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BERGER: Getting wines to the market

Two years ago, at a major Italian wine tasting in New York, I asked a Barolo winemaker friend if he had a suggestion for a new and interesting line of wines.

He recommended I try the wines of a small producer from the Veneto. The brand, Corte Moschina, was a name I hadn't heard before.

However, tasting the wines, I was stunned by their high quality, especially an Amarone, a Ripasso and a Soave. And I was struck by how fairly priced the wines were.

I asked Alessandro Moschina, the winemaker, if this was a new brand to the U.S. market. No, he said, the brand had been in the United States for some years. But, he added, distribution had largely been on the east coast, where the importer was located. Few people anywhere else in this country had ever tasted the wines; not a bottle was available on the west coast.

The importer had done little to market the wines outside the east coast. This brings us to the dilemma facing many wine brands: How to get your wines to market.

Unless a winery affiliates with a wholesale company, gaining distribution can be overwhelmingly expensive. Wineries without distributors can try to sell wines themselves, but sales trips can be so expensive that they are impractical.

Moreover, even if a fine-wine brand gains access to wholesale distribution, it may not mean an increase in sales. Some wholesalers have such large sales books that smaller wineries often complain they "get lost in the book," that the wholesaler would rather sell a lot of inexpensive wines than a couple of cases of expensive wines.

In the last few years, I have attended various trade tastings for wines from other countries. A number of those who have tables at such events are there prospectively. The tasting booklets that are passed out at the door identify which brands are seeking importers. In one such event, all 35 Italian wineries in the room had yet to gain U.S. representation.

And many domestic wineries are in the same position. They have excellent wines that no one wants to sell for them. As a result, they set up in-house sales divisions, but such business models can be a drag on profits.

Recently I heard of a new wine distribution model that doesn't work like the typical three-tier model. A tiny Sonoma County company has set up shop to offer specialty services to small wine brands.


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