Animal, Vegetable or Mineral – Your U.S. Based Wine Business

A friend of mine was recently struggling with the concept of “branding” herself as a writer, which caused me to reflect on what it can mean in the wine industry, in an entirely different way than we normally explore the subject, even in an entirely different way than I have explored it before in my wine writing. Of course we’re all familiar with branding when it comes to actual wine brands like Yellow Tail, Château Lafite, Robert Mondavi, Jacob’s Creek and so on. Whether it is value, consistent quality, elite status, rare, pricey, pedigree or fun, each name is attached to an identifiable and carefully cultivated image.

And we’re familiar with the idea of branding from the start of a wine venture, so that a unique concept for a new wine label offers a consistent image poised to be identified with a vision. The vision carries the hope of branding into the future.

Winemakers trade show san diego Mar 13 (13)

But when thinking about branding your fledgling enterprise or yourself, what should you explore to enable you to stand out from the crowd, and do it in a way that plays to your strengths, rather than struggle against your weaknesses?

I most often first encounter a client when they are very new to the wine business and often before they have any notion of how to begin. They may have various ideas of what they want to do – and they’re usually all doable within the framework of a wine business. But even when they conform to U.S. wine regulations, not all of them will work for that individual’s personality and temperament.

I had one client who, without any prior experience in the wine business, told me he and his wife decided to open a retail store, because they wanted to introduce many exceptional, but previously unknown wines from a particular country to the American consumer. It would include a wine bar so customers could taste through the featured wines and they would be located in a trendy neighborhood of their home city. They were so enthusiastic about wanting to bring these new wines in that they hadn’t stopped to consider many aspects of the business they were describing.

First and foremost, who was actually going to bring in the new wines? If they were the importers, they couldn’t be the retailers. If they were determined to bring this retail store to fruition, who would they find to bring in small quantities of unfamiliar, untested wines just so that they could sell them in their one fine wine store? It would be a logistical nightmare, unless there was a larger plan to distribute elsewhere, which was getting away from the retail store idea…

Secondly, what about their personalities? How did that figure into it? As we talked, I learned that both of these individuals were accustomed to high power jobs that took them all over the world in sales and marketing positions. They were burned out on their respective careers and had sufficient seed capital to start a new business, but had not thought further than their first bright idea. When I dug deeper, explaining that the reality of owning a retail store meant not only staying in one place, but actually being anchored to the store as the source of all their sales, marketing, customer service and relationships, they realized that this would drive them crazy; they needed to be playing in a much larger arena. As it turned out, they decided to become importers and distributors so that they could travel in a manageable way at their discretion, and each be responsible for discrete roles. They could still bring in the wines they loved and introduce their discoveries to a broader market, utilizing the sales and marketing skills they had honed in their previous careers. It was a far cry from their original idea, but suited their styles far better. As a result, they could “brand” themselves, in a sense, as the go-to for this particular region, enjoying applying the knowledge and experience in a way that was fun, and potentially profitable.

Many times, clients will have clear ideas of what they want to accomplish and it is on that basis that we approach the consulting. Sometimes though, clients will come to the initial call telling me about all the myriad things they want to take on in the wine business, without recognizing what each of these encompass and entails. At times like this I ask them to write out a hybrid mission statement/business plan. It doesn’t have to be a professional document, but it should be something that allows their thoughts to coalesce and reveal what they are looking for from the wine business and what matters to them most – such as level of income, domestic or international travel, types of relationships, work schedules, diversification of tasks, wine education, stability – and how they want to get there. And what sort of budget they had to make it all work. Small budgets don’t necessarily mean sticking to small dreams, but they should be predicated on realistic and more quickly realized goals. Those with large budgets still need to take into consideration how they see their future unfolding in the wine world, a first glimpse perhaps at branding themselves and their business.

So when the new wine entrepreneur carefully considers how they want to shape their wine career, if they look at traditional branding concepts such as identity, consistency, differentiation, quality, uniqueness and a story within the framework of their personality and preferred style, the potential for a successful career begins on more solid footing.

