The following account of the Q&A Panel Series event held in Adelaide on Tuesday 26 November 2019 was written by Shirley Fraser, WCA SA Chapter Chair and Board member.

USA – Is it the new hope for Aussie wine?  

Last night Wine Communicators of Australia held its SA chapter panel series event in Adelaide. Thanks to the generosity of spirit, the panellists shared their highs and lows of the USA market so far in their wine journey, whether long term or starting out. Capturing a few snippets, here are the highlights from the night.

Thank you to our MC Armando Corsi, Associate Professor at the University of South Australia, and our panelists: Simon West of Full Glass, Ashley Ratcliff owner of Ricca Terra Wines, Kathy Drogemuller owner of Paracombe Wines, and Sam Holmes General Manager Sales Americas for Negociants. The following notes are from the collective discussion on behalf of everyone so please excuse the lack of direct quotes.

Wine Australia – Aussie Wine Month

We kicked off with those that had been to part or all of Aussie Wine Month with Wine Australia. Where the feeling that generic trade events often seem to attract less of the gems of buyers, the unique and Aussie focus created a buzz and did as much as it could to maximise quality trade and interested engagement.

Reports on the events and activities we heard in the break will be made available soon – so stay tuned.

The New to Market program and Wine Australia’s Aussie campaign introduced many and was as big as it could be but even with $50m that doesn’t stretch far in USA. There was discussion about what’s ahead and when to go, which at this point is still being rallied for with government and planned out; but in essence, May/June and Sept/Oct work best as winter weather, summer holidays and the sales focus of OND make other times less favourable.

Ultimately we all need to recognise that Wine Australia can do the top level but its up to the individual producers to do the work from the ground up.

In addition to Wine Aus, DTTI (SA’s Department of Trade, Tourism & Investment) is setting up an office in Houston so be in touch with WCA committee member Sharon Matthews if you want to be connected with more information as that develops.

Three-tier complexity

There are a lot more options for the trade in USA than ever before. Its no longer a simple three tier linear model but morphs across the channels with retailers importing and distributing. ie direct importing for 200+ stores would have been illegal in years gone by but the rules have changed. This has made the landscape more opaque and complex but simultaneously offered niche opportunities.

In this light, commission sales reps often get paid on the lines that are both imported and distributed so it may be of use to look at whether you align or have an importer of note. Your size may dictate what you have access to but investigate before assuming.

USA is big! Find your niche. Start in one or two states first and build from there. Align your product offering to the style of outlets in that state and engage with locals on the ground. ‘The world is different’ but the themes are the same – its tough anywhere and takes hard work, many will hate paying on time, have zero storage and are looking for the next shiny distraction – look at what works for you and your offering and hone in on opportunities.

Positive Pitch – know what you offer

Know your worth and benefits – think positively to sell in USA (or anywhere). To convince others to believe in you, be strong about what you have to offer and believe your message.

Your brand pitch and story needs to be memorable and repeatable. We all have a USP you need to work on ways to articulate yours and have clarity. Elevator pitch people.

Compete to be unique. Don’t compete to have competitors but see that there is space for everyone if you have a relevant proposition. Find your unique space and tell that story often. Embrace and embody it across everything you do – whether that’s what you grow, how you package, where you target, your category level of quality or the quirky things you do to connect (like black and red loo paper). If it’s not working, reinvent yourself and try something new. But work hard. No one is sitting waiting for you.

Relationships take time

Communication is key. Be nimble and responsive. Connect with others that have shared values with you and your brand offering otherwise you will always be pushing up hill. Relationships are what they are and take time, effort and integrity. This means you have to show up. Turn up for time in the trade, nothing else beats that. But make sure you have the funds to do it – USA is no longer low cost to travel and you pay your way and often those hosting you.

Be prepared and proactive

Have your story not only in your head but get prepared for all audiences. Trade distributors, retailers, importers, consumer, sommeliers, government or even investors want information presented differently with varying levels of detail and perspective.

The visual power of beautiful images. Remember Stories captivate you to act – a truly powerful tool. Can you bridge the distance by using Youtube videos or socials to connect?

Marketing collateral – printed and electronic versions, price lists, web pages and tasting notes. Specifications and palletisation for on the spot order questions. Have readily available so if someone asks you can email it on the fly. Have the resources cloud based and it will accelerate discussions.

