Building Wine Sales

Americans today are living in a golden age of wine, with more varietals, labels and vineyards available to them than ever before. And they, in turn, are literally gobbling the stuff up, both as the largest wine market in the world and, in terms of per capita consumption, as a swift riser among the ranks of global oenophiles. They’re also better educated and savvier—only a generation ago, a typical answer to the question, “What’s your favorite wine?” might easily be “red” or “white.” Today, it’s not uncommon to see twenty-somethings expertly swirl their glasses while debating the merits of petit sirahs and rieslings.

For the folks who sell wine, it’s an era of grand opportunity–and unique challenges presented by a dizzying array of competition vying for the attention of consumers with increasingly discriminating palates. And from the suppliers who bottle the juice down to the retailers who bag it, the marketing strategies run the gamut.

If the suppliers are the generals back at HQ, producing a wide array of marketing programs and point-of-sale materials, it’s the retailers who are the boots on the ground in the trenches, determining whether a wine brand wins or loses, bottle by bottle. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to knowing what consumers in the area want.

In Houston, Spec’s Wines customers treasure the ability to recognize the labels they’re familiar with as soon as they walk in the door. Promoted brands get high visibility on the end-caps, typically raising sales for that particular wine by more than 40%. The same goes for A spaces, case cards and wine racks. But on the wine shelves themselves, the emphasis is on shelf cards that pair gorgeous, winemaker-supplied vistas of vineyards with plainspoken, staff-written descriptions that eschew the esoteric language of stereotypical wine snobs, according to Hermen Keys, the north Texas regional operational director.

“In my opinion, customers like to feel comfortable,” he said. “We encourage the staff to personalize their shelf wine reviews, not use some cookie-cutter shelf stock that customers see at every location.”


Individuality is also key at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop in South Dakota, but general manager Dustin Mitzel finds the most effective marketing comes from the stories behind the wine.

“It’s all in the bottle,” he said. “Take Goldschmidt Cabernet. I can tell people that Nick Goldschmidt planted these vineyards and named each wine after one of his daughters. And I can say this particular cabernet is named after Katherine Goldschmidt, what the vineyard looks and feels like, how it’s from the Alexander Valley region, and what that means.”


A Promotion That Lasts

Still, among suppliers, the king of off-premise marketing is the Sutter Home Winery “Build a Better Burger Contest,” which has been regarded as an exemplar of successful wine promotion for over 20 years. The 2014 iteration of the contest includes partnerships with everyone from Classen Pickles to Pabst Blue Ribbon, and budding grillmasters with the promise of a cook-off at the Sutter Home Winery where the winner walks away with $120,000. In stores, customers are drawn in by barbecue-themed promotional displays that heavily play up the partnership with Weber, and booklets of coupons for Pam grilling spray, King’s Hawaiian buns, Alexia french fries, and more.

The promotional programs are all designed to make the displays as attractive to retailers as they are to shoppers, said James Nunes, vice president of marketing services and strategy for Trinchero Family Estates.

“Our larger brands, such as Sutter Home and Ménage à Trois, develop cross-merchandising promotions and create theme destination displays to encourage consumers to include wine with their grocery purchases,” he wrote in an e-mail. “These displays also give retailers a reason to feature our products in the lobby, meat breezeway, deli or floral departments, where consumers are more likely to make an impulse purchase. To ensure that our wines get displayed in these locations, we offer cross merchandising coupons and recipes pairing them together, incenting consumers to pick up our wines for their dinners, BBQs and summer parties. Retailers strive to make every customer’s shopping experience enjoyable, convenient and stress-free, and this tactic supports that very notion.”


From Specialized Materials to Huge Displays

For the last 18 months, Michael Sorg, wine buyer for the Liquor Barn chain in Kentucky, has asked suppliers for more specialized marketing materials–say, small flatscreen TVs for end-cap displays, or smaller-footprint, more tasteful display racks, all supplemented with e-mail blasts to customers about featured wine promotions. The important thing is that the marketing fits in with the chain’s increasingly clean look.

