THE REORDER 01/15/21

Of Price and Then…

Selling wine and spirits using the price to drive sales is almost always a bad idea.

When this tactic works, the result can be exhilarating – everyone likes to make a big sale. That number that gives a super dopamine hit. Here’s the rub: someone out there has a comparable product with a lower price.

If you do choose this path, make sure you have other arrows in the quiver besides price. Anchor on story. Lean into on dependability. Or – just be thankful and use it to move forward into other things you can connect to the buyer that aren’t reliant on price.

One thing to note: In the extremes of the commodity side of this business (collectible or giant production products), selling on price can be especially effective, but remember – commodities are a volatile sector – and for good reason. Approach with caution.


Predictions for 2021

If 2020 was an earthquake, 2021 is about rebuilding. Below are my predictions for 2021 – hang tight, it’s going to be a wild one that will ultimately reshape the whole beverage business in surprising ways.

Silicon Valley and Wine?

Can the wine world handle the new tech bro entrance? Will we accept hoodies and all birds? I am currently wearing both…DOH.
Tech is going to more strongly enter the wine world. Whether it’s a platform or marketplace like Sevenfifty, AI to learn consumer’s taste, another new product or app trying to “democratize” the wine world, or a platform to make ordering easy. Wine Tech is coming, and I don’t mean the “we want to be the Amazon of wine” people, that’s hogwash. I mean a tech perspective on wine problems.

What’s certain is that a tech hat put on a scalable product works, but it doesn’t match up with the artisan/farmer wine model. In other words, it’s hard to go tech with artisan products coming from the old world where faxes and 80’s pop music are still a thing.

Someone is going to solve the right wine world problem with tech and it will be the beginning of a massive shift in the beverage ecosystem.

Subscriptions Galore

As consumption at home and delivery to those at home solidifies as a bigger part of the game, we are going to see a sizeable amount of subscription wine clubs formed – both through existing brick and mortar retail and independent operations. Anyone who wants to scale their subscription into something real is going to realize that it’s hard to move wine around the country. Those who have it grooved and/or figure it out will win big.

The New Retail

If the experience of buying wine and spirits is like going to the gas station, then prepare to watch the retailers offering this experience squirm and struggle. The new retail is going to focus on the digital shopping experience, in-store operations, service, and delivery. From the first interaction to checking out, the experience will be the focus for those that want to win. Quibble with Total Wine or the like all you want, but try shopping online, in-store, and/or taking delivery from them. It’s brilliant. That’s where it is all going in retail.

A Great Reorganization

We are going to see rebirth and reorganization across the board in the beverage distribution and import ecosystem. If the import/distribution game was a chessboard, imagine an empty board that will be reset in a new combination we have never seen before.

There will be new players, consolidation, and a staggering amount of producers up for grabs. Along with this shift, importers with means will go more direct to have more control over their own destiny. It’s not the sort of switch you can just turn on or off and is harder than it looks – but direct is the new direction.

The gangster move is a consolidation of a few mid-size players – who will that be?

Private Labelism Hits New Heights

There is going to be a TON of juice available at a discount. The exhale of inventory of all of this available juice will be through current private labels and a startling number of new private label projects.

New Size Formats

Holy shit, this is huge, especially in the spirits space. New size formats of 700ml, 720ml, 900ml, and 1.8L for spirits will extend the lines of many known spirits brands and even more newcomers. It’s a huge advantage for those working with distilleries in the EU and Japan. This will be a gamechanger in Q3/Q4 and lead to record spirits sales.

Tariff Madness

On his way out, the Orange Monster is attempting to burn everything down and hand the next guy and his administration, not just a shit sandwich, but a full tasting menu of shit. For the cheese course, we in the wine and spirits business get this: there are more tariffs in play. This new round represents a financial and emotional migraine for the business that is going to take quite a bit to get rid of and is going to cause some casualties. We have to hope for get a new deal with the new administration.

Low and Soft – the Low Alcohol Trend Accelerates

Low alcohol is going to get a lot more attention this year. Brands like Ghia and Seedlip are going to see more competition and more play. Look for well-known distillers to jump into this space with line extensions of low to no alcohol that mimics beer brands that produce low alcohol products.

Big Box Natural

This year we are going to see the solidification of the Big Box Natural phenomenon. Wines that would have never fit into the burgeoning category five years ago because of the size of the producer or their mission will be publicly accepted and will hit more shelves than ever. This is directly related to the ascending demand and price of the en vogue wines and the business sense of the Natural Wine Tribe.


The Birth of Big Box Natural

A few months ago the Valentina Passalacqua drama* was the go-to conversation in the wine streets of NYC, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Bressan issue of a few years ago.

As shocking as this is, there is no doubt Valentina Passalacqua will have US representation again. And like Bressan, the drama will be placed into a dark and unsuspecting corner of the mind of the market and the wines will find their way onto lists and shelves.

