Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game

Earlier this year, I was having lunch in Boston with a key account manager from our Massachusetts distributor.  We were talking about what I'd done on my last visit, which included a really cool dinner at (sadly now closed) Blue Ginger that had such a large consumer response that they had to move the dinner into a larger room.  I also conducted a sold-out tasting seminar at the terrific retailer Gordon's in Waltham.  I mentioned that we'd sent news about the events out to our mailing list and wine club members, and that I thought this was a big reason why we'd gotten such a good turnout for the events.  His response took me by surprise, though it shouldn't have.  He said, "I know, we oppose direct shipping, but I guess it can have its uses."

I've been meaning ever since to write a blog post about how misunderstood direct shipping is among most actors in the wholesale market, and how short sighted their opposition to it is. After all, our wholesale business in Massachusetts is up 38% this year, and was up in 2016 and 2015 after nearly a decade of essentially flat sales.  Our Massachusetts wholesaler is on a pace to sell 55% more wine than it did in 2014.  Most businesses would kill for this sort of performance.  So, what turned things around?

Direct shipping opened in February of 2015, bringing Massachusetts into the growing majority of states.

Shipping State Animation

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that opening up a state to shipments of wines from wineries in other states should help the sales of that winery's wholesaler.  Doesn't each sale offset another in-state sale?  Not really.  Here's why the ability for a winery to ship to a state has generally increased our wholesale sales there:

  • Wineries are better able to make and cultivate fans. This, I think, makes a lot of sense, and it works in at least a few ways. Each year, a winery like ours sees visitors from every, or nearly every, state.  Of course, more are from California that anywhere else, and a disproportionate number are from the larger western states, but we see at least a few hundred visitors from a state like Massachusetts last year.  
    • If these visitors can't sign up for our wine club and can't order wine from us, it's a lot harder for us to establish a meaningful connection with them.  That means that when these people return home and see a Tablas Creek wine on a wine list or the shelf of a wine shop, we're less likely to have developed enough of a connection with them that they choose that wine over others.  
    • They are also less likely to bring Tablas Creek to friends' houses, and therefore the critical peer-to-peer market is harder to activate.  
    • I also think -- though this would be hard data to gather -- that shipping bans discourage wine tourism from those states, since those consumers are likely to experience some degree of frustration in getting any new discoveries home.
  • The wines that people order are not the same wines they buy at retail. The idea that consumers will exchange a purchase at their local shop for a purchase of the same bottle online is pretty far-fetched.  Consider why:
    • Wine is fundamentally a difficult product to ship direct to consumers.  It's heavy and perishable, which means that even if (like us) you subsidize the shipping costs, it's at least a few dollars per bottle to get that product shipped across the country.  Because it's alcohol, all packages have to be signed for upon delivery.  You have to wait at least a few days to get the wine.  And because of the mess left behind by Prohibition's repeal and the 21st Amendment's decree that states have the rights to legislate how they treat alcohol, wineries have to jump through significant legal and compliance hoops to get shipping permits.  The net result is that it's not worth it to ship inexpensive wines, or wines that have good representation in distribution, direct to consumers. The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the United States is about $7. Even with growing demand for higher-end wines, the vast majority of wines won't ever make sense to ship direct.  From a winery's perspective, it's not until you get to the $20 and up category where the shipping costs don't outweigh the extra margin a winery makes on a sale.
    • So, what sorts of wine do make sense for both wineries and consumers to order direct?  Those they can't find, or at least can't find nearby.  Direct shipping opens up the power and opportunities of long-tail marketing to wine lovers and producers.  We don't produce enough volume or have enough demand to have wines on the shelves of dozens of stores in each state outside of California.  So, in many cases, consumers don't have any Tablas Creek on the shelf anywhere near them.  And if they do, it's likely that what's easiest to find is our Patelin de Tablas line, which makes up about 70% of what we sell wholesale nationally.  What if they've read about our Vermentino, or our new Terret Noir?  Too bad.  As you would expect, the Patelin wines represented a much smaller proportion -- just under 15% -- of what we sold direct last year.  What did we sell?  A mix of everything.  But more than half of what we sold was our small-production varietals and blends that aren't found in distribution.  
    • I would guess that most wineries' data would show the same thing, and it's backed up anecdotally.  On a visit to another high-end winery near us last week, our server explained that they have two entirely separate lineups of wine for their wholesale sales and their tasting room.  And, of course, a large number of wineries don't distribute any of their wine nationally. 
  • Restaurants work differently. Although many restaurants offer corkage, where customers can bring in their own wines and have them served at their table for a fee, and there are some states who allow wineries to sell direct to restaurants, the challenging logistics and planning (and cost) required means that nearly 100% of wine sold in restaurant comes through a state-licensed wholesaler.  Does opening direct shipping impact restaurant sales negatively?  Not at all.  And we have found that it is our wine club members -- read superfans -- who are the most likely to order our wines at a restaurant.  They feel a proprietary pride in the success of their favorite wineries, and when they are dining with friends it is often these restaurant opportunities that encourage the peer-to-peer sharing that starts new customers on the path to fandom.  If we can't ship direct to a state, it's a lot harder to sign up wine club members (they can, of course, have wine shipped to friends or relatives in nearby shipping-allowed states, but that's cumbersome and difficult). And the restaurant sales those club members will make don't happen.  
  • Direct shipping changes wineries' incentives. All those reasons aside, I think the most important reason that we have seen our wholesale sales increase in state after state after that state opens to direct shipping is this last one.  Judging from our own actions, it's not in our interest to lavish the same amount of attention on states to which we are prohibited from shipping directly as we do to states to which we can ship.  I know that before 2015, I hadn't visited the Massachusetts market in several years, despite that I went to both high school and college in Massachusetts and have lots of friends -- and sports teams -- in Boston I love to see.  It just wasn't worth it.  In a state like New York or Illinios, where we can ship, I can go, spend my days working with our distributor reps to get the wines into new accounts, and spend my evenings doing consumer events at restaurants or wine shops.  I can help ensure that those events succeed, making the accounts that host them happy, by promoting the events to our consumer mailing list in the area.  And I can hopefully come out of those events with a new collection of names that I can add to our mailing list.  This makes these people more likely to come out to Tablas Creek, and to eventually join our wine club or buy wine from us.  Everyone is happy.  In a non-shipping state, I can still do the work days with the distributor, but I can't do much to help promote consumer events (so they're less likely to be successful) and I can't do much with any consumer contacts I make at these events.  Both time and marketing dollars are finite for any winery.  Wineries are only behaving rationally by focusing their attention where they can have the greatest impact, which means that states without direct shipping don't get as much winery-level help with their wholesale sales.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Massachusetts isn't the only state where we've seen wholesale sales increase in the aftermath of the state opening to direct shipping. It has happened again and again.  Between 2005 and 2013, our wholesale sales rose an average of 8% per year.  Check out how much some of the larger states (that opened to direct shipping over that period) grew in the first two years after they allowed direct shipping.  The year that we started shipping to each is in parentheses:

