One of the great mysteries of the wine business — for us small producers, anyway — is distribution. Finding them and getting their attention is quite the mystery, and meeting their demands (and desires) is quite the “Catch-22″ — the distributors want product that is consistent, high quality and produced in sufficient quantities to satisfy a large number of clients, yet they want it to be unique. A small producer can hit a couple of those notes, but its the quantity that proves problematic for most. Then there is the issue of finding them — most are very difficult to find, much less reach. Another difficulty is finding a spot in their portfolio, where they literally have an entire world of wine at their disposal. And of course there is the issue of being taken seriously as a Virginia wine producer, but fortunately the recent positive attention in the local and national press is changing that.
Today we are happy to announce that in the new year we have a partnership with Williams Corner Wine, a distributor based in Charlottesville with accounts all over Virginia, parts of Maryland and in Washington, DC.
What does one want in a distributor? In a word, sales. Direct sales from the tasting room are great, but to be truly sustainable in this business one needs more than one outlet. Some wineries choose to devote most of their energies to their tasting room and to wine festivals; we know of one winery that participates in 60 wine festivals each year, pressing their no doubt fatigued family into service. Incredible. Others seem to do as few as we do, or fewer — but usually these are wineries near Washington, DC with sufficient traffic foot traffic in their tasting rooms so they don’t need to seek out crowds; the crowds come to them. Others diversify and provide a complete experience in addition to the tasting room and a presence at selected festivals, providing lodging and fine dining as part of their experience — Barboursville Vineyards, Williamsburg Winery and Veritas Vineyard & Winery come to mind. Each business model depends on the energy and resources of the owner behind it.
Zoning regulations affect these choices. Some counties, namely Fauquier and Albemarle, prohibit the pairing of restaurants with wineries, on the theory that a farm winery is just that, not an entertainment venue. Those jurisdictions have taken a policy position that requires the placement of such businesses in towns, where they prefer to concentrate this economic activity where there is the infrastructure and population to support them. Then there are those wineries that are almost exclusively venues for hosting parties and weddings, which attract the ire of the winemakers that view such activities as a distraction. The “serious winemakers” have a point, given that the emphasis on events by some distracts members of the wine press and the public, but there’s room for every approach. It is the opinion of this writer that there is a need for a little restraint in that regard if the Virginia wine industry is to continue making the strides it has in the last couple of years in gaining the attention of national and international wine critics, publications and distributors like New Horizon Wines, which successfully brought Virginia wine to the United Kingdom. It really is an exciting time to be in the business in Virginia.
Which balance works for us? We don’t have the time (or desire) to participate in every wine festival in the Commonwealth, nor are we interested in being innkeepers. Our approach emphasizes our wine clubs, then wholesale sales, followed by direct sales from the tasting room. We can’t depend on tasting room traffic since we are not near major population centers, even though Richmond is a little over an hour away. We view festivals as a form of advertising.
Williams Corner Wine occupies an interesting niche, representing primarily small organic and biodynamic winegrowers from France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria. Their portfolio meshes nicely with our efforts towards biodynamics and sustainability. On a visit last year, we spied a copy of Francois Bouchet’s L’Agriculture Bio-Dynamique on a bookshelf in the owner’s office. They don’t have many Virginia wines in their portfolio, but they do represent Michael Shaps Wines. They place wines with restaurants like The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington, DC, kybecca wine bar in Fredericksburg, and Restaurant Pomme in Gordonsville. We’re excited by the prospect, though cautiously optimistic, given that many of these foreign producers are able to produce their wine at lower cost than Virginia producers (exchange rates help, too). It’s a challenge, and that makes it a quality issue. Perhaps those restaurants that claim to be committed to supporting local producers and creating a regional cuisine will give us serious consideration and add us to their wine lists. We’re doing our best to increase our production so we can price our product competitively.
We will continue to service existing accounts and have retained Southern Virginia as territory served by the Virginia Winery Distribution Company, but new accounts beginning January 2013 in Williams Corner Wine’s designated territories may contact Jeff Latchum for tasting appointments and sales at (540) 383.4222, or email email@example.com.