POS – shelf talkers are widely used in US and often asked for. But watch out not to print too many. Suggestion was made to design and send electronically for the local reps to print out themselves as needed.

Points matter – the question was whether Australian wine shows could consider point scores as well as medals? US love points and third party endorsement tips interest for those wanting to make the decision easier (path of least resistance). Consider which wine writers or bloggers or influencers you could connect with and have your wines sampled to.

Barcodes and mandatories – know what the USA requirements are (Wine Aus have worksheets) and understand that COLAs (label approvals for USA) are needed for every label and its wine/blend/regionality. Each state has licence laws and separate legal arrangements (this wasn’t really discussed – but a heads up!). If you don’t know, get help.

Look for gaps and don’t be afraid of regionism

Solve someone’s problem and you suddenly become useful. Don’t simply push your offering without working through how your product or brand solves their problem. Discussion around price ceilings for Pinot Noir could offer opportunities (Oregon vs TAS); what is popular may lead you to consider having “red blend” instead of Shiraz Cab as US consumers don’t look for varietals like Australia. Do your homework on who you are meeting and where you are targeting so you align your values and value with relevance.

There was some debate about the importance of region. Remembering some consumers struggle to know where Australia or SA is, that drilling down to sub region may not be relevant for them even if its relevant for you. My take out was ‘your region won’t sell you on itself alone’; if you have region as part of your compelling story then great, but don’t let that stop you if your USP is about varieties or design or brand or style. It’s not a barrier. Use it but don’t get complacent.

The question of Riverland came up, again (sorry bias here) and it is simply a South Australian gripe that no-one else has an issue with. If you grow amazing fruit, interesting varietals or blends, brand image and personal engagement, then that outweighs region alone. And the price advantage can help. But the USP has to be real and not imagined. South Aussies just need to get over it and embrace what is coming from the region, even get involved?!

Gaps for potential right now? Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, Blends and Alternatives, High alcohol and big wines, rose, white blends, organics, vegan, points of interest.

Social Media – for business and brand

There are benefits of LinkedIn – for professional personal connection: keeping in touch with newly acquired contacts and the mining of connections in specific areas or those already linked to others in your network. Do your homework and initiate discussion before you go.

Facebook and Instagram Stories are focus social platforms in USA and posts need to be relatable and consistent. If you get supported by someone, follow them and share their success – return the love. Tag overseas contacts in relevant posts even back in Australia so they are alerted to your post and may share it.

Twitter was mildly used by some where influencers tag and share

Look at your reviews on vivino. Consumers do them organically globally so you can get more involved in your presence if you know what’s out there.

Link back posts to websites and make sure you have a library of images if called for.

How do you start?

Be prepared and lock down your pricing with all the hidden on-costs so you understand how your FOB in AUD translates to RRP in USD.

Network and talk to contemporaries, to cross country boundaries, and find out how they do it.

Research and budget – time, energy, cashflow, expectations for returns.

If you’re travelling to Prowein Germany, many USA and Canadian distributors also go. Connect before and see what happens on neutral territory to kick of discussions.

Do you need to Outsource?

Do you need help with your channel route to market strategy? Understand why and how far you’re willing to go. It will take time and can you fund the cashflow in the meantime?

Do you need help to pull together your brand pitch, marketing collateral, preparation for visits, travel plans?

Do you need the help of sales professional either from Australia and/or on the ground in USA?

Have you protected your trademark? (that’s a whole other session!) You may need local representation too.

You will not (or may not) be able to it all on your own if you miss the skill set or resources or time – it could be costly long term if you cut corners early. But you don’t have to have it all locked down. There is always the “fake it til you make it” element where if you know you can deliver if someone was to jump on board, then take the mock ups, take the samples but make sure you mitigate the risks legally and financially.

Outsourcing may save you in the long run.

What next?

Navigating your first steps are crucial. Cluster together and do it with others perhaps.

Now it’s time to decide if you are ready to do the work, research and homework, then connect and visit. Or if you’ll seek out assistance and plan for future. Or to decide later when other elements are ready.

But whatever you do, be active in your decisions. Manage your expectations and those of your team (staff/family/board/finance) to know it will take time to hit your straps. Possibly 3 years in some cases. But there is hope and there are opportunities for those brave enough to go find them, connect with people and tell your stories as far as the discussion last night went.