  • New York (2005): + 68.0%
  • Florida (2006): -38.1%
  • Texas (2006): +61.7%
  • Ohio (2007): +14.3%
  • Georgia (2008): +24.0%
  • Washington DC (2008): +72.5%
  • Maryland (2011): +160.9%

On average, our wholesale sales in these seven states increased 51.9% in the two years after we received our direct shipping permit.  Why was Florida the one state to decline?  I didn't realize it had, until I pulled this data.  But I have a few guesses.  First, it's a state from which we see relatively few visitors, at least for the size of its population.  It's also a state with a very spread-out population, where (unlike, say, in New York or Washington DC) it's hard to schedule events in places that are central to a collection of mailing list members.  We also struggled to set up good consumer events in our early years there, so I doubt we were able to leverage or build our mailing list particularly efficiently.  Anyway, the rest of the states show a pretty strong trend, and our sales in Florida have rebounded strongly in recent years, so I'm not going to worry too much about the one data point.

Instead, just booked my flights for my second work trip this year to Boston.  I'll fly in Tuesday.  Wednesday, I'll work with one of the distributor's top reps, and we'll try to get the wine into some more cool restaurants, before I host a dinner at Porto in Boston's Back Bay.  Thursday, I'll do it all again, and Friday I'll fly home.  I'll catch the Patriots season-opener on TV with some friends who live there.  And none of this would have happened if Massachusetts -- with a push from former Patriot turned vintner Drew Bledsoe -- hadn't decided to open their borders to wine shipping two years ago.

 


Celebrating the direct shipping progress we made in 2016... and all that's changed in 11 years

I am typing this from Vermont, where we've taken the boys for New Year's to get a dose of real winter.  And Vermont has been cooperating, with 8 inches of snow the day after we arrived and temperatures that have since that snowfall stayed below freezing to keep the snow light and powdery.

It's lovely to be able to come back to the place I grew up, and even more so to be able to bring our California kids to experience this magical place: to rediscover the best sledding runs that will take you over the frozen pond; to find the best icicle roofs; to explore the pine groves whose boughs, covered with snow, make a great secret fort.  Of course, you have to also make peace with the fact that the sun goes behind the western hills around 2:30pm.  It's typically full dark by 5.

Happily, we have lots of fireplaces and a wine cellar that my dad has given us free rein to plunder.  Some of the treats down there are wines from the very early days of Tablas Creek... wines like the 1997 Rouge, back in the day when we thought we were only going to make one red wine and one white wine each year.  Things have definitely changed at the winery.  

Things have changed around the country too. I remember the challenges my dad had in getting those wines from California to their Vermont house back in the day.  The nearest of the 13 states to which we could send wine legally via UPS or FedEx was West Virginia.  Because of his connections, he was able to get wine shipped to a distributor warehouse in a neighboring state and then have someone from the warehouse come and bring the wines here.  I used to help him load the cases down into the underground cellar after they arrived. But this clearly wasn't practical for most wine lovers. Happily, things have changed a great deal since the Granholm v. Heald decision in 20051.  Vermont is one of 39 states we can ship to, encompassing 86.7% of the United States' population and 88.4% of its wine market.  Of the 12 prohibited states, only New Jersey (#5) and Connecticut (#18) fall in the upper half of total consumption by state.

The progress has come in fits and starts, with several states opening up in the immediate aftermath of the Granholm decision and continued but irregular progress since then.  I thought it would be fun to look at how the shipping map has changed in a graphical way. Notice that until 2004, the states to which we could ship clustered around the west coast and the upper Midwest:

Shipping State Animation

The key holding of the Granholm decision was that states could make whatever rules they wanted about wine shipping, as long as they didn't use the rules to give their in-state wineries a competitive advantage.  They could allow easy shipment, place restrictions on shipment, or prohibit it altogether.  But they couldn't carve out exceptions for their local wineries (read: constituents and potential donors).  This key point meant that change came first in other wine producing states like New York, Virginia, Texas and Michigan, whose local wineries demanded that their legislatures maintain their access to their local customers. The example that these states set -- and the fact that none of the negative side-effects warned of by liberalized shipping's opponents came to pass -- encouraged other states to follow suit. Typically, the resistance to liberalized shipping comes from wine & spirits wholesalers who don't want to miss out on their cut of profits on wine sales that might otherwise pass through their hands on the way to a retail shop. In the back rooms of state legislatures, where liquor wholesalers are major campaign donors, such an argument can be persuasive. But this sort of special interest legislation doesn't play so well out in the open, and the umbrella advocacy group Free the Grapes played (and continues to play) an important role in drafting model legislation and helping spread the word broadly whenever a state's legislature debates a shipping issue. By 2008 half the states and well over half the US population had the right to order wine from most wineries.