“We used to be big on price cards a while ago, but it became a vision blocker, and all of a sudden you had them there on cases, and a back card that might stick up two to four feet,” he said. “If you do that consistently, you can’t see across the store.”

Not that every brand requires it—Fetzer’s national campaign, for example, already trumpeted recent accolades, and featured brightly colored end-caps with large images of the bottles that created a high-visibility billboard effect without clutter. It was an easy fit for Liquor Barn.

On the other hand, bigger is better at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace in New Jersey, which includes two 13,000-square-foot stores and a 24,000-square-foot flagship

“It can’t just be a five-case stack against the wall,” said general manager and wine buyer Brian Maxwell. “We like to do big 60-to-80-case displays, to draw plenty of attention, with a story behind it. A small display just gets swallowed up.”

Previous displays include a gigantic Rex Goliath rooster and huge bear from Toasted Head, which dominated the floor for the month to two months they were up. Though they didn’t literally tower over the store, other successful marketing tie-ins emphasized bright visuals and hard-to-miss props, like Skinnygirl’s Oscars-season promotions, or Kenneth Crawford’s Fashion Week display, which also included a red carpet, velvet ropes, and a raffle for tickets to New York City Fashion Week events.


Trying To Break New Ground

At Constellation, one strategy was to break new ground on the increasingly crowded wine-marketing calendar. While promotions for brands like Sutter Home focused on summer, Constellation made a move to own October, with a Halloween-themed promotion for its limited-edition Ravenswood Besieged, which began in 2013.

“It allowed our retail partners to work with Constellation to create some pretty exciting ‘retailtainment’ and really energized wine sales during that often-overlooked holiday,” Mike Novy, Constellation’s senior vice president of channel management, said.

Bolstered by a strong national social-media push, the Besieged off-premise-marketing materials mirrored the gloomy bottle label’s graphic of ravens circling over a field on a cloudy day–an image that ties into the history of the Ravenswood vineyard itself. Depending on the needs of the particular retailers, the in-store marketing might include serving cards, tasting notes, table tents, and everything from bottle toppers and neckers to end-cap and large floor displays.

When it came to selling its wine line, the Skinnygirl brand (founded by reality star Bethenny Frankel and now a Beam property) already had a established and distinctive image, a clear understanding of its target demographic (women ages 30 to 39 who do most of their wine shopping at larger supermarket and drugstore chains), and a dominant lead in a niche market that it itself created. Part of moving Skinnygirl wine bottles depended on finding the right occasions to market around — Mother’s Day, for example, was obvious. But by harnessing insights into its consumers — pop-culture fans who love to host parties — Skinnygirl also planted its flag down on the entertainment industry’s awards season. Inside retail stores, branded wine racks, case cards, shelf toppers and other materials featured the easily recognized Skinnygirl silhouette morphed into a golden Oscar-like statuette, while customers could sit in a Skinnygirl-branded director’s chair or take sample packs of Orville Redenbacher popcorn from an old-fashioned, Skinnygirl-branded popcorn machine, all positioned atop an actual red carpet.

“Our consumer is very much about adding that right twist to her entertaining occasion — the low-calorie option for herself and the people she’s hosting,” said Kelly Georgetti, activation director for Skinnygirl Cocktails. “From the marketing perspective, it’s all about the way we highlight the portfolio to her.”


Partnering With a Celebrity

Rather than pinning the marketing to a specific time of year, Treasury Wine Estate’s Chateau St. Jean wines appeals to consumer’s ears as well as their palates, with a partnership with nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow that was announced in July 2013.

“We have a philosophy which is, ‘Big brands need to have big communications platforms,” said Barry Sheridan, vice president of marketing, Americas, for TWE. “And those communcations platforms are especially good if they work both above the line and below the line and build our sales velocity.”

