Before becoming a winemaker, Craig West worked in sales at Semifreddis Bakery in Alameda, California. When he launched his wine label Gearhead in 2007, he already knew how to build the relationships he needed to market and sell his products.

I don’t know what I’d rather do, make wine or sell it, West says. He believes that his personal approach and his network of existing contacts have contributed to the exponential growth of the company. He claims his sales have doubled in the last four years.

For independent winemakers who cannot benefit from corporate support and favorable relationships with wholesalers, this practical approach is increasingly viable in the digital age. Some wine producers are eliminating distribution altogether and selling their bottles directly to consumers through e-commerce and social media sites.

Winemaker Rosalind Reynolds had no sales experience when she took on the distribution of her wine, Emme.

Making wine is more than just making wine, she says, so she began making phone calls and corresponding with potential buyers and distributors. She believes that all this personal and direct communication helps build her brand.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Bazanta of Ashanta Wines agree. When they launched their first commercial vintage in 2020, they discovered that self-distribution gave them the opportunity to speak directly about the idiosyncrasies of their wine. Direct conversations with retailers, they say, give consumers the best experience.

Winemaking isn’t just about making wine, says Emme winemaker Rosalind Reynolds / Courtesy of Rosalind Reynolds.

There are also analytical advantages.

The data I can get from selling each box to each retailer is interesting and useful, Reynolds says. She pointed out that the name of one of her wines, Say Hello to Your Sister, I Say Hello, was in fact the driving force behind her sales. Instead of changing the names of each vintage, as she had planned, she decided that some wines would keep their names.

Even small wineries can see the positive impact of social media on their self-promotion. West used Facebook to connect with online retailer Primal Wine, allowing it to expand its reach.

Reynolds is just as lucky with Emma’s social skills.

People find me on Instagram and DM me. It’s probably my biggest sales channel, she says.

There is also e-commerce, including online stores that work directly with winemakers. Sam and Katie Decker of Wine + Peace have created a market that brings natural winemakers together in one place. Because so many consumers bought wine online during the pandemic, they were able to create an additional source of income for producers. Sam made it a point to specify that they are only a part of the winemakers who maximize their sales.

We’re not there to replace the wineries’ distributors or DTC program, but we see ourselves as a way to help them move their inventories, he says. The closure of restaurants during the pandemic showed how important it is to sell wine in different ways.

The distribution of own wine is not without difficulties. Managing state licensing, shipping and billing can be complicated. All of these logistical details shorten the time you could have spent in the vineyard.

As the vineyards develop, it is difficult to expand self production. West and Reynolds expect to produce so much wine at their next harvest that it may become too difficult to sell it themselves. Ashton-Lewis and Basanta also have careers in the entertainment industry and say they will divide their attention once the film industry gets back on its feet.

If it comes to that, they might have a national distributor after all. All they have to do is find someone who shares their passion for wine.

Published on 4. March 2021.

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