In addition to opening markets for their local wineries and making their own consumers happy, states realized that creating direct shipping legislation was also an easy way to bring revenue into their coffers.  For most states, we have to collect and remit sales taxes on each shipment (though it's worth noting for the record that I have trouble seeing why this is constitutional when Quill Corp. v. State of North Dakota determined in 1992 that states cannot ask merchants to remit taxes unless they have a physical presence in the state in question). In general, as far as I can tell, most wineries are so happy to just have access to these markets that they've made the pragmatic decision not to rock the boat.

The three states that opened up this year are all in the top half of wine consuming states: Pennsylvania (#10), Arizona (#17), and Indiana (#23). Together the more than 26,000,000 residents of these three states represent 6.2% of the American wine market and more than a third of the consumers we couldn't ship to at the beginning of the year.

What lies ahead for direct shipping in 2017? With fewer and fewer states prohibiting it, and with no problems reported in any of the states that have opened up, the pressure will continue to mount on the handful of holdouts. That said, we're unlikely to see another year like 2016, not least because there aren't many states left of the importance of those that opened up this year. What's more, several of the remaining states to which we don't ship actually have shipping laws on the books; they're just too convoluted and/or too expensive for it to make sense to take out the license. New Jersey and Connecticut fit that description, as do South Dakota and Louisiana.2  That leaves a handful of low-consumption states in the deep south (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Alabama), as well as mostly-Mormon Utah, whose general resistance to alcohol and lack of in-state wineries to apply pressure are likely to mean change will come slowly if at all. And it leaves two small states on the east coast (Rhode Island and Delaware) with complicated post-Prohibition blue laws, which seem the most likely to open up next. Delaware, in particular, has debated shipping legislation the last two years.

We'll keep working on both the prohibition states and those like New Jersey whose laws were written to protect distributors from as much competition as Granholm would allow.  Maybe 2017 will be the year the ball will drop for them.  Meanwhile, I'm going to open up another great bottle and enjoy knowing that for 86% of the country, it's no longer just those connected to someone in the distribution business who can patronize the wineries they love. That's progress anyone can root for.

Footnotes
1. If you'd like to read our thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the Granholm decision, I posted them in our Summer 2005 Newsletter. Although this was a while ago -- in the same newsletter we announce the release of our first-ever Mourvedre -- the observations and predictions are still relevant. 
2. For a sense of the calculus involved, check out this post from early 2015 that broke down states into tiers based on the cost of doing business there.


Pennsylvania is on the verge of allowing direct wine shipping!

Don't faint.

This afternoon, I saw an alert from Free the Grapes that the Pennsylvania Legislature passed House Bill 1690 by a tally of 157-31. The bill is on its way to Governor Tom Wolf's desk, and while he has not indicated that he will sign it1, the statement he posted on his Web site, the fact that he's on the record as supporting direct wine shipping, and the fact that the file name of the page calls the bill "historic" all seem encouraging:

Tom Wolf Statement

Although it does not do away with the state-run liquor stores, the bill does modernize the sales of alcohol in several ways. It allows wine to be sold in grocery stores (where beer is sold already) as well as in other establishments that sell prepared food. It allows state-run stores to be open more consumer-friendly hours, including on Sundays and holidays.  And it allows those same stores to implement discount and loyalty programs, which should be good for consumer prices.

Almost hidden in the announcements about the bill's passage were the sections that allow out-of-state wineries to apply for a $250 permit to ship wine to Pennsylvania consumers. As is typical in direct shipping bills, we will collect the sales taxes that are due the state, and remit them to the state.2 Of course, the permit details will have to be worked out; I couldn't find in the text of the bill anything about how often and to whom the tax reports would have to be filed.  But it looks fairly straightforward, which would place Pennsylvania into either Tier 2 or Tier 3 of my State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition that I published early last year. The bill would go into effect 60 days after being signed by Governor Wolf.

As Pennsylvania is easily the largest state to prohibit direct wine shipping outright, it was at the top of the target list for wineries. But given the arcane and unique nature of Pennsylvania's liquor distribution system, and the breakdown of last year's negotiations over a Republican requirement to tie modernization with the privatization of the state stores, it really wasn't on my radar screen as a possibility this year. I'm evidently not the only one caught by surprise; the Free the Grapes home page today offered "hot topic" templates for contacting legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, Arizona, and Oklahoma (but not Pennsylvania). Why was it revived?  Apparently, as a relatively uncontroversial way to help close a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall. The additional liquor licenses, and the increases in liquor tax revenue, are projected to add an additional $150 million/year to the state's coffers.

FreethegrapesMore money for a state in need of it? More choice and potentially better prices for consumers? And access to consumers in the 6th-largest state in the country for wineries? Sounds like a win/win/win. Thank you, Free the Grapes, for staying on this.

Footnotes:
1. At 6am Wednesday, June 8th (PDT), Governor Wolf tweeted that he would sign the bill, calling it "historic" and "the most significant step to reform the liquor system in 80 years". 
2. An earlier version of this article indicated that purchasers would still be responsible for paying the 18% PA "Johnstown Flood Tax". It appears that this is not the case (!) and only the 6% statewide sales tax, plus any applicable county and city taxes, will be collected on direct wine shipments.


What's next for the new Paso Robles AVAs

Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel discussing the process behind and prospects for the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs (short for American Viticultural Areas). This panel was a part of a conference organized by the Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB), for attorneys interested in wine law from around California.  Joining me on the panel were Steve Lohr (of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, another founding member of the Paso Robles AVA Committee) and Carol Kingery Ritter (of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, the law firm that shepherded the AVAs through the federal approval process). [Map below, courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Click to enlarge, or here for a PDF that also includes descriptions of the sub-AVAs.] 

