The Pros and Cons of Self-Distribution for Independent Winemakers

Courtesy Gearhead Wines

Before he became a winemaker, Craig West worked in distribution 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 product.

“I don’t know what I like more, making wine or selling it,” says West. He believes that his personal touch and existing network of contacts contributed to the company’s exponential growth. His sales have doubled year-over-year for the last four years, he says.

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For independent winemakers who lack corporate support and favorable relationships with big distributors, this type of hands-on approach is increasingly viable in the digital age. Some wineries eliminate the need for distributors entirely by selling their bottles directly to consumers via e-commerce sites and social media.

Winemaker Rosalind Reynolds had zero sales experience when she took on the challenge of distributing her wine, Emme.

“Winemaking isn’t just making wine,” she says, so she began the work of cold calling and emailing potential buyers and distributors. She believes all that personal, direct communication helps build her brand.

Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta of Ashanta Wines agree. When they introduced their first commercial vintage in 2020, they found that self-distribution gave them the ability to speak directly to the quirks of their wine. Having direct conversations with shopkeepers translated to consumers having a better experience, they say.

Emme winemaker Rosalind Reynolds
“Winemaking isn’t just making wine,” says Emme winemaker Rosalind Reynolds / Courtesy Rosalind Reynolds

There are analytical benefits, too.

“The data that I can pull by selling each case individually to each retailer is both interesting and useful,” Reynolds says. She noticed that the name of one of her wines,  Tell Your Sister I Say Hi, was actually driving its sales. So, instead of changing names for each vintage as she’d planned, she decided some wines will keep their monikers.

Small-scale winemakers can see the positive impact that social media has on their self-distribution, too. West used Facebook to reach out to online retailer Primal Wine, which has expanded his reach.

Reynolds has had similar luck with Emme’s social presence.

“People will find me on Instagram and DM me, it’s probably my largest channel of new sales,” she says.

There are also e-commerce sales, including online stores that work directly with winemakers. Sam and Katy Decker of Wine + Peace created a marketplace that brings natural winemakers together in one place. With so many consumers buying wine online during the pandemic, they were able to create another stream of income for their producers. Sam wanted to make it clear that they are only a part of winemakers maximizing sales.

“We don’t exist to replace distributors, or replace [wineries’] own DTC program, but rather we see ourselves as helping them to redshift their inventory,” he says. The shutdown of restaurants during the pandemic has proven the importance of having multiple ways to sell wine.

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Distributing your own wine is not without its many challenges. Dealing with state-by-state licensing, shipping and billing can be complicated. All of these logistical details take away from time you could be spending in the vineyard.

As wineries grow, it’s difficult to scale self-distribution. West and Reynolds expect to produce enough wine in their next vintages that it might become too difficult to sell it themselves. Ashton-Lewis and Basanta also have careers in entertainment, and say their attentions will be divided once the film industry reopens.

When the time comes, they may end up working with a national distributor after all. They simply need to find one who shares their passion for their wine.

Published on March 4, 2021
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