When a Brand Changes Importers – Caveat Emptor


Taking on a brand that is already established seems, at first blush, like a beautiful thing, especially when they have sought you out, or you have been recommended to them. It definitely has its advantages in readymade distribution, but there are also critical issues you will face which must not be obscured by your initial rosy glow.

We’ll dispense with the matter of whether the wines have traction, are priced fairly and a myriad of other factors. We’ll assume you have covered these questions before taking on the brand. You have, haven’t you?

There are three distinct logistic/compliance areas that should be tackled without delay at the outset and throughout the transition. Unfortunately, when the brand is not voluntarily given up – whether it is for legitimate reasons or not – there is bound to be an uncomfortable relationship between winery and ‘old’ importer, which will spill over to you as the ‘new’ importer and potential adversary. At the very least, it is an awkward time as the previous importer wonders what has been said. Was their termination because they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the brand owner? Or were they just struggling to find distribution, but truly thought they were doing a good job and blindsided by the supplier’s decision? None of the reasons, real or imagined, are going to be palatable to the prior U.S. representative. They will see you as the one who is going to reap the rewards of their foundation. However, you will need information from this person, and you will need their cooperation. Occasionally they will offer it willingly. Sometimes, they feel that bringing you up to speed only adds insult to injury, or at best is viewed as wasted time when they could be turning their attention to finding a replacement for this lost revenue. Rarely, they will actually attempt to sabotage you. I have experienced all of these scenarios.

Old importer protecting his wines from new importer

Old importer protecting his wines from new importer

The first issue is whether you have taken on a brand that has product in the States at the present time. Naturally, to have cleared customs, it is already labeled with the old importer’s details as part of the mandatory label information. There is no reason why you cannot sell and distribute this product. If the importer owes the brand owner money, it must be transferred to you immediately, to avoid a fire sale on the part of the previous importer who now has nothing to lose (in his mind).  If it has been paid for, you do not have any obligation to purchase the wine, especially if there are old vintages or wines you feel have limited momentum, but in concert with the winery it could be concluded that purchasing is safer to avoid said fire sale and bastardizing the brand.

In the event of purchase or transfer, keep in mind that some states require that the previous importer give you permission to sell wine labeled with the old importer name, by having to register the brand under your license in their state. This requires a letter from the previous importer relinquishing all rights to the brand and authorizing you to distribute wine that is labeled for their use. This is not a Federal (TTB) issue when the wines are already in the U.S. It is a state by state issue. Some states will not require anything from you. Some franchise states will require a release from the distributor. Others will allow you to distribute this wine in their state with a simple letter from the previous importer.

The second issue relates to the wines that may have been labeled in the source country ahead of its required use in the U.S., to save money by bottling and labeling a certain quantity at the same time. Or it may have been done at the request, or insistence, of the previous importer, who wanted to secure a specific number of cases for their future use, or who led the winery to believe in inflated expectations for sales. In this case, hundred of cases – thousands of bottles – may already be labeled with the incorrect importer details, all boxed up and warehoused somewhere in the home country. Relabeling could well be within the brand owner’s budget and they would prefer to do so, but it is also very likely that the labor and material costs will incur a hardship for them. In the latter event, there is a TTB provision for a label “use up” and temporary approval of labels for importation, under the old importer’s name. This is accomplished by applying for a COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) online in the usual manner. However, the label jpeg graphic you supply will be the old label and in the section for “other attachments” you will upload a hardship letter. This information is not readily available on TTB’s site, because it is something that they do not encourage, but they will give careful consideration to each request. To quote an ATF (the old TTB) circular verbatim:

“ATF understands that there are circumstances when a company may request to “use-up” labels that do not strictly comply with the labeling requirements of the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act. Reasons may include the sale of a brand to another company or a change of address of the certificate holder. While ATF does not encourage the use of these labels, we realize that situations arise when temporary approval should be considered. We make our decision about use-up requests of temporary approvals on a case-by-case basis. We restrict approval to situations when consumers are not likely to be misled as to the identity and quality of the contents of the bottle.”  