AVA Map w 11 AVAs

Much of the discussion focused on how the AVAs came to be: the genesis of the idea, the research that took place to discover and support how to draw the boundaries, and the convoluted process that took place once the petition had been submitted to the TTB, lengthened by the TTB's decision to reconsider the fundamental nature of AVA labeling after receiving the submission.  I've written about all of these, and particularly the TTB's struggle with the concept of nested AVAs, on the blog in the past (you can find them all by scrolling through the Legislation and Regulation category tag).  I won't repeat those thoughts here, though I encourage anyone interested in the often convoluted regulations that govern the production, marketing and sales of wine to explore the archive at their leisure.

More interesting, to me, were the questions I received about why I thought the approval of the AVAs a good thing for Paso Robles, and how I saw them being used in the marketplace.  I'll dive into both topics in this blog.

Why the 11 AVAs area a good thing for Paso Robles

For me, there are three main reasons why the approval of the AVAs are good for the Paso Robles region as a whole.  

  1. Their approval is a concrete data point that the region is maturing. When the Paso Robles AVA was first proposed and approved back in 1983 it contained only five bonded wineries and fewer than 5000 planted acres of vineyard.  Big swaths of the AVA, including the area out near us, were largely untouched by grapevines.  In the last thirty years, Paso Robles has grown to encompass some 280 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres.  Until the new AVAs were approved, it was the largest unsubdivided AVA in California, at 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVAs delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. The growth of the region has been a story in itself in recent years, but the approval of the AVAs is something tangible and official that encourages press, trade and consumers to take a new look at what Paso Robles has become. 
  2. The approval was done collectively, as a region.  There were 59 different Paso Robles growers and wineries involved in the Paso Robles AVA Committee, and the work was done hand-in-hand with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  This cooperation allowed the region to push (and eventually pass) a conjunctive labeling law, which guarantees that any winery who uses one of the sub-AVAs on their label will also be required to state Paso Robles equally prominently.  This safeguard ensures that the region will keep the accumulated marketing capital that we've all been working to build in the national and international marketplace.  And the cooperative nature of the AVA Committee reinforced the bonds of our community, which is in my experience a rare and valuable point of distinction for Paso.
  3. It provides a framework for wineries, sommeliers, and wine educators to discuss the incredible diversity of Paso Robles.  Those of us making wine here have been talking for years about how varied the climate, soils, and geography are in Paso Robles, and largely relying on anecdotal descriptions to support our points.  The research that went into the AVAs puts these facts at our fingertips, and facilitates the discussions that show why Paso Robles can make world class wines from grapes as diverse as Cabernet, Syrah, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Zinfandel.  As a quick summary: 
    • The Paso Robles AVA stretches roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south. 
    • Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections (like where Tablas Creek is) to less than 10 inches in areas farther east. 
    • Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet. 
    • Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin. 
    • The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree degree days) than the coolest.  This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV.  This is the equivalent difference between regions like Bordeaux or Alsace (both Winkler II areas) and Jumilla or Priorat (both Winkler IV areas).

How I expect to see the AVAs used in the marketplace

A criticism that I see commonly tossed out by the opponents of new AVAs (and not just Paso Robles') is that an AVA may be approved before it has meaning in the marketplace.  To me, that's putting the cart before the horse.  At the time ours were approved, really only the Templeton Gap AVA had any particular association in the market, and that was mostly as a geographical feature more than as a delineated area (in fact, much of what locals refer to as the Templeton Gap lies west of the Paso Robles AVA entirely).

Given that relative lack of market knowledge about the sub-regions of Paso Robles, should the TTB have denied the petition?  If they had, it's hard to see how these regions could ever be recognized.  Drawing the lines is an essential step in allowing those regions to develop an identity.  At that point, it's up to the wineries within (or at least, who source grapes from) those regions to make their names.  If they're successful at associating the region with quality and distinctiveness, the market will follow.  What is key is that the lines are drawn using good science, and I think that it's here that the Paso Robles petitions were particularly strong.  The climate, soils, and elevation studies that went into the proposals were the most comprehensive that the TTB has ever received, and I believe they will stand the test of time.

To get a sense of how we're using the new AVA designations, take a look at some of the wines that we bottled during the second half of this year.  You can see several (Tannat, Petit Manseng, Mourvedre, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and Panoplie) with the new Adelaida District AVA noted.  The Patelin de Tablas, which incorporates fruit from four of the sub-AVAs, retains the umbrella Paso Robles AVA.  The Full Circle Pinot Noir, sourced from my dad's property about 8 miles south-east of us, carries the Templeton Gap AVA (click the photo to expand it):

LG Group

The distinctions between these different labels will make it easier for us to tell their stories: whether they are estate or not.  Whether they are single-vineyard or not.  Whether they are from our home vineyard or not.  And the fact that they all say Paso Robles should keep the market from being confused as to the bigger picture.

If I had to look into my crystal ball, I'd guess that of the 11 AVAs, there will be 4 or 5 that will achieve some market recognition within the next few years.  There will be another 2 or 3 that will achieve it, but somewhat later.  And there will be a few that never achieve much recognition in the market, either because there doesn't develop a critical mass of wineries located within that AVA to champion their AVA, or because the wineries that are located there decide that they would prefer to remain associated with Paso Robles rather than their sub-region.  And that's OK.  How many AVAs can anyone but the most bookishly-inclined sommelier name?  Even among wine lovers, most would be hard-pressed to name more than 30 of the 231 approved AVAs (as of November 2015).  If Paso Robles can add a few more to the common lexicon, it's a win for all of us here, and for wine lovers everywhere.


Celebrating a Recent Burst of Progress on Direct Shipping

It seems like progress in direct shipping goes in waves. There's a small flurry of movement, in states widely separated in geography and culture, and then a period when nothing much happens.  Then, for whatever reason, progress starts back up.

