term ‘poaching’ also refers to stealing producers. It is used often and is more complicated than it seems.  A producer has to go through legal shifts, etc. to make a change, and changing distribution is always a two-way street.



Easy predictions for the coming year in the NYC Market:

More grower import portfolios.

More arguments over Natural wine.

More Sommeliers.

More good, buyable wine.

More mainstreaming of ‘Organic‘.

More Sommelier owned projects.

More “Lowest price in the Nation” marketing.

More ‘Craft’ spirits.

More Loire wines.

More old wines on Wine Lists.

More ‘small-scale’ California brands.

More wine programs with a value focus.

More appointment chasing.

More artisan producers changing hands..

We have more choices than ever before in the NYC market.

If you are part of the ‘fray of more’ above, the important questions are: How is it special?

How do you say something meaningful and truthful that resonates beyond a product or price?

What actually deserves attention?

If you can answer these questions well, you might move a market.


What Worked in 2016

Happy New Year.

Below is a look at a selection of the top-line things that worked in the NYC  beverage market in 2016, ‘fast and dirty’ style..with a few 2017 calls woven in.

  • The Quiet Giant – Chablis

It has been on a run for a while, but Chablis killed it. Again.  How is this category still undervalued?  I am not sure, but I like it.  You can still find mediocre Chablis, but it is a lot harder now than it was just a few years ago.   The obvious components of well-priced coupled with the Burgundy obsession enable the wines to sell more than ever before, but I think the consumer is opening up to more savory wines and Chablis hits that bullseye.  Fact is, Chablis still over-delivers as a category and even with some wonky availability coming via a rough vintage and a probable rise in price, I see Chablis having a strong 2017.

Broader category of note: Salty, mineral forward wines.  Whether it was Ligurian, Corsican, Albariño, Muscadet..the market gravitated toward this style more than in previous years.

  • The Grower and the.. – Sparkling wine

There is a real mania for sparkling reflected by expanded selections on lists and shelves.  Everything in this category is still in growth mode.  Prosecco grew, Domestic came on with some mid to upper-end allocated stuff, Pet-Nat made a move, alt-sparkling like Crémant and Austrian came forward.  Even Grower champagne with unpronounceable names got serious play.  It was pretty insane to witness and there is still a fair amount of runway here..

  • Sommelier Kryptonite – Old Wine

There is an addiction to old wine that makes the wine buyer weak in the knees (me, too).  As of this moment, anything of relative quality with depth of vintage is a serious play in this market. I would argue that the ‘provenance’ of the wine is a rare and fairly distant thought from the first reaction that comes from the old wine offer.  The addiction to old wine is not so different from any previous year, but the availability of old wine grew…see the next mover:

  • Fifty shades of.. – Outside the 3 tier

Was this the biggest year for wines outside the 3-tier system? Especially the consignment game? I would bet a bottle of 90 DRC RSV that it was.  Collectors, (and others), are realizing that there is serious business to be had here.  They can also have a seat at the table of a few of their preferred restaurants (or have ownership..), and see/drink their wines off the list.  The business here is bigger than most think.  And, since the SLA doesn’t want to touch this, it expands.  Obviously this is upper-tier focused now, but watch it grow..

  • WINNING – The Sommelier

Contrary to the well-written piece on Eater early this year about this being a “difficult year for Sommeliers”, 2016 was the absolute BEST year to be a Sommelier.  Very simply: There has never been a more advantageous time to be in the beverage business as a Somm. There are just more opportunities/possibilities, and some are taking great advantage..Most notably via making wine brands.  Also, there is more travel offered, more money, more notoriety.  Is it easier to work in a restaurant? That is a whole other question.