TTB requires that you supply them with the length of time you require for the “use-up”, the reason, dollar impact and other pertinent information such as the steps you will take to ensure this does not happen again. This is all in the form of a personal letter and in your own words. Again, to quote ATF:

“After we review all the circumstances as you have presented them, we will make a determination as to whether or not we will grant permission to “use-up” existing label stock and for how long, Again, our main concerns are that the consumers are not likely to be misled as to the identity of the product, and that we can determine the company responsible for the product.”

The other alternative offered by TTB, which I mention only to round out the topic, is to cut out the importer’s details from each back label and carefully insert the new importer’s details in exactly the same place, all the while looking like a seamless and attractive label. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this and aside from questionable aesthetics, I imagine the sheer time consumption would make other alternatives far more attractive.

The third issue relates to franchise states and whether selling to an existing distributor (who represented the prior importer and will already have a relationship bias, either positive or negative) is possible, or if you can entice them to release the brand from their portfolio. But first, you have to know where it is registered. This is made far easier if the previous importer will provide the paperwork during the transition period, to enable you to know exactly where you stand and who you need to contact. It eliminates the need to wonder if the brand is registered at all, and to whom. It is conceivable – and I know several instances of it happening – that the importer distributed the brand in a franchise state without ever having registered it, which is illegal but happens. Or it could be that they registered it without ever actually supplying a single case.

In my own example, I was not made aware of the prior importer’s activity in Tennessee and found, through considerable effort, phone calls and other hugely time-consuming work, that this importer had not registered the brand in Tennessee and had not, in fact, distributed there. However, the prior importer before that (now two importers back) did register the brand to four different distributors in four different territories. The fact that this was five years ago and not a single case had been sold since, made no difference to the process of having to obtain a release from all these distributors to satisfy the state.

As always, my mantra is be prepared and do your due diligence! These importing and distribution issues are not insurmountable, despite sounding quite confusing when you first encounter them. It’s a matter of carefully considering your options each time you begin a new phase of business, conducting some research, or consulting with someone with experience.

State Compliance for Wine Importers – In-house or…..Outsourced


Each of the fifty states has its own unique licensing system and within that system are entirely different requirements and costs for out-of-state importers. These can range from simple one-page forms with no fee, to extensive applications, surety bonds, non-resident seller permits, brand registrations and as much as thousands in annual fees. It is essential to comply with their requirements and to maintain the licenses in good standing or you may find yourself running afoul of the alcoholic board of that state and unable to ship. But there are other considerations which may help you negotiate the state licensing maze, and often save a considerable amount of money.

Your decision, at any stage of your business development, is whether to manage your licensing and state reporting from your office or to outsource to a compliance consultant. Initially, if you have taken on a brand or brands that have no previous history in the U.S., you will be able to start very slowly with one state and its requirements, then the next state and so on. Using the premise that you are carefully and conscientiously sourcing and appointing distributors, this may not be an onerous burden at first. But there are other considerations, even at this stage.

  • Are you starting your business with little or no office assistance?
  • Do you expect to be on the road most, or a significant part, of the month?
  • Are you planning a strong push to assign distributors in several states at once?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you have the patience for this type of paperwork, or are you likely to forget or procrastinate?

Since many states have requirements with timelines and monthly or quarterly reporting, it is essential that they are met and the money you save with doing it yourself, or with the assistance of employees, is not eaten up with penalties, late filings that delay shipments and issues that take this out of the realm of cost-effectiveness.

If you are on the road a significant amount and part-time help is unable to find the time or is unavailable to cope with meeting deadlines, I would suggest outsourcing, at least in the short term.

With the prospect of a rapid expansion of states, there are a huge number of disparate requirements to get up to speed on all at once. Budget for outsourcing should be weighed against your own ability to reasonably accomplish this on your own.

Some licenses are good for a year, others up to three. Occasionally states require a bond and this can be obtained from a surety bond company that handles bonds of all types for a nominal fee. One such agency is The purpose of a bond is to uphold the contract you have made with the state, to comply with their laws and to demonstrate credibility. The bond company is effectively guaranteeing your performance with the payment of a fraction of the bond issue.