About six weeks ago I wrote a post State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition in which I broke down the 51 shipping destinations (50 states plus the District of Columbia) into ten tiers, based on the ease and cost of doing business in each.  I could have written essentially the same article any time in the previous two years without necessitating significant changes (OK, there was one change: Montana became a shipping state in late 2013, but that was it).  Yet the six weeks since I wrote my State of the Union have seen two major developments, with a couple of others seemingly in the works.  Given that there aren't that many states still left that prohibit or severely curtail winery shipping (15, as of late January) that's a measurable blip.  Let's look at them one by one.

Cheers to Massachusetts!
We were thrilled when, late last year, the great state of Massachusetts passed a workable direct-shipping law (thanks, in part, to former New England Patriots quarterback-turned-vintner Drew Bledsoe). Although the law went into effect January 1st, 2015, it took the state a few weeks to process the flood of applications they received. But as of now, we can happily ship to residents of the Bay State, and they can sign up for our wine clubs. And after the winter they’ve had, it sounds like most of them need a drink!

A Bill Passes in South Dakota
South Dakota was until very recently one of the states with the most curious collection of wine shipping laws.  We couldn't ship wine there if we received an order, but only when someone made a purchase in-person at the winery.  And even then, the shipment was subject to the state's individual out-of-state alcohol purchase transport limit of one gallon per instance.  That's five bottles, maximum.  But just two weeks ago, the governor signed into law House Bill 1001, which sets up a straightforward shipper's permit requiring that wineries remit taxes and periodic reports, and verify the legal age of the purchaser. Pretty standard stuff, for wine shipping, and only a moderate burden to wineries.  The law will go into effect January 1st, 2016.

Progress in Indiana
Indiana is another state that throws some interesting roadblocks in between wineries who wish to sell their wares in the state and Hoosier consumers who would like to purchase them.  Right now, the state limits direct shipments to wineries who both take an initial order in-person at the winery, and don't have a relationship with a wholesaler in the state.  The state differs from South Dakota in that only the initial order must be taken in person (not every order) but the wholesaler prohibition means that it's always been a no-go for us.  In late January, the Indiana Senate passed Senate Bill 113, which would remove both the in-person requirement and the distributor prohibition, albeit at the expense of raising the winery shipping permit from $100/year to $500/year, which would make it one of the five most expensive in the country.  Still, this would count as progress.  The bill is now in committee in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Pennsylvania: Glimmers of Hope
With the passage of the direct shipping bill in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania (America's 10th-largest wine market) assumed the mantle of the largest wine market to prohibit winery-direct shipping.  But readers familiar with Pennsylvania will understand why, despite a growing in-state wine industry, there are unusually strong forces that stand in the way. Pennsylvania is one of only two states (Utah is the other) where wine sales are restricted to state-run stores, and with more than 600 stores in the state system, the combination of massive revenue that the stores direct into state coffers and the influence of the state employees' union mitigates against rapid change. Still, the prospects for change seem brighter now than at any time in my memory. The new Governor Tom Wolf went on record in February saying "I'm in favor of direct shipping". The bill, however, that passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week looks to have limited prospects, because it moves faster than the Senate and Governor are comfortable with in privatizing the state stores. In any case, it seems like there is at least the possibility of movement in the Keystone State, although I'm not holding my breath.

Delaware: A Bill in the Works?
Finally, one more small crack of daylight, albeit in one of the smallest states of the union. In November, Delaware House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson made winery direct shipping the focus of her weekly address, pointing out that Delaware was one of just 9 states that prohibit shipping to consumers and inviting her fellow legislators to "objectively weigh the facts and set aside the baseless fears of special interest groups, allowing our residents and Delaware wineries to join the 21st Century". Amen to that!

As always, the best place to find out what's going on in the direct shipping realm, and to learn how you can help, is Free the Grapes.

Free the grapes


Community Roundup: Major Awards for Qupe and L'Aventure, Imminent Rain, Snow in the Rhone, and New Direct Shipping Opportunites

Last year, I debuted a weekly feature on the blog called Weekly Roundup, focusing on interesting news from our communities (Rhone and Paso Robles), fun articles that we'd found on the world of wine, and pieces from other social media channels that we thought would interest a wider audience.

Unfortunately, the series never got a lot of traction.  I didn't hear much feedback about it, we didn't get many comments (1, in all the articles) and it didn't get shared or clicked on all that much when we posted it.  And it was a fair amount of work to do each week, some of which frankly didn't have all that much that was exciting going on in our community.  So, I've decided to rechristen this as a roughly monthly endeavor, and make its focus more explicitly on our community.  So, please welcome the Community Roundup: an occasional foray into what else is going on in our world.  These are things that we think are sufficiently noteworthy and of interest to our audience to be worth sharing, but maybe less than a full post each.

And please continue to share your own feedback on this series in the comments section.  Is it something that you've enjoyed and would like to continue to see?  Are there areas that you'd like to see more of?  Thanks in advance!

Two Awards for Two Iconic Figures
This week, we've been pleased to hear that two industry veterans for whom we have enormous respect are receiving major awards. 

Stephan Asseo CroppedThe first is Stephan Asseo, whose desire to combine the strengths of Bordeaux and the Rhone introduced a new kind of fusion into Paso Robles.  Stephan began making wine in 1982, and for the next 15 years developed a formidable reputation in Bordeaux.  Looking to escape the restrictions of France's appellation controlee system, he came to Paso Robles, where he founded  L'Aventure Winery in 1998.  His work in the seventeen years since has played a major role in establishing Paso Robles as the home for some of the most innovative garagiste winemakers in California, and brought to prominence the "Paso Blend", combining grapes from different Old World traditions into something uniquely Paso.  We are excited to learn that Stephan will be presented with the 2015 Wine Industry Person of the Year award from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  Photo (right) is from the L'Aventure Facebook page.

