In an age when most people have cellphones, caller ID and and a healthy disdain for unsolicited phone calls, a telemarketing company would seem an unlikely place to find growth.
But while the telemarketing industry is shrinking, there's a growing use of phone sales in the wine industry, especially after the recession changed the buying habits of luxury wine drinkers.
VinoPRO, a Santa Rosa company that handles phone sales for 50 wineries including Jackson Family Wines, Constellation Brands and Treasury Wine Estates, brought in $8 million in revenue last year. It has grown 1,800 percent over the last three years, and has been notified that it qualified for the Inc. 500, which lists the fastest-growing companies in the nation, according to Jeff Stevenson, the company's president and CEO.
"There are several people making six figures in Sonoma County selling wine, using the most antiquated technology on the planet, the telephone," Stevenson said.
"If we had tried to do this five or six years ago, before 2008, the wineries were oblivious to the fact that they needed help in this area. There were heady times, and they didn't feel the need to pursue alternative channels," he said. "Now, you have to give someone a reason to spend money."
The success of telemarketing companies coincides with an ongoing push by wineries to ship directly to consumers, sidestepping the "three-tier" system where wineries sell through wholesalers to retail outlets and restaurants. Direct sales are much more profitable for wineries because they don't have to share their profits with second and third parties.
Last year, wineries shipped 3.18 million cases directly to consumers, according to a recent report by Wines & Vines and ShipCompliant. Direct sales rose to $1.46 billion, up 10 percent from 2011 and 24 percent higher than 2010. VinoPRO sells 0.5 to 1 percent of all direct-to-consumer wine sales, Stevenson said.
One simple reason: people like to talk about wine.
"It's a passion," said Mark Pope, founder of Chatterbox, a Napa company that also does wine telemarketing. "So a discussion abut wine can be fun."
Mark Parton, founder of Call For Wine, a telesales company now owned by Napa-based Wine Direct, says he's always surprised at how easily customers will stop what they're doing to talk to someone from a winery.
"Once you get outside the Valley, about 100 miles away, people want to be part of the winery," Parton said.
"You call a doctor, and he's like, 'I'm about to go into surgery,'" Parton continued. "But they won't walk away from the wine guy. They're still willing to talk to you even if they're in the middle of surgery."
Call For Wine works with more than 30 clients and has 10 full-time employees and several part-time sales representatives, Parton said. The company also handles in-bound calls for its clients, so if a customer calls a winery and nobody's there to answer, the call won't go to voicemail.
In the airy office space at VinoPRO in Santa Rosa, wine bottles line the shelves and windowsills. Saleswoman Allison Walsh, who earned her spacious window seat by virtue of being among the top sales performers at the company, spoke with a customer.
"You guys like brand reserve, right?" Walsh asked cheerfully over the phone. "That's what you got in September. Okay, we'll do a case of that ... If we add on another six, that will really be easier with the shipping. That grand reserve pinot gris is tasting really good right now."