  • The ‘Well War’ – Spirits

Obviously, Craft Spirits as a broad category worked, but it is the ‘well war’ that is the most interesting and market moving.  This is the first year I have seen the beginnings of a significant dent in the old standby well placements across the city.  Since the Big Guys are focused on premium-ization, they have taken their eye slightly off the ball.  In addition, the alternatives to the big, regular, brand-driven well placements abound relative to just a year ago.  They are available from smaller distribution companies that are working with more agility than those that have dominated for a long, long time. This is not being taken lightly.  The management at the Big Guys are huddled in a room thinking of some serious programming to unleash…Full on f’d up deals only they could put forward that will attempt to disrupt the small piece of business they are starting to lose (small to them..). I think it is most likely too late…the tide has turned.

  • Natty, or not?  – Natural Wine

If one more person calls this a trend I think I have to punch them in the mouth. It is not a trend, it is a tribe. The actual wine has something to do with it, but the tribe is the primary cause.  And, because the ‘argument’ about Natural wine is strongly embraced by the press elite for a multitude of reasons (not the least of which is the strong reaction they get), this ‘category’ is a real runner. The craze for the wines on the West Coast also helps..Natural wine still feels nascent there. They also have less abundant availability.  This dynamic creates a boomerang effect in interest from one coast to another, reinvigorating the overall dialogue and placing attention on certain growers.  The big question: What happens to this ‘category’ when every real distributor in NYC has Natural wines in their book? We shall see..we are almost there now.

  • The Wild Island – Sicily

Sicilian wines solidified this year into a vibrant mover in the Italian category.  You have a spectrum of options in price and many styles including: Natural, old school, new school, slick, sweet, rustic..and from across the whole island. Overall, the quality varies wildly, but at their best the wines are scary good.  The Etna has been touted often, and I am in complete agreement: I think it is the wine discovery of our time.  It will be basically impossible to repeat the perfect storm of history, quality, age of vines, interest, and importation/distribution energy that made the magic of the Etna become so prominent, so quickly.  Imagine the wines produced since the year 2000 on the Etna.  It is incredible.

2016 was a big year for Bordeaux, especially on-premise.

  • Bordeaux – Travel sells..

The wines were always there, they were just lying somewhat dormant.  There is significant library availability via distribution and other sources (see above), and because Bordeaux over the past few years has dwindled, we feel the resurgence strongly. The recent placement uptick is noticeable.  The primary reason for the comeback is travel.  Importers, Distributors, the Bordelaise, etc., have been investing in taking buyers on trips for a few seasons and this has had a build-up effect.  On one hand, this is intelligent marketing to recalibrate the buyer focus, but at its core Bordeaux has the perfect storm of history, quantity and money on its side.  They have serious hand and this was the first year I saw it taking hold. Looking ahead, there will be added attention on Bordeaux Blanc and that will work really, really well..

THE REORDER 12/27/16

The Wrong Question

If you have logged many hours selling wine, avoid asking this question first:

“Why won’t this work?”

This question bubbles up because you begin to think like you have to checkmate the buyer…to be one move ahead of them.  As in: this wine is too expensive, they only buy Produttori, it is not classic enough in style and they won’t like it, etc.

This mentality comes from a good place: Attunement.  If you have put in the time interacting with beverage directors you have to anticipate needs or you won’t last long.  It is also super seductive. Counting down all the reasons a wine or spirit won’t work is often much easier than counting down why it will.

Trying to checkmate the beverage director is actually a form of hiding.

This happens to be one of the surefire ways to get really stuck. You become paralyzed by your process, mired in the wrong checklist.

A few strategies to get out of this:

  • Ask yourself what you are most excited about.  Start here.
  • Remember what you did as a rookie. Picture what resonated, now re-create..
  • Ignore all facts and go with the intuitive answer.
  • Divorce yourself from the instinct to focus solely on an immediate sales result.

Start by asking the right question and the narrative will find you.

THE REORDER 12/16/16


Why haven’t you responded to my emails?

It is possible I haven’t written anything of note.

Why haven’t you bought anything after more than a few meetings?

I need to ask better questions, listen more attentively, or move on.

Why isn’t the (insert hot shit wine category here) flying off the list?