Bob Lindquist CroppedThe second award recipient is Bob Lindquist, whose pioneering work at Qupe Winery was one of our inspirations, showing since 1982 that great Rhone varieties could be made in California's Central Coast.  Bob, throughout his time at Qupe, has been a tireless advocate for the wines of the Rhone, and a generous, patient, and humble figure in the movement.  He doesn't ever call attention to himself, which is one of the joys of his receiving only the third-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhone Rangers: that he'll get some richly deserved time in the limelight. My dad received this award last year, and the ceremony was great. If you missed it, I wrote a blog after that includes the amazing tribute video presented at his ceremony. If you're interested in joining for the celebration, you can; Bob's award will be presented at the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Winemaker Dinner. Photo (right) is from the Qupe Web site.

Snow in the Rhone
The Famille Perrin Instagram account is chock-full of great images, but one really stuck out this past week.  Snow isn't exactly a rarity in the Rhone Valley; they get a dusting at some point most years, but heavy snow is.  The photo that they shared of Gigondas under a heavy white blanket was stunning:

Snow in Gigondas

Rain in Paso Robles
At the same time, we're eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first real storm of 2015 tonight.  It looks like it will produce at least a few inches of rain for areas out near us, and I've read a report suggesting that the hills out here might see as many as six inches by Monday.  It's much needed; as my blog post from earlier in the week pointed out, we got less than 5% of normal rainfall in January.  A good head start on February (average rainfall: about 5 inches) would be great.

This rain (and the frost which is scheduled to follow) is particularly important because January was so warm that some California regions are reporting exceptionally early bud break. This isn't something we're worried about in the short term (I wrote about why last summer) but we're still at the point where some cold weather can shift the beginning of our growing season a few weeks later, reducing our risk of frost damage significantly.

New Direct Shipping Opportunities
FreethegrapesEarlier in January, I wrote a long piece on the state of wine shipping in the United States.  It wasn't really germane to the article -- which dealt more with the levels of expense and regulation within the three-dozen shipping states -- but it seems like there's been a little flurry of opportunity in opening some of the roughly dozen states that still prohibit all wine shipping.  Not only is Massachusetts set to open any day now, but the South Dakota legislature is debating a viable shipping bill, as is Indiana, and I've been hearing rumors that Pennsylvania is likely to move on wine shipping before the end of the year.  As always, the best place to go is Free the Grapes, where you can learn what's being debated and use their built-in templates to write state legislatures.

Drink for Thought: Wine State or Beer State?

Wp-winecountrybeercountry

I'm a sucker for maps.  There were several interesting ones, including the one above, in the Washington Post's article Do you live in beer country or wine country? These maps will tell you. The take-home message for me was that where there are wineries, there are likely breweries too.  Of course, there are hotspots where one or the other dominates, but fewer than you might think.  This is why I've found the reported worry in some corners of the wine community over the rise of craft beer silly.  In general, the people who love good wine love good beer, and increasingly, vice versa.  And more importantly, the people who love interesting wine look for interesting beer.  Nowhere more so than winery cellars.  The old adage that "it takes lots of good beer to make good wine" is absolutely true, in my experience.  Cheers!


State of the Union, Wine Shipping Edition

The preamble to the United States Constitution is short and sweet:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As we look forward to tonight's 226th State of the Union address, I am struck by the "more perfect union" reference in the preamble, as well as the wisdom of the founding fathers and generations of Supreme Court justices in prioritizing the Commerce Clause, which protects the federal government's exclusive role in regulating interstate commerce.  The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933 and as a side-effect sheltered states from the Commerce Clause's requirement to maintain an open, fair market for all players, provides a glimpse into what a world absent the Commerce Clause might look like. We should all be thankful that most products we might want to buy don't have to face a similar regulatory nightmare.

So, in honor of the State of the Union, here is a summary of what the world of wine shipping looks like, from a winery's perspective, as we enter 2015, with states broken down into tiers based on the cost and ease of doing business there:

Where We Ship
Shipping map courtesy of the great free tools at ShipCompliant

Tier I: The no-brainers (AK, DC, MN, MO)

  • Right now, there are three states (and one district) that have neither permit fees nor significant  reporting requirements.  Thank goodness for them!  But, 4 of 51 isn't a great percentage.  All of the others make it more difficult or expensive to ship wine to customers who want it.
  • Total percentage of US population: 4.05%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 1
  • Total permit fees: $0

Tier II: Inexpensive and/or fairly easy (CA, CO, FL, IA, IL, MI, ND, NH, NV, VT)

  • There are an additional ten states with permit fees of $330/year or less and modest reporting requirements (6-16 times per year).  These states include some big ones like our home state of California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Colorado, but even for the smaller ones, the number of orders that a winery would need to fill in order to pay for the annual investment is very reasonable.
  • Total percentage of US population: 29.95%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 110 (11/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1275 ($127.5/state avg)

Tier III: Moderate expense or requirements (GA, KS, MD, ME, MT, NC, NM, NY, OH, OR, TN, WA, WI, WY)

  • Once you get to the next tier of fourteen, a small winery would be excused for starting to run cost-benefit analyses before springing for the permits.  Some permits start to get expensive in this tier, like Tennessee's $450/year, Wisconsin's $400/year, or Maryland's $380/year.  Others are less expensive, or even free, but have difficult reporting requirements, like North Carolina (28 reports/year) or Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington (24 reports/year each).  Still, there are some pretty large-population states in this tier, and most wineries choose to ship to all or nearly all of them.
  • Total percentage of US population: 27.79%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 267 (19.1/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $3126 ($223/state avg.)

Tier IV: Difficult/expensive but worth the cost (TX, VA)

  • This is a tier with just two states.  Both are expensive (Texas's permit costs $526/year and requires 20 reports annually, while Virginia's permit is only $160/year but requires the submission of 36 reports) but both are also big enough to justify the cost.
  • Total percentage of US population: 11.06%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 56 (28/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $686 ($343/state avg.)