But below the surface of the Passalacqua drama was a significant development – a new iteration of the natural wine movement I am calling Big Box Natural.

Filling a Need

In February, my wife and I went to a wonderful restaurant with a voluminous natural wine list in Montréal and I asked the talented and well-traveled sommelier about the current craze for the V. Passalacqua and his response was startling:

“She is rich and has 80ha of vines. Her wines fill a need.”

Which need is that? Between the lines of this statement is a powerful cultural shift in the shape of the natural wine tribe movement.

Valentina Passalacqua didn’t just expose worker rights and issues, Passalacqua cemented the new business model – Big Box Natural.

And with it, comes a whole new iteration of the natural wine movement that has a far-reaching impact. What was unthinkable a few years ago has happened. Natural now has a proven, scalable, and repeatable business model and will get the full profit-driven treatment.

The Fundamentals of Big Box Natural

A decade ago, the early-adopting ambassadors of Natural laughed when you called a family estate of 15ha “a small estate.” Now, that definition no longer applies.

We are a long way from the barely-attended Dive Bouteille held outside in the rain.

The market driving forces of the Natural Wine Movement have been scarcity, fear of missing out on the new producer, approachable prices, and most importantly, being a part of a fun, kinetic tribe that is going against the grain. This is a movement that thrives on being David versus the commercial wine Goliath.

But, because demand firmly outstrips supply and pricing is now elevated, the producers of the Natural Wine Tribe have encountered a conundrum that will drive this new business narrative: not enough wine and less affordability.

The fundamental change in the Natural Wine Movement is that large production is no longer off the table. Big estates that would be laughed at as a member of the tribe will now be considered natural. It’s done, and Valentina Passalacqua proved it.

According to the facings in stores today, even a large farm where a portion of the vineyards are farmed sustainably, another portion organic, and the third portion biodynamic, can produce natural wine. These wines are bought by the truckload and portrayed as natural on shelves and lists.

Going forward, having a larger quantity available at a moveable price tier is where the action will be. Wines that hit that magic fire price point below $19.99 will become much more prevalent.

For the above reasons, you will see many more private labels masquerading as Natural. Veiled collaborations that make it sound like a well-known producer made the wines or they were made to certain specifications. Even wines where the source is more than dubious will be passed off as natural.

In concert with this phenomenon, many natural wine producers will start sourcing from outside their appellation, expanding their holdings, and borrowing/trading fruit to supplement production and profit.

Large retailers will buy these labels from private-labelist importer/distributors until they decide to jump past the importer/distributor and source their own next best thing at the lowest possible price, expanding this space even further.

Big Box Natural is the new fire category where the growth is going to be dramatic, mind-bending, and turn this David into more of a Goliath player.

Will this snake eat its own tail? Will this ruin the artisan, wabi-sabi model, or will all boats rise?  We are going to find out in 2021.

*For a quick take on the V. Passalacqua drama, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an eloquent piece you can read here.

THE REORDER 11/16/20

The Art of the Progression

Outside of the very few most talented wine tasters I have been around, the order in which wines are tasted has a massive impact on the context, tone, and experience of every wine in the lineup. Each wine sets the tone for the following wine tasted.

The tasting experience is shaped by the progression. This concept can be less vivid with spirits for a multitude of reasons (like proof, for instance), but the tasting order definitely comes into play.

Incredibly, I rarely see professionals think twice about order progression. This is a colossal error. Look no further than Ye Olde Robert Parker to see where a standard lightest to fullest progression can lead. It ain’t pretty.

EX: Taste a muscadet followed by a white burgundy with oak and the oak will appear to be accentuated – even if the burgundy is balanced like a top.

In the best case, a tasting is like a concert where the songs flow together and follow each other well, and in the worst case, it’s a disjointed set.

When there is a jarring shift like Muscadet to Burgundy, I find that elegant storytelling, an acknowledgment of the difficulty, or a pause can ease the “difficulty” in the transition from one wine to the next.

Bottom line: Don’t underestimate the importance of the order in which you present wines or spirits – next level tasting and presentation pay attention to the progression.  It goes well beyond light to full, low tannin to high tannin, austere to broad – standard practice can lead you astray.

No rules truly apply – except (of course) experience.


Reality Show Wines

Have you had Snookie’s Silvaner, Flava Flav’s Furmint, or the New Bachelorette’s Beaujolais?

Not yet, but with the way things are going they will soon be at your neighborhood shop with a proper label from a high-powered marketing team.

They may come with a large, cartoonish clock, or be as simple as a new sexy wine marketing term like clean wine.  Minimalist labels will have the celebrity’s name front and center with typography that is SO perfectly on-brand. Bonus: they will almost always have a winemaker from a notable winery “making” the wine to add a sliver of market viability (or a questionable veneer of substance).

