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New Direct-to-Consumer Channel for Top European Wines: VinConnect

2012 June 12

Fall 2012 wine events 143
Kevin Sidders, President and Founder, VinConnect

Are you on any mailing lists for purchasing wines from favorite domestic producers? Do you enjoy the convenience of receiving their offers directly, often receiving offers from them not available through other channels, getting news from them periodically, and feeling connected with a favorite winery that way? Have you ever thought, “I wish I could be on the mailing list to buy wine from my favorite European wine producer?”

Well I have, and I know many other consumers who’ve had the same thought. American Ray Walker, now a winemaking phenom in Burgundy, kept this in mind in setting up direct buying opportunities, through a mailing list, for his inaugural 2009 vintage of Maison Ilan. He sold direct to 83 customers worldwide, on top of what was sold through his importer.

Unfortunately, due to America’s complex three-tier distribution system and the difficulty of arranging all the necessary import licenses in the states that permit direct sales, it just hasn’t been possible for established European producers to offer mailing list sales to U.S. customers. Until now.

Kevin Sidders, a successful investment banker and wine lover based in Charlottesville, Virginia, decided last year to invest his own money in the legal advice, licensing fees, European agents needed to contact producers, warehousing costs, advertising, and all the other start up costs necessary to make this kind of direct-to-consumer option available for American consumers.

It took several months to get the necessary licenses and clearances, and to start meeting with producers, and their American importers, to make it happen. With some top experts in the business working on the project, however, VinConnect managed to launch last September.

So now those of us who love wine from legendary Barolo producer Giacomo Borgogno, Burgundy’s much sought after Clos de Tart, or Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s ever popular Domaine du Pégaü can, through VinConnect, join a mailing list to purchase wine–and get news about events, tours or tastings–directly from Borgogno, Clos de Tart and/or Pégaü. And this is just the beginning.

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I had a chance to meet up with Kevin when he visited Silicon Valley last week, to get more background on this promising new project, and to ask him questions about some of the obstacles he’d encountered, and overcome.

Kevin told me that since last Fall, they have so far signed on 16 prestigious French and Italian producers, and garnered over 500 U.S.-based customers who have opted for one or more of these producers’ mailing lists. Ten mailing list offers have so far been issued, and the response from brand new mailing list members has been strong.

VinConnect is in discussions with many more top producers (some very sought after names, believe me), and expects to be adding more popular wineries–in regions like Piedmont, Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne and Tuscany–in the near future.

Kevin explained that his agents in Italy and France have received warm receptions from many producers who are intrigued by the idea of reaching loyal customers in the U.S. this way. Since most of them have long-established relationships with American importers, however, they have redirected Kevin’s team to work out the terms with their importers.

Some importers have been receptive, especially when they understand they will receive the same revenue from direct sales through the mailing lists as they would through other sales channels. In other words, the five or 10 percent of sales in America that will go through the mailing list just represent another way of reaching consumers—likely very loyal, repeat consumers at that. Others, though, have had a hard time understanding the concept. According to Kevin, one incredulous importer actually asked, “Why would wineries want to know who their customers are?”

12/14/07 Weiner Burgundy Dinner

Right now, VinConnect is only targeting brands that are highly visible—producers that are well known to knowledgeable wine consumers. They are not taking on any of the hundreds of excellent producers who don’t yet have distribution in this country. But if this direct sales model catches on, who knows?

Kevin also explained that his new company’s role is not about selling VinConnect. VinConnect’s whole purpose is simply to arrange a connection between popular European wineries and American consumers who love them.

Guillume Gicqueau-Michel of Domaine Louis-Michel in Chablis is delighted about the new connections offered by VinConnect, which he says, “allow us, for the first time, to communicate directly with our customer base in the United States. Through VinConnect, customers have the opportunity to purchase our wines straight from the Domaine, as soon as they are released.”

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Domaine Louis-Michel’s Guillume Gicqueau-Michel

For those of us increasingly concerned about the provenance of our wines—i.e., whether they have been properly stored, at the right temperatures, all throughout the transportation process—there’s also great peace of mind in buying direct from the winery’s cellars. When we hunt around for beloved European producers’ wines in retail stores, or through other online channels, it’s often difficult to tell how the wine made its way to the U.S. – i.e., whether gray market channels were involved, or other intermediaries.

Under the VinConnect model, where the European producer has an American importer, the wines ordered through the mailing list are shipped to the importer in the U.S. according to that importer’s usual high standards for receiving that esteemed producer’s shipments. VinConnect then takes delivery, in refrigerated trucks, from that importer to their warehouse in Sonoma, California. They then ship to consumers (or hold the wine for the consumer in their warehouse during the warm season, at the customer’s election) through their shipping partner, Wineshipping, the largest shipper of wine in North America for the direct-to-consumer market.

It’s easy to sign up on any of the available mailing lists through VinConnect. Just go to their website– http://vinconnect.com/ — and click on the red button that says “Join Now!” That link will take you to a short online form where you fill in your name and indicate which of the winery partners’ mailing lists you’re interested in being added to. Once you select one or more of these wineries, you’ll receive, within the next few days, a welcome message from that winery. And when that producer has mailing list offers, generally once or twice a year, they’ll come to you conveniently through your email in-box.

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At this writing, there is a choice of 16 different producers’ mailing lists to join. Those include Burgundy’s Clos de Tart and Domaine Louis-Michel; Rhone Valley producers Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Michel & Stéphane Ogier, Domaine du Pégaü, and Domaine de la Vieille Julienne; Piedmont stars Borgogno, La Spinetta, Massolino, Pelissero and Roberto Voerzio; and Tuscan wineries Castello dei Rampolla, Castello del Terriccio (known for such wines as their Lupicaia), Ciacci Piccolomini, La Massa and Le Macchiole.

I’m very excited at this new option for U.S. wine lovers to buy direct from some of Europe’s greatest. I also think Kevin and his team have done an admirable job in setting up a model that’s as transparent, and simply aimed at connecting producers with their U.S. fans, as possible.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Zach permalink
    June 26, 2012

    I was very excited about this service until I received e-mail offers with prices that were HIGHER than those offered by retailers I regularly buy from. I assumed that buying directly and avoiding the 3-tier system would result in potentially significant savings. At the prices I’ve seen so far, I won’t be a customer.

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      June 26, 2012

      Zach,
      Thank you for the comment. The main advantage of this new direct buying option is not, so far, pricing discounts. Here’s how I responded to a similar comment/question about VinConnect’s pricing over on HuffPo, which also carried my post:

      Boris,

      Good question. Since the importers are typically still involved in the supply chain, it’s not significantly cheaper to buy these wines through the mailing list than in some stores (if you could find them there). VinConnect works with the winery and importer in arriving at prices that are generally in line with traditional channels to avoid conflict, though those can sometimes be higher than gray market deals one may see advertised somewhere later. The real advantages, as described above, are reliability of provenance, access to things that may not be offered elsewhere, convenience of buying direct upon release, and relationship you have with the winery that you don’t get by hunting around for a best price on WineSearcher.

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