Tier V: Difficult/expensive and maybe not worth the cost (HI, ID, NE, SC, WV)

  • The main difference between this tier and the one above it is in the potential reward, rather than the expense.  Its five states are all small, and all expensive: as much as $600/year for the permit (South Carolina) and as many as 36 reports per year (West Virginia).  While nearly every winery ships to Texas and Virginia, there are many who don't ship to these five smaller states with often disproportionate costs and reporting requirements.
  • Total percentage of the US population: 3.65%
  • Total number of reports required annually: 112 (22.4/state avg.)
  • Total permit fees: $1766 ($353/state avg.)

Every winery has a different breaking point.  For us, it comes here.  We've decided that the 35 states above all warrant the expense of the annual permits and the reporting, though it's a close call on some in that last tier.  The 16 states below we either can't ship to, or have found that the requirements to do are unreasonable.  But before I look at those, it's worth doing the math on what shipping to the 35 "shipping" states costs in total: $6853 in permits plus the time and expense of preparing and filing 546 reports each year.  Figure an hour for each report, at $25/hour ($13,650) for a total expense of $20,503.  But for that cost, we can ship to 76.5% of the US population.  Available tools (like ShipCompliant, which we use and recommend highly) provide a savings over the labor of preparing the many individual reports, but still come with a cost.

Why don't states make the cut?  The reasons vary, and you'll notice that some of the "no-ship" states fall into more than one category.  But in most cases, you'll see some effort toward protecting distributors from competition, at the expense of both consumers and wineries.

On-site purchase requirements (AZ, IN, RI, SD, DE)

  • There are states that will allow a winery to ship (typically with few or no hurdles) if someone purchases wine at the winery, but won't allow the same customer to order wine by phone or email from home.  The logic written into the laws is typically couched in the guise of ensuring that only of-age buyers can purchase, but given that common carriers routinely check ID's in the 30+ states that allow direct shipping, it doesn't pass critical muster.

Distributor exclusivity (IN, LA)

  • There are two states that explicitly say that wineries can ship only if they don't have a relationship with a distributor in that state.  While this does protect distributors from competition from the suppliers they represent, I wonder if it discourages many smaller wineries from signing up with a distributor from those states.  The two states (Indiana and Louisiana) are both just large enough markets (2% and 1.5% of the US population, respectively) and just far enough away from California that we've decided that it's not worth foregoing the wholesale business we do for an uncertain amount of direct business.

Capacity caps (AZ, NJ)

  • The capacity cap is the distributor lobby's wedge issue of choice at the moment.  It writes into law that wineries below a certain size may ship direct to consumers, while wineries at or above that size must use the 3-tier system and sell their wine through traditional channels.  Typically, this capacity cap is set just above the size of the state's largest winery, protecting all the local wineries' business models while shielding distributors from as much competition as possible. In the recent case of Massachusetts, the link was made so explicit (it was promoted on the floor of the legislature) that a federal appeals court declared it in violation of the Granholm v. Heald decision that established the primacy of the Commerce Clause in the interstate shipment of wine.  But in other cases it has withstood legal challenge, and with New Jersey's recent capacity cap bill and a push last year to add one in Florida, it seems likely we'll see more in the future.  The capacity caps have been set as low as 25,000 gallons (roughly 10,000 cases) in places like Arizona (which we don't fall under), and as high as 250,000 gallons in New Jersey and Ohio (which we do).

Label registration (CT)

  • Connecticut is a shipping state for many wineries, but it's not without its expenses and challenges.  First, it's the third-most-expensive permit, at $595/year, and requires 28 reports to be filed annually.  Second, you must register each label you propose to sell in the state at a cost of $200/label, renewable every 3 years.  At Tablas Creek, we sold 28 different wines direct last year (different wines, not different vintages).  That would require a $5600 investment, adding $1866 to the already-considerable annual $1295 cost of permit and reporting.

Death by 1000 Cuts (NJ)

  • New Jersey grudgingly entered the ranks of direct shipping wineries with the passage of a bill in 2012. So far, only a tiny fraction of the nearly 10,000 American wineries have done so. Why would only 237 wineries have received a permit, in the country's fifth-largest wine market? Let us count the ways:
    • The permit (a sliding scale, but for us $938) is the country's most expensive and the are 24 reports to submit annually
    • There is a significant bond wineries have to post
    • There are registration fees of $150 per partner per year, an issue for a winery like ours owned by two families, each with several owners
    • Receiving a permit means that we have established a nexus with the state of NJ and are liable for paying an annual corporate income tax of at least $500
    • There's a capacity cap to ship that we fall under, but many wineries don't
    • And the coup de grace is that anyone who owns at least 10% of the winery must satisfy the same laws that govern the ownership of a liquor store or liquor wholesaler in the state, which precludes foreign residency.

About to join tier II (MA)

Absolute prohibition (AL, AR, KY, MS, OK, PA, UT)

  • The good: most of the states that don't allow the shipping of wine in any situation are among the smallest wine markets in the country.  Other than Pennsylvania, the six prohibition states combine to make up just 3.3% of the American wine market.
  • The bad: Pennsylvania is the country's 6th-largest state and 10th-largest wine market
  • The good: it seems like there is momentum building to finally get Pennsylvania's direct shipping laws changed. Given the challenges now (you can technically ship, but only to a state store, and only if no other vintage of that wine is in the state store system, and the recipient has to come to the state store to pick up and pay all the taxes) welcoming Pennsylvania to the post-Granholm world would be a huge boon for all wineries in 2015.

Weekly Roundup for December 6th: When We Got Wet, Learned How to Drink, and Chose Wine over Beer

Our biggest story over the last week has been rain.  We've received measurable amounts each day since last Sunday, totaling 3.6 inches at our weather station out here.  Even better, that rain has come spread out, with five different days producing between 0.48 inches and 1.19 inches.  The distributed nature of the rainfall has meant that it's all soaked in and we're seeing virtually no runoff.  And after a break this weekend, there's more rain on the horizon for late next week.  In this week's weekly roundup, we start with a look at our recent rain, and move back in time from there.