In lockstep with the national campaign, retailers show off the Chateau St. Jean-Sheryl Crow partnership via customizable in-store displays of all sizes that prominently feature the musician’s likeness and the promise of a triplet of downloadable songs.

“You can do the download offer as just a shelf- talker or off the necker—great for a clean-store look,” Sheridan said.

A media megastar is, understandably, a great way to increase a wine label’s visibility both inside and outside a store, but if you’re not one of the top five suppliers, you may not have the marketing budget—or the inclination–to make that kind of splash. For Crimson Wine Group, for example, center stage goes to the wine itself–and high ratings by esteemed publications. The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier touts its 90-point score from Robert Parker on the whole range of its marketing materials, like shelf toppers that reinforce the green-on-green color theme for the line. The largest, dark-green block conspicuously repeats the phrase “90 points.” It’s a strategy that allows Crimson to appeal to the retail trend toward sparser, sleeker aisles.

“The challenge in a lot of stores is the clear-store policy, where you can’t have case cards or even shelf toppers–they don’t want anything breaking up the lines of sight,” said Natasha Hayes, Crimson vice president of marketing. “So one of the things we did is up the ante in terms of shippers, because that is our case card, our point of sale.”


Customizing Programs

Up in the Pacific Northwest, where one of the primary challenges is convincing consumers to try domestic wines that don’t come from California, Precept Wines takes the customization for retailers as far as they can, with an entirely in-house design arm that creates elements tailored to fit a particular store’s look. For Metropolitan Market, a seven-store high-end retail chain in the Northwest, for example, Precept crafted rustic-looking chalkboards that tied into the company’s ongoing relationship with Washington Wine Month.

“When the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger program was such a success, everyone else followed suit, and for the large wine companies you’d have these massive wine programs and hope they’d work on a wide platform and have broad expectations,” said Alex Evans, Precept’s chief marketing officer. “For a mid-size company, and because of the shift in how retailers are marketing the wine category, our greatest success is to customize down to the specific customer. Rather than us spending a lot of time on a stock promotion that’s large-scale and one-size-fits-all, we’d rather work with each individual retailer. Our designer’s our ninja—we’re just very quick and nimble.”


A Challenge to Retailers

Nevertheless, Mitzel at Happy Harry’s has found that companies seem to gravitate toward similar, previously successful themes, making differentiating – and selling – these wines a challenge.

“Many of the cabernets released in the last few years in the $10 to $13 price point are geared to a particular consumer with similar stylistic looks, and there’s not a lot of differentiation between them aside from the names,” Mitzel said. “Kind of that textured label, kind of like Victorian drapery or a doily. Eventually, you have three or four displays of things at a reasonably similar price point, all looking alike and with a funky name.”

So Happy Harry’s has forsaken simply putting out mass-display marketing props. Instead, it might build its own unique displays around elements of those props—putting its own twist on the Build a Better Burger contest, for example, by using the Sutter Home Weber grill as the centerpiece for a Happy Harry’s summertime creche. (The stores are known for their “shock-and-awe” presentations, such as a bowling alley with Malibu rum bottles as pins.)

On the other end of the spectrum is Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans, a family-run chain that is considered a local institution.

“Cardboard cutouts don’t work for us,” said owner Cedric Martin. “I don’t put up supplier displays, wine scores or shelf markers. We make our own price markers.”

Instead of props and physical marketing materials, the big draw for consumers are the celebrities, wine experts, and industry personalities—think Paul Draper or a member of the Gallo family—who have made Martin’s self-described “candy store for adults” a regular stop. The featured guests promote the wine or educate customers at sit-down wine tastings that can draw as many as 70 and create word-of-mouth about a particular label. Critical to that are the relationships Martin developed with vineyards over the decades, and the trust his customers have in his and his employees’ taste.

“They like the personal attention, the knowledge of our staff, and the fact that we find things before other people find them,” Martin said. “They say, ‘I remember I bought this from you four years ago, when nobody knew about it.’ We educate the consumer, and it’s paid off.”


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