Label or brand registrations are often required in addition to the actual license and may incur a fee per label. Consider which wines you plan to ship to that state, whether the available volume of wine is worth the expense and, most importantly, which wines the prospective distributor wishes to order, rather than just a wholesale registration of labels.

Some states require price posting each month or whenever a price changes, to set the price itself or the price range under which the wine will not fall. These states often prohibit variances in prices, or any discounts, and require uniform pricing for all retail outlets.


License fees in certain states may appear prohibitively expensive, until you consider that, in Colorado, Arkansas, New York, New Jersey, and others, a common practice is to allow the distributor’s separate import company to “import” and register the brand for you in that state. Instead of a huge fee or unwieldy monthly price posting, the cost to you is nominal or none at all.  This is standard in several states, but it is something that escapes the notice of novice importers. They end up spending far more in license fees than necessary by not investigating or talking to the distributor beforehand.

Another vital consideration in this scenario is when assigning an “importer” in a franchise state. This effectively means the wholesaler become the owner of your brand in that state. Investigate fully the implications of using another’s license in a franchise state. It may be the logical and cost-effective way to go, but doing your homework is important. Call the relevant state ABC and discuss your obligations with them, and ask another winery in your reference checking if they have any concerns about assigning the distributor as state importer.

Proficient compliance specialists will be intimately familiar with the requirements of each state and keep up to date on changes in laws and deadlines. Make sure to discuss fees and what these cover. Some compliance firms require a large minimum monthly payment, regardless of the scope of work. This may not be in your best interests when you have only one or a handful of states in the beginning. Look for flexibility and whether they are interested in saving you money, or just taking your money.

When I first started my import business, I was somewhat overwhelmed by state requirements, particularly in Georgia, where I initially resided. The licensing process, for an in-state importer, was lengthy and onerous and on top of that they required monthly reporting and the submission of all invoices. I thought the prudent thing to do was to free myself of the state obligations and concentrate on building the sales of my fledgling business. I did not take the time to acquaint myself with the reporting requirements and for a year I paid an outside compliance company a monthly fee to handle the paperwork. I moved to Colorado with the same arrangement for another year, until one day I received a notice from the State of Georgia that I owed stiff penalties for 12 months of non-reporting. The compliance company was either incompetent or unfamiliar with the reporting requirements of an out-of-state company and had filed the wrong paperwork for the entire year I had been in Colorado. When confronted, the compliance “specialist” refused to accept full responsibility, and I ended up paying half the penalties, in addition to the full monthly fees I had already paid the compliance firm to carry out the correct handling of the compliance matters.

Never relinquish all control over your own business, but in the initial stages, when it can seem overwhelming, some assistance, in-house or outsourced, can free you up to pursue the real reason you got into the wine industry – to represent and sell wine. Whichever route you choose, doing your due diligence is paramount. Eyes wide open in this area can save you time, money and aggravation.

Sales Quotas vs. Job Satisfaction – a Balancing Act

Sales quotas can be a double edged sword for wine distributors, often putting sales reps and distributor at odds over the goals. A dynamic distributor that represents brands with some traction in the market, or with the potential for broad sales volume, will usually have some quotas, ideally hitched to an incentive bandwagon. This would indicate a sufficiently robust portfolio to enable the sales reps to make a decent living, but quotas can often conflict with their customers own needs.

I am aware that there are as many disparate situations as there are distributors and wines, and for purposes of this subject I’m eliminating large wholesalers with enormous national brands. The assumption with these companies is that the entire portfolio is based on quotas and, although it can be a great proving ground for some, it is not the scenario I wished to explore here.

One of the customary reasons for incentives tied to goals is a push from a brand owner to establish and build a particular market, to make it stand out in the sales reps’ minds and ultimately achieve some success amid a very crowded field. This can mean an income boon to the sales rep. The right wines can also open previously unavailable ‘A’ accounts, or certain price points can open other doors to case stacking in stores and glass pours in restaurants.

wine store photos Del Mar 007

The downside is when the wines are impossible to sell despite threats and intimidation from the sales manager and begging and pleading with accounts. Again, there are so many reasons for this – price increase, vintage issue, decline of the category, prior commitments by the retailer to other quota related wines – any of which the distributor could look upon as a temporary situation. But while he is trying to keep the supplier happy and mark time until things improve, he is making the sales rep’s life miserable.  Another challenge is a distributor, even a small to medium-sized one, which has all quotas (with or without incentives) and nothing else. This reduces sales calls to moving boxes and a disingenuous attempt to convince the retail buyer to purchase whatever is in the book, just to reach an arbitrary target. The retail account only has limited time and will start to avoid the sales call, and the rep will become discouraged by having been reduced to a box mover, where the wines themselves have become immaterial.