Our Rain, In Perspective
CA Precipitation vs Normal 4nov-4dec14

  • Despite the wet week, the Central Coast is only slightly above historical norms for this time of year, according to an interesting piece by SpaceRef, which used NASA data to plot California's rainfall from space.  The above graphic, showing average daily precipitation compared to normal for the Nov 4-Dec 4 period, is just one cool map in the article. Read more »

The Origins of Human Alcohol Consumption, Revealed

  • According to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our ability (relatively unique to humans and other great apes) to digest ethanol came about 10 million years before we started to produce it ourselves.  The genetic mutation allowed us to derive more nutrition from the fallen fruit our ancestors were scavenging off forest floors at the time. Read more »

Celebrating Repeal Day: December 5th

  • 81 years ago on Friday, the ratification of the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and re-legalized the sale of alcohol in the United States.  I quite enjoyed George Yatchisin's exploration of California's Wine History on KCET, which looks at how the vineyards that survived prohibition did so, and some of the repercussions we're still feeling today.

Beauty Shot of the Week: Castoro's Rainbow

Castoro rainbow

  • One consequence of this week's rain was widespread rainbows.  I tried but failed to take some good shots out at Tablas Creek, but this photo from Castoro Cellars' Facebook page is spectacular.  If you don't follow them already on social media, you should: their photography is consistently beautiful. I particularly love this time of year, with the hillsides turning greener by the day and the air soft and cool. If you haven't been out to Paso in the winter, it's wonderful, and wonderfully different from summer's stark, crisp precision.

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?): a Growing Trend Toward Wine and Away from Beer

  • Wine preferenceThe Washington Post published an interesting article comparing the changes since 1992 of Americans' preferences between beer, wine, and hard alcohol.  I think that the headline ("The Great Beer Abandonment") overstates the case a bit, but the trends for wine (right) are clearly healthy.  Not only are young people preferring wine more than the previous generation did, but each generation's wine preference continues to grow steadily as its members move through their 30's, 40's and 50's.
  • Those continued trends are why I've thought that some of the recent hand-wringing within the wine industry about the rise of craft beer is misplaced.  In fact, I'd think that for a craft winery (the term doesn't really exist, but should) seeing craft beer's increasing importance in the market would be encouraging, as younger consumers who are exposed to the creativity and individuality of craft beers would already have much of the vocabulary to understand wine.  This idea probably deserves a full blog post.  Stay tuned.
  • Finally in this vein, I found the snapshot of the current American wine consumer, published this week by Wine Business Monthly, worthwhile reading.  It showed the growth of (but still relatively small penetration of) social media in wine purchase decision-making, the continued popularity of grapes we don't think much about like White Zin and Pinot Grigio, and the relative unimportance to consumers of wineries' environmental practices.  A good reminder of the work there still is to do! Read more »

Weekly Roundup for November 16th, 2014: AVAs, Local Achievements, Veterans Day, Direct Shipping and Uncovering the Obscure

Last week, we debuted the Weekly Roundup, news from around the wine community that we thought worth sharing with you.  It's an admittedly eclectic mix, but we feel each thing that we've chosen warrants few minutes of your time.  It's also a work in progress, so please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different.  This week's list:

Some Great Press for Paso Robles and our new AVAs

  • The Tasting Panel's Anthony Dias Blue visited Paso recently, just before Sunset's Savor the Central Coast in September. His article concludes with an exciting evaluation of our great town: "this sleepy region, once home to a few obscure, under-the-radar wineries, has transformed itself into the most exciting wine region in California".  The article also recommends wines from 15 top Paso Robles wineries, including our 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc and 2012 Mourvedre. Read more »
  • On of our favorite blogs for the week came from Wine Spectator editor Mitch Frank, whose piece Wine Can Be So Complicated — And That's OK was a notably thoughtful musing set against the background of the recent approval of 11 new AVAs here in Paso Robles.  His conclusion -- that "while wineries, and journalists, need to work hard to make wine inviting for newcomers, that doesn't mean erasing what makes wine like few other beverages—it comes from someplace specific" sums up our thoughts pretty well.  I'm quoted in the article, and submitted a comment with a few more of my thoughts on the subject. Read more »

Something from Tablas Creek

  • RZH in the Navy It was fun on Veterans Day to see the tributes to the many veterans in the wine community flowing through our social media feeds (for the intersection of the #wine and #veteransday hashtags on Twitter, check out this link).  We posted this 1944 Navy photo of Robert Haas, all of 17 years old at the time.  A sincere thank you to him and to all the many veterans and servicemembers, current and past, who have impacted our lives so substantially.

A Glimpse Behind the Scenes into the Business of Wine

  • Wine marketer, expert blogger and consumer advocate Tom Wark was interviewed by ReasonTV, and the 3-minute video that resulted is posted on YouTube.  I spend a fair amount of time trying to shine some light on some of the more convoluted and counterintuitive laws that govern how wine is sold around the United States in my Legislation and Regulation series.  Tom's opening salvo: that "the only way to get them to begin to be repealed and reformed is to bring them to light" is absolutely spot on. Watch the interview »

Some Landmarks from our Neighbors

Paso Robles Beautiful

Cass - fall foliage

  • We've been posting lots of photos of our fall foliage.  The photo above, which our friends at Cass Winery posted on their Facebook page, is one of the most impressive we've seen.  Too good not to share!

Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)

  • We'll conclude this week with an article by Lettie Teague in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Dark Horse Wines: Great Finds in Odd Places.  As a winery who chose what was, at the time, an odd place (Paso Robles) to make odd wines (southern Rhone-style blends), we find comfort in her conclusion that because gatekeepers will naturally tend toward the conservative, "wine drinkers themselves must ultimately be the ones to pursue the unexpected, to eschew the tried-and-true".  She also suggests 5 wines, including one (a Pinot Noir from South Africa) imported by Vineyard Brands.  Read more »

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.