There’s been a migration of wine professionals from major cities to smaller ones over the past few years—a trend that sped up during the pandemic. Luckily, to complement the rise of owner-operated wine bars and shops in these smaller, often overlooked markets, a slew of smaller, niche importers and distributors has increased availability of small-production and natural wines at the same time.
Still, there’s legwork required to increase access to the wines they want—but these owners understand they’re building a community as well as a business, and are willing to put in the effort. They’re building relationships not just with their customers, but with suppliers at all levels, becoming logistical experts in the process.
Retail shop and wine bar owners from small cities throughout the U.S. share their tips and tactics for building overlooked wine markets into some of the most exciting in the country.
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Understand the Three-Tier System
Heather LaVine, the owner of Golden Hour Wine in Orlando, Florida, has a list of every wine she’s ever bought for her shops. “I started that in New York, not wanting wines to fall off the radar,” she says. Now that she’s in Florida, it’s essentially a long-term shopping list and a starting point for the logistical legwork required to get these wines into the local market. That legwork can be substantial—and will likely require developing relationships at every tier of the three-tier system.
When Tim Graham and Tracy Pell opened Small Wine Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, they were prepared to work with local distributors to get wines into the Florida market. “What I learned really quickly was that I had to contact the actual importers,” says Graham. Having previously worked in Texas, he already had some of these relationships established, but anyone looking to get new wines into their local market will need to map out who has what and make the calls.
A given winery may have a single importer for the country, or it may have a handful of importers, each covering a different geographic region. Within a state, a single importer portfolio may be sold through one distributor—or it may be split across several. And for a given winery, only a limited number of SKUs may have distribution. “It involves taking time, doing your own research, knowing what portfolio a wine is in,” explains Bianca Sanon, the owner of Paradis Books & Bread in North Miami, Florida.
It also may involve a fair bit of matchmaking. “Slide into those DMs,” recommends Richard Garcia, the owner of Big Mood Natural Wines in Kansas City, Missouri. He will often reach out directly to wineries he’s interested in. “Do they have an Instagram account? Boom. I’ll shoot them a message. It’s really easy to just start a dialogue,” he explains. “I just say, ‘I’ve been following you, I like what you’re doing, and I think you would be a really good fit with distributor XYZ.’” He’ll then let a local distributor know to continue the conversation.
A collective mindset goes a long way to developing successful working relationships. “Our interests are aligned. The whole point of doing this is to make an even better wine market,” explains Jeff Kellogg, the owner of Kellogg Selections, which has portfolios in North and South Carolina. “If you have a relationship from places you worked with previously, I don’t mind. That can be more helpful in getting the wine than me reaching out.”
Be Proactive and Persistent
“Always ask for what you want,” advises Naomi Biber, who owns Palace Pub & Wine Bar with her husband, Ryan Lay, in Cape Coral, Florida. “Even throwing out a ‘hey, I don’t know if you have this now but, if you ever do, please let us know’ has worked.” LaVine agrees. “It’s not just mentioning it once,” she says, “but feeling comfortable mentioning it 50 times and getting over the fact that you’re probably being a little annoying.”
Thinking like a distributor also helps move things along. Graham will regularly check in with his distributors to see which importers they’re placing orders with and ask if they can add additional wines to an existing order. “Whether it’s just one case or something more, generally they’re more than happy to do that because it doesn’t stay in the warehouse,” he explains. “It goes right out the door to me versus them having to go out and sell it.”
Buyers can also work together to make sure distributors and importers are aware of growing interest in their market. “There’s power in numbers, right?” notes Sanon. Buyers in her market regularly keep others posted on wines that they are all interested in, building orders together, which makes it less of a risk for distributors to bring in the wines. “If it takes four or five of us to buy a certain amount on presale just so that we can get it into the market, we’ll do it,” adds Garcia.
Jeffrey Wolfe, the owner of Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe in Coral Gables, Florida, uses Instagram as a way to stay on top of requests. “It tells me when certain wines are hitting certain markets,” he says. “If I see a wine being posted by buyers in New York or Chicago, then I know it should be hitting Florida soon. If the distributor is behind taking the wine, they’re at risk of losing their allocations. So I want to make sure that’s not going to happen.”
Learn How to Buy from Afar
While savvy buyers can use Instagram and