Placements and volume incentives with a monetary reward are typical motivators for the sales rep, because they are, after all, commission-based, but if everything in the book is a quota they lose interest and start to feel they are chasing an unrealistic sales goal every month. Quotas ideally should be established for a period that is long enough to see results, but short enough to avoid having the incentive taken for granted. One wine a month can work for rotating wines in a brand, e.g., but ideally a quarter gives salespeople a satisfactory period to allow buyers to accommodate the wines in their schedule, and for the sales rep to accumulate a healthy bonus bump. It is also a good opportunity for vendors (hopefully in financial collaboration with the distributor) to establish a competition between reps or territories for such achievements as the following:

  • Most new on-premise (restaurants) placements
  • Most new off-premise (stores) placements
  • Number of case stacks fulfilled
  • Most glass pour placements
  • Establishing new accounts
  • Establishing new territory
  • Opening a chain account placement

These are just broad examples. Incentives can and should be tailored to meet such factors as the population and potential of the individual market, or the ease or difficulty of selling the particular wines. A program could run a whole year if it is tied to a trip to the winery abroad. Key to any program is accountability and making it enticing and specific enough that a good segment of the sales force jumps on board. Something nebulous, such as a reward at the end of the quarter for “most wine sales” or “biggest jump in sales” can backfire. Ambiguous or undefined goals could result in very few people accepting the challenge and having, e.g., to pay out a large gift that exceeds the supplier’s profit made on the overall sales.

Esoteric varieties, high priced, low priced or unknown wines all play a part in designing a program. If budgetary constraints are an issue, make it something fun and interesting. If possible for new wines, a market visit by the vendor can generate enthusiasm and give the sales team the selling tools they need for a successful launch.  Whatever you choose, it has to make sense for all concerned. And ideally the distributor should contribute to the supplier’s financial commitment, both to attract the sales rep’s attention with a higher incentive and to make the distributor a partner in the outcome. And vice versa. If the distributor is the one who wants to set goals, then solicit the supplier’s help, both in designing the program and contributing to the incentive.

There are lazy sales reps, ones who only service accounts for reorders, who cannot be relied upon to follow through on commitments and put in a minimum number of hours. Those aren’t going to be motivated by goals or quotas or much else, so there’s no point in spending time and effort on them. The best sales people, the ones you need to keep, are self-starters who aspire to build their wine knowledge base, gain experience in the industry for future advancement, introduce their accounts to new wines and see their hard work pay off with strong income growth. Therefore, for a distributor to succeed with quotas, they must be realistic and balanced with the ability for the sales rep to have some stimulating self-determination in their sales with a diverse portfolio. The good sales rep chooses to feel they are not just “pushing” the latest quota (whether they like the wine or not) but they also have some latitude and flexibility in the field to present wines that interest and excite them, and that they are learning and growing in the process. It’s a collaborative process.

Finally, if a sales rep can see that the quota period ended with solid placements on which they can build a brand, it is a further incentive to sell the wines beyond the quota timeframe – the goal of both supplier and distributor. Quotas should ultimately be about longevity for a brand’s relationship with the distributor, not one budget period.

Over-delivering on Customer Satisfaction


Tasting room customers

Have you ever noticed at this time of the year, when we are getting ready to celebrate a season of giving with family, that people are often grumpier and more selfish than usual? I was aware of this as I stood in line at the post office and watched an argument about who was in line first, as I drove in heavier than usual traffic and was cut off by an aggressive driver, and again as I did some last minute shopping around some scowling people. How much more enjoyable it would be if we took a deep breath, left our stress at home, and put a smile on our face as we went about these chores? Imagine what a difference it might make to our interactions with others and the ripple effect it could have on our day and their day.

