I recently had the pleasure of judging the San Diego International Wine Competition. In three tasting sessions over two days, nearly 150 wines passed through my palate (lots of spitting, of course) including Barbera, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier and white blends. I judged alongside Gary Eberle, the father of Paso Robles and owner of Eberle Winery, and Ed Moore, owner of Southern California's The 3rd Corner Wine Bar and Bistro. Gary's wine are beautiful -- consistent, balanced, and focused. I haven't yet been to one of Ed's three locations, but from speaking with other judges, I know I'd like his concept; he's one of the foremost wine experts in Southern California.
Judges are brought into panels to express their individual opinions about each of the wines we taste. We are tasked with finding the good in each wine, evaluating its overall structure, varietal characteristics (or lack there of) and making a decision as to its merit. We also need to be on the look out for flawed wines. And do all of this relatively quickly -- you'll see that my notes are more short-hand than full wine review.
So there is always lively discussion among panels. For the most part, the three of us were in sync; thankfully, when we weren't, the conversation remained respectful.
Below is a list of wines and tasting notes that appealed to me. These may or may not coincide with Gold medal winning wines.
Eberle 2011 Viognier, Mill Road Vineyard, Paso Robles, CA $20
Pretty tropical fruit with abundant peach; floral; very nice balance (Gold)
Frank Family 2011 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California $35
Lemon-lime, fresh cut grass; good acid balance with tropical note at mid-palate; full finish.
Gary Farrell 2010 Chardonnay, Russian River, $35
Lemon-lime, oregano, crusty baguette; pretty oaky with a lasting finish; good for this style of Chardonnay.
Stinson 2011 Chardonnay, Monticello, Virginia, $19
Lemon, green apple; good mouthfeel with little lime note on finish; refreshing.
Wildhurst 2011 Chardonnay Reserve , Lake County, CA, $16
Barrel spice, red apple; good weight and acid balance.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay, Alexander Valley, CA, $18
Butter, lemon lime basil and a little tropical fruit. Very pleasant.
Brazin 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi, CA $20
Raspberry, dried cherry, herbal notes; juicy palate with nice, lengthy finish.
Green Truck 2009 Zinfandel, Mencodino, CA, $12
Mint, raspberry, juicy fruit; pleasant.
Redwood Creek 2010 Zinfandel, California, $8
Raspberry, cherry jam; little pepper on palate. Pleasant, especially for price.
Fetzer 2010 Valley Oaks Zinfandel, California, $9
Raspberry, tinge of herbal; good balance with some nice acidity to balance fruit.
Barefoot NV Zinfandel, California, $7
We taste blind, but this one is especially nice for the price. Blackberry, pepper, cherry; fruity and fun.
Chatom 2009 Syrah, Calaverus County, $23
Cougar Crest 2009 Syrah, Walla Walla, WA, $34
Sopressata, blackberry, forest floor and pepper. Loved this wine!
Calcareous Vineyard 2009 Syrah, Paso Robles, CA, $36
Raspberry, black cherry; juicy with little mineral and mint. Fabulous.
Double Crossing 2010 Petit Sirah, Dry Creek, CA, $29
Deep raspberry jam, fresh leather and tobacco box notes. Quite yummy.
Green Truck 2010 Petit Sirah, Mendocino, CA, $12
Raspberry, leather, baking spice, herbal notes and slight curing tobacco aromas; balanced.
Crooked Vine 2009 Petit Sirah, Livermore Valley, CA, $34
More subtle approach (there were some that were just monsters so this was a positive), blackberry and blueberry fruit with touch of herbal notes and balanced acidity.
Rodney Strong 2009 Merlot, Sonoma, CA, $18
Smoke, plum, cedar, eucalyptus; balanced with just a slight bitter quality that dissipates.
Bonterra 2010 Merlot, Mendocino, $16
Raspberry, plum, spice rack; juicy on palate with solid tannin structure.
Nello Olivo 2009 Barbera, El Dorado County, CA, $28
Juicy raspberry, black cherry, herbal with good acid lift.
Luna Rossa 2006 Barbera Reserve, Mimbres Valley, NM, $45
Plum, prune, mint and raspberry; finishes a little light but overall a very nice effort.
Eberle 2010 Barbera, Paso Robles, CA, $28
Deep cherry, hay, raspberry; nice balance and crushed floral component on finish. (This was our first wine so it was great to start off the tasting with something so well done.) Our panel voted silver but for the record, I had it as a gold plus and possibly platinum.
In our position as advisors to wine businesses, distribution is often a topic of conversation. The wine industry can be tricky to navigate, and managing relationships with different distributors in multiple markets can indeed be a challenge.
Before I founded Trellis Growth Partners in 2008, I worked for a wonderful company -- Premium Port Wines, the vertically integrated North American importer for the Symington Family Estates of Portugal. I could write a myriad of posts about my admiration for the family and network at PPW, including the way the company works with distributors.
In my role as Director of Marketing & Communications, I worked closely with the Vice President of Sales, who through a regional network of sales managers, oversaw 150 distributors throughout the country and abroad. Given our niche portfolio of Ports, Madeiras and Douro red wines, we simply could not align all 10 brands in one house in each market; hence the large number of business partners. This meant the company was constantly doing market work, the business of selling wine.
I estimate that during my time at PPW and 13 years in the industry, I've planned for, presented to, tasted alongside and negotiated in well over 100 meetings. I've worked most of the US markets -- there is just nothing like a week on the road covering 30 plus accounts in six to eight cities and sleeping (not enough) in a different bed every night. (One particularly fond memory involved decanting Vintage Port at 5 am one morning with Rupert Symington after a long, lively dinner with a Wine Spectator writers which lasted until 1 am.) Burning up "shoe leather" while out tasting and developing relationships is how wine is sold, and it's a skill and practice the Symington family has mastered globally. They love what they do, and it shows in their gratitude for the industry that has supported their family.
While I can understand the frustrations that can arise with distributors -- especially those who don't pay in a timely fashion, I find it difficult to comprehend the contention held by many suppliers. A former winemaker client once said in a condescending tone with his face afire with anger, "It's my job to make the wine. It's my distrbutor's job to sell it." To which I replied, "It's your job to make the wine and your job to sell it."
With that attitude, it's not surprising that he was having a lot of difficulty in the distributor department. Most distributors aren't begging for brands these days, and I'm not aware of a law mandating distribution, so we need to remember that deciding to sell in this channel brings opportunities, challenges and responsibilities. If just the thought of distribution and the work it entails makes you a little crazed, it's time to assess your business model -- not externalize and blame the network you selected.
If you're going to include distribution as a sales channel, you might as well get the best return on your investment of time and aim for success -- why not set out to be your distributor's favorite supplier, which can become an important competitive asset for your brand.
1.Bring your A game.
Do you want to answer the phone when you know there's a salty tongue on the other end of the line? Neither does your distributor. So bring your A game -- attitude, that is. If we approach a relationship begrudgingly, our tone, body language, and overall ability to communicate, relate and negotiate suffers. Be the supplier your distributor looks forward to seeing.
2. Walk a mile.
Have you burned through any shoe leather lately? Or ever? If you haven't worked the market, you have no business complaining about performance. Yes, it's expensive. No, that is not an excuse. If you can't afford to work the market perhaps you shouldn't be there. It will take investment -- and a good pair of shoes, to open and grow a market. Not visiting a distributor to open the market is like having a closed sign on your tasting room door and wondering why you have no customers. When you get tired, remember that you go back to your office; the distributor is still out carrying around a heavy wine bag.
3. Seek to understand.
Tip two helps in this department. Take the time to learn about the distribution channel. Understand what these businesses are looking for, how they operate and ask questions about the approach of successful suppliers. There is a lot of variance within this channel, so while there are some generalizations, every distributor will have different practices. It's your job to know these, too.
4. Jointly build and execute a plan.
Prepare for your sales year and for each of your meetings. We recommend that our clients set planning meetings with each of their markets where prior year performance, current year goals, programming and policies can be discussed. It is important to be realistic regarding performance -- come to the table with figures and ideas in mind, but remember that your distributor is not your employee.
5. Tackle the tools. Yesterday.
Having a website trade page is a must. This should include simple one click downloads for labels, bottle shots, product sheets, and people and property photos. Go a step beyond and use your Facebook business page to connect with accounts, thank them, and promote them to your customers in those markets. Share your winery's marketing plan, communicate great news, and be sure to have your bite-sized story honed.
6. Choose wisely.
Due the diligence necessary to determine if it's a fit. This includes plenty of diligence -- reference and credit checks, asking tough questions, determining portfolio fit and marketing coverage, and outlining join expectations ahead of time. Distribution deals done in desperation are doomed from the get go. Just because you need to move boxes doesn't mean they belong in a market.
7. Love what you do, and be memorable.
This is a build on bringing your A game. Every interaction with your distributors and their markets is a reflection of your brand. The Trimbachs have a song, the Symingtons are down-to-earth with delightful smiles, Charles Bieler has a pink cadillac -- what's your signature or calling card? What do you want the reps to say when you leave? I'd much rather sell a wine made by a gent I genuinely like than one made by a bloke who drives me bonkers.
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