Celebrities are crossing the rubicon in droves to not just drink on Instagram live, but lend their names to wines and build brands to add to their expanding portfolios. It’s easy to picture the marketing meeting that led to most of these celebrified wine projects.

Just a few months ago, I read that a certain celebrity wants to “create the defining brand of rosé Champagne,” and I laughed out loud. Then I looked into who is involved and it just made me sad.

I will always give any wine a fair shake, but I can’t look out into a multi-layered, under pressure beverage marketplace during this pandemic and not shiver at the reality show wines appearing on shelves in large quantities. I get the allure – these wines bring easy sales or there may be some new customers that call. But I ask you, what has happened to your conviction? What are you left with?

The moment Nate Ready makes a Napa Cabernet for Elon Musk (Flamethrower Cabernet?), I will concede. There might even be short term positives to the celebrification of wine, but there will no doubt be a hefty price to pay.

Sadly, I believe these reality show wines are in large part another symptom of a segment of the wine world that wants reality show wines of low substance, high celebrity, and barely-there soul.

THE REORDER 10/15/20

Which Bucket, Again? The Cliff Noting of Wine

There is comfort in putting things in neat little categories.

That perfect bucket that this producer or wine fits into sure does save a lot of exploration.

It feels good to Good Will Hunting the answers. Placing that Barolo perfectly into that traditional producer bucket sounds good. Drawing a deep line in the sand by saying everybody else cheats in Sancerre except the producer you are passionate about is fun and creates tension.

Declaring that wines or producers belong in these categorical buckets fits perfectly into a 5-second pitch may seem like the viable tactic, and everyone does it. But ultimately these categorical buckets lack stuffing and only create a whisper of context at best.

Before you throw out that shorthand and place that producer or wine in the bucket of the moment, I might ask this question: Why?

Why is that producer traditional or natural or trendy or allocated or modern?

Become a student of these tidy categories thrown about on the regular but look past the veneer, go deeper and you will make many more waves.

THE REORDER 10/01/20

Sustainable Sales Success Lessons

Tradecraft: Sustainable Sales Success Lessons in the Beverage Arena

Very early on, I was lucky enough to run into some of the truly great Jedi salespeople in NYC. These craftspeople knew that longevity didn’t mean Foreau, foie gras, and four negroni lunches. They helped me succeed with simplicity.

Take these to heart and go make waves.

“Don’t take this too seriously.” – Dan Lerner

Wine taken too seriously is a farce and beyond boring.  Dan Lerner said something like this to me at the Core Club in 2008 and it was an over-the-shoulder bullseye. Remember this: If you make beverage sales your life, it will take your life.

“Take care of your relationships at home. It’s a lot harder if that isn’t working.” – John Coyle

If you do not give care to your home relationships, your family, and those around you in your daily life, the beverage game gets incredibly hard, super fast. Imagine being out to dinner with buyers of the opposite sex and not having trust at home. It will crush you. I actually have come to take this as a credo in life in general. Chaos without care at home makes everything harder.

“That isn’t real wine.” – Michael Wheeler

I was out on a tear one night and I ended up at Blue Hill in Manhattan during their last call and I ran into Wheeler and Phil Sareil. I bought a bottle and Wheeler said it wasn’t real wine – as in, it wasn’t a wine of substance, terroir, or nature. Whether I believe he was right or wrong (he was most likely right) is of no importance. Wheeler taught me at that moment that putting wine in buckets is a hard habit to break. I had put the wine in question into a box that I believed he would agree with and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Context matters. Understanding comes with experience and seeing wine as more than the tech info checklist or tribe that promotes it is vital. It’s easy to like what other people like. But it may be a bucket of fake frosty cake that may not be what you think it is.

“Never open a bottle for a closed mind.” – Robert Chadderdon via Christopher Russell

I think about this one often. You don’t need to push, you need to connect. A lot of wine has been wasted on folks that will never give it the time of day in the name of the appointment or the new sales blitz. To have a strong, curious perspective about what you present and don’t present is empowering. Put yourself in the shoes of the buyer.

“Why would we want to do what everyone else is doing?” – Naomi Rosen

You don’t have to be like everyone else. You don’t have to say what everyone else says. Naomi has her own style, sense of clarity, curiosity, and immense charm. She approaches her work as a meaningful specific. Consider doing your own personal version of this as a practice.

“Orders only matter if you have dialogue, and philosophy over numbers.” – Looper

You need a philosophy.

I once realized that I had sold 175k in a week with no connection whatsoever. Zero dialogue. I could have been an order machine. Avoid this dynamic at all costs. Find a philosophy that you can hang your hat on every day no matter how much or little you sell and you will find much more clarity in what you do.