I have to visit the restaurant to know the answer. Going online and looking at the list is not enough..

Why aren’t you coming to the tasting?

I likely created no need for you to attend.

Why won’t you take your ‘allocation’?

I am probably not offering it properly, or even more likely: we have zero dialogue and I am throwing a dart over my shoulder.

I think many of us are busy just repeating the same action of ‘sales’ without thinking about what the actual goal is..

Connecting someone to a wine or spirit is never a perfect science and rarely happens the same way twice.

The only way to sell exceptionally well is to begin with a real intention to connect.   Everything beyond that is about listening, communication and paying attention.

Sidenote: Beginning with the intention of ‘selling’ works often, but fades in an instant.

THE REORDER 12/09/16

Letter to a Young Wine Director

New York, NY

Dear Sir/Madam,

There has never been a better time to be in the position you are in. You are admired, trusted, pursued. You will have opportunities to travel the world, eat at top restaurants and share wines that very few get to experience. In the not so distant past the wine buyer was the General Manager or ‘wine captain’, and now you could be on TV or write a column in a large, well-known publication. This is your time. It is your turn. As you may know, I have been at this for a while. Throughout my career I have seen the same mistakes made repeatedly in the wine buying role and I am hoping that I can help you avoid a few of them, if only a bit. This is just the beginning, thank you for your trust.

Don’t write a wine list, paint a picture.

A wine list is a canvas, (usually an underserved, underutilized, and non-specific one). Take note of the way the eyes move across the page, the way numbers and names interact with each other and the person viewing it. The very architecture of your list is a study in movement and massively impacts the success of your program. At one point in history, we judged a wine list by having “things to drink”. Well, that time is basically over. Now it is more a question of how, rather than what.

What does the list you shepherd say? You need to know. If your narrative isn’t clear, you must tinker with it until it resonates.

Protect your time.

Many of your colleagues will present their “busyness” as a badge of success. They will use this often as an excuse and unknowingly promote chaos. Please don’t fall into that trap. If you truly have no time, it is a prison of your own making.

Ordering is a discipline.

How you order wine for your list and with what clarity says everything about how you work. Placing orders is a practice that is no less important than inventory. The amount of knowledge and tasting ability in wine director positions across the city today is at an all-time high, and yet, ordering sloppiness is startlingly common. Most disorganized programs begin with haphazard ordering and buying practices. Rushing and confusion can only follow..

Seek understanding.

Truly knowing a producer is quite rare. It takes very little talent or skill to know who the top producers are, while deeply understanding a producer and/or identifying the underserved, forgotten or new is a craft. Anytime one says that a producer is the ‘best’, take note. Please ask yourself if you can trust the person saying this. Is this someone who you envision tasting through an appellation and making that call reliably? Or even further, have they visited and looked deeply beyond the hype? Be very careful who and how you follow. You may be choosing to be a part of a flock moving always towards the same “chosen” wines.

No matter what anyone tells you, you are not a brand. You are a person.

You support people, not wines.

Sometimes it becomes romantic to make it “all about the wine”, but this is never actually the case. What you place on your list supports people. It takes care of producers that give their lives to make something, and aids the people who put the immense time, risk and energy into importing and connecting those producers to a market. This is a part of your art to treasure, not resist. People mean much more than wine.

And all success on your path. More to come.


THE REORDER 12/05/16

‘Selling’ Monfortino

Selling the wine that everyone is clamoring for takes zero skill..maybe less than zero.

You know what takes skill?

– Offering that wine to the right people.

– Having the hard conversation.

– Artfully saying No.

– Listening better.

– Anticipating actual needs.

– Challenging just enough.

– And, (most of all), weaving an overarching narrative along with that wine that resonates well beyond the no-brainer buy of that moment.

Having a good portfolio of wines to sell used to be enough, now it is much less notable."

Today you have to have more to say than the quick path to the easy sale.  In other words, the high impact wine isn’t the holy grail anymore..dialogue is.