It started me thinking about our customers. As an importer, I sell to distributors and retailers. I try to make sure my transactions with them go smoothly at any time, whether it was for my own imports, or these days as I assist clients with their portfolios. But I’m not perfect and life isn’t a well oiled machine, so sometimes things go awry. Just this week I received an irritated email from a distributor. He attached his recent P.O. to the email on which he had circled the statement “Please note trucking reference on bill of lading.” According to him this had been ignored on the past three orders, incurring $15 each time as a surcharge from the trucker, for a total of $45. Now, imagine if I said to him, “We can’t be responsible for your individual requirements when they fall outside the norm” or “we don’t actually know if it was the warehouse’s fault.” The end result could have been aggravating the distributor further, making him feel as if he is not important to me, ultimately resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars in subsequent orders because he decided to purchase wines from someone else. No matter how good your wine is, chances are there is always someone else with something similar. The incentive to buy one brand over the other is how you make them feel about the purchase.

Instead, I took responsibility, apologized to him for the repetitive errors, assured him it wouldn’t happen again and offered him a credit on his next invoice. I’ve done two things in this instance: generated good will for a very tiny sum and virtually assured another order, so that he can collect on his credit.

On another occasion, a distributor’s trucker picked up the order from the warehouse and en route the load shifted. When the truck arrived at its destination, a pallet slid out of the back doors and smashed on the ground. Numerous bottles in the 56 cases were broken, although some were not. In any case, all the cardboard cases were soaked with wine, and many of the labels were marred. Even though this was in no way my responsibility (having transferred liability at the warehouse door to the distributor), I called the winery in Germany and arranged for  them to ship a number of boxes and labels on the next container, for free, to supply my customer and allow them to repack, relabel and sell the undamaged bottles. This cost the winery very little, it cost me nothing and made the distributor very, very happy.

I know someone who owns a successful organic fruit and vegetable business at a ski resort who effectively eliminated his competition because, early on when he really couldn’t afford it, he assumed responsibility for every complaint his customers made, even if unfounded. If they said the quality wasn’t up to their standards, that the lettuce was wilted or there was something missing from the order, even though he had personally filled it and knew differently, he replaced it, no questions asked. He would make a point of visiting them, getting to know their needs and at the same time they got to know him, creating a relationship. Instead of taking advantage, customers started to respect his integrity and increase their business with him. Importers and distributor principals can’t always visit their customers, or at least not that often, but listening and responding positively to complaints goes a long way towards making them feel valued.

When you go out of your way to accommodate a retailer by making sure he has sufficient wine in stock, the shelf talkers you promised, the sample she requested to taste with staff or a special delivery outside the normal delivery schedule, the retailer will likely reciprocate with concessions of their own, such as valuable store space for a display or giving you greater opportunity to increase shelf placements.

Featured store wines

Featured store wines

Samples are a necessary component of doing business in wine. Distributors and retailers cannot be expected to buy unknown wines and new vintages they haven’t tasted. Think about how much more we all buy at Costco – or at least I do – when we taste the products provided at the little stands dotting the store. The same can be said of wine samples. You are unlikely to sell wine the customer has not sampled and you can’t afford to be stingy. To withhold samples is counterintuitive. If your portfolio is large, you may want to select representative samples from each of the brands, but generally you will sell what they have tasted, and those wines that were not sent out will not be on the current order. If the customer tells you they need a second bottle to taste with staff or to send to the satellite office, or something was corked, you may bemoan the lost revenue but good customer service means you send it or risk losing the sale. Most people don’t have the time to waste on requesting samples they’ll never consider buying.  

Doing the right thing even when it doesn’t appear to benefit you is a little like the expression “do the right thing even when no one is watching” except that your customer is always watching and evaluating you. It could be the small distributor who grows and your wine sales will grow with them, or the retailer who opens up two more stores and triples his orders from you. This is your reward for hanging in there with them and treating them like an important customer, even when, financially, they were not.