“Swiping right”: On finding the right wine distributor
A few years into running RedThumb, I’ve come to believe that the right distributor holds the key to increasing the availability and understanding of natural wine. A quick refresher: Each state requires a third party – [in our case, between us and those who will ultimately consume RedThumb wines] – to distribute wine to retailers and restaurants. It’s the distributors that we sell our wine to, so it’s the distributors with whom we need to connect.
When you own a wine company, it’s easy to talk about wine and find commonalities with a wine store owner. In a city like Los Angeles, there seems to be a dedicated natural wine shop in every neighborhood [here’s one of my favorites]. There are passionate, educated professionals that can guide the newly curious to find the producers and styles they like. This community is one of the best things about the natural wine movement.
But finding the right distribution partner operating between us and that network of amazing shops is a more nuanced process. The right fit can mean the difference between just being another number and being part of a true partnership, accessible and flexible to one another’s needs.
Compatibility issues with wine distribution: it’s complicated
We don’t even need to get into the subject of natural wine to start discussing the difficulties inherent in wine distribution. The presence of alcohol and its three-tier distribution system automatically adds complexity, not to mention regulations that differ from state to state. The variety of wines available in the United States is matched only by the variety of laws that govern its sale and movement from one location to another.
Because this process is convoluted, the relationships with our distributors are crucial to the success of RedThumb. We’re not the largest wine company. So, a distributor that carries only the biggest and most popular labels may not give us the attention we’re looking for. There are distributors that are more familiar with smaller brands or knowledgeable about natural wines, the big dogs may not offer that personal touch.
This isn’t to say that working with smaller-scale distribution partners is always the answer. We’ve met with some who, despite loving our wines and understanding our vision, simply didn’t have the manpower we need to be accessible and widely available. Like Goldilocks, we’re searching for just right.
Even with a wine distributor, it’s all about communication
Like any good relationship, both sides gotta give. We need to provide to our distributors a clear idea of who our customers are and how our wines can best be sold. Serendipity Wine Imports, one of our distributors, listens to us. They target brands differently – one size doesn’t fit all. They’re plugged into social media channels where other distributors don’t yet have a presence. They take an active approach to promoting their brands. When we call Serendipity, we’re talking with someone at the top, not just another cog, and that makes us feel special –makes us want to doodle their name in our little notebook.
We have the utmost respect for these distributors. We understand that their job is difficult, and they aren’t always able to know each product inside and out. Wine, and all the language that surrounds it – natural? sulfites? varietals? – can be particularly difficult to parse through. Still, language can be learned. We can get past that first hurdle of communication if there’s a genuine interest in our story and product. This is where the shared values come in. This doesn’t mean that we want to work with distributors who only deal in natural or organic products.
We get why distributors want to have a big selection of well-known goods from brands that people have heard of. The fact that a distributor is making big money off of big names isn’t a disqualifier: that’s business. There’s also added pressure on the smaller distributors because of the increasing power of the largest distributors, Southern and RNDC. They cut deals with a lot of the major retail outlets, which puts the smaller distributors at a huge disadvantage.
Bottom line: we want to find distributors that get as excited about our wines as we do
We know a true partner when we meet a distributor that’s passionate about wines–all wines. This passion means they’ll know where our wines belong [damn near impossible if you’re repping thousands of labels]. We enter into these relationships knowing that we’re the experts on our products, and the distributors are the experts on their customers. We can share with them a little about our wine, how to talk about it, and how to position it, and they can teach us who in their customer base would also be interested and how we can best boost their sales and marketing efforts. Win-win.
I think I see a future here
We’re thinking about our business from more than a transactional standpoint. Our interest in sustainability goes beyond grape farming: we’d like for our business to achieve sustainability, too. We’d rather work with people who are not only excited to try and share our wines, but who are going to put in the extra effort to learn about what we’re all about.
Those who share our principles, who can visualize a future together, and who will bring that excitement to their customers: this means sustainable, organic growth for both of us. After all, aren’t we all searching for that in a partner?
Does this sound like you? We’re actively seeking distributors in states across the country. Reach out to us.