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Are direct-to-consumer sales really failing to lift the wine industry?

Last month I was surprised to read a headline on the industry portal Wine Industry Network titled Direct to Consumer Sales Fails to Lift the Wine Industry.  As a winery whose business model works only because of direct sales, I was curious to learn more about what the author Brian Rosen, consultant and former proprietor of Sam's Wine & Spirits, meant by the headline.  I posted my thoughts on Twitter:

Direct sales tweets 1

After which, he and I shot a few tweets back and forth, elaborating our positions:

Direct sales tweets 2

Brian's article was particularly interesting to me because it plays against the dominant narrative right now, that direct sales are on an inexorable rise, and that wineries should do everything that they can to make sure they're well positioned in this channel. What's more, that dominant narrative certainly jibes with our own experience here at Tablas Creek.  When we started, we believed that we would sell all our production through the wholesale channel.  Between the reputation of Beaucastel and the marketing muscle of Vineyard Brands, we thought that we could focus on grapegrowing and winemaking and the rest would take care of itself.

Five years of experience taught us that our initial expectations were unrealistic, and we made the decision in 2002 to take a much more active role in our marketing and sales.  We opened our tasting room, started our wine club, began participating in a wider array of events, worked harder and more closely with our distributor partners, and started participating more consistently in the promotional efforts of the regional and varietal organizations to which we belonged.  Little by little, we clawed our way out of what was a dangerous period when we were bleeding cash each year and became profitable.

In the steepest period of this climb, where we went from selling just under 4000 cases of wine in 2001 (all in wholesale) to nearly 20,000 cases of wine in 2007 (split between wholesale and direct) we saw significant growth in all our channels.  Our wholesale sales increased more than 250% over that period, to some 11,000 cases.  Our direct sales grew from nothing to some 9,000 cases.  But each year, as we looked at our financial reports, it became clear that our growing wholesale sales, far from driving our profitability, were only about a 50/50 bet to cover the cost of selling our wine in this channel.  As a company, all the profit that hit our bottom line came from the direct sales.

The greater profitability of direct sales should be intuitive, but it's likely even more important to wineries than you think.  Most wineries aim to achieve the same price out in the wholesale market and in their direct sales.  For product destined for the wholesale market, wineries back out the expected wholesaler and retailer markups, leading to a wholesale sell price half of full retail price.  Given that the cost of producing a wine is likely half or more of the wholesale sell price, the profit of selling a case direct isn't double that of selling it in the wholesale market; it is several times greater.  It is this disparity that means that a winery can offer good discounts to its wine club members and still come out far ahead. 

Further increasing the relative attractiveness of direct sales is that most wineries find, as we have, that the mix they sell direct skews toward their higher-end wines, while the mix that sells in wholesale skews toward wines that are less expensive, both because the wholesale market is naturally more price-competitive and because of the practical limit on wholesale price for wines that restaurants can pour by the glass.  When we did the math we realized that 75% of our revenue was coming from the 45% of our wine we sold direct, while just 25% of our revenue came from the 55% of the wine sold through the wholesale channel.  In simpler terms, we sold our average direct case for three and a half times what we sold our average wholesale case for.

OK, that was a lot of background.  But it gives you what you need to understand why I took objection when I read in Brian's piece, "I can tell you with 100% certainty that the DTC movement is not what you think it is and will not provide the added revenue that wineries around the globe are seeking."

The crucial question, and one that Brian himself addresses later in the article, is which wineries will benefit from direct-to-consumer sales, and which won't.  A winery's direct sales is limited naturally by its cachet, its tasting room traffic, and its perception of scarcity.  Even with high traffic, high cachet, and the perception of scarcity, there are only a handful of wineries selling more than 25,000 cases direct.  And most wineries' direct customers are far fewer than that; even established wineries I speak to around Paso Robles typically count a few thousand wine club members.  So,  imagine the challenge that faces a winery making a million cases a year, trying to have direct sales matter on the bottom line.  Even if they are able to build up to 25,000 direct cases per year (likely difficult given the challenge of creating the perception of scarcity) and able to sell those direct cases for 3.5 times what they sold their wholesale cases for, the direct sales channel would account for just 8.2% of the company's revenue.

Yet direct-to-consumer wine sales have grown to a $1.58 billion dollar industry: nearly the size of the total of wine sales to restaurants (some $1.8 billion last year).  It's still dwarfed by the $7.34 billion in retail wine sales, but it's growing.  So, is DTC important to wineries, or not?  It depends on your size.  Most wineries are small; by the Wine institute's estimate, 90% of wineries produce fewer than 50,000 cases, with three-quarters producing fewer than 5,000 cases.  Every one of those wineries should be looking to consumer-direct sales to make their business viable.  But most of the wine produced in America is produced by large wineries; estimates are that the three largest wine conglomerates produce half the wine sold in America each year.  And the twenty largest firms account for 90% of the market. For them, as the math showed above, direct sales are not going to make a significant difference in profitability.

If you're the average bottle of American wine, produced by one of the big companies in lots of tens or hundreds of thousands of cases, you're not likely looking at a future that involves transport via UPS or FedEx.  But if you're an average winery, producing a few thousand cases of wine a year, you should be focusing on selling a high percentage of however many bottles you produce directly.

Three final notes.  First, why, if they'll never notice it on their bottom lines, do the big wine companies still have tasting rooms and wine clubs?  I think (and based on the effort put into their direct sales by many of these large wineries, they agree) that it's valuable marketing: each direct relationship that a winery maintains is going to have a positive ripple effect as that customer communicates his or her enthusiasm to friends, and will support the work of distribution in a way similar to -- yet more profitable than -- advertising.

Second, you may be wondering why a relatively small winery like us bothers with wholesale sales at all.  Like a large winery with its direct sales, we think of it as powerful marketing, for which we get some revenue to offset the costs.  Having wine in great restaurants and wine shops means that customers don't have to come to us to discover us, and we have literally thousands of wine-savvy professionals around the country telling our story.  If we can get all this at something close to break-even, it's a big asset.

And third, if 90%+ of wineries rely on consumer-direct sales for their livelihood, why did Brian say that it won't provide the revenue wineries are seeking?  I think that there are two reasons.  First, Brian comes from a retail perspective.  The regulatory environment still makes it much more difficult for retailers to ship around the country than it does wineries.  And retailers are all competing to sell wines their competitors can buy at more or less the same price they can.  This level playing field, the regulatory patchwork, and the high cost of expedited shipping on a perishable, heavy item like a bottle of wine all combine to shield smaller local retailers from competition.  Will this equilibrium last forever?  Probably not. Given that Amazon is on their third foray into trying to sell wine, the e-commerce giants must see some potential here.  And here is an important area that I agree with Brian: whether you're a retailer or a supplier, Amazon and its ilk are likely to be neither savior nor apocalypse in the near term.

But all that's beside the point to a small or medium-size winery.  If that's who you are, you likely already know that direct-to-consumer sales isn't just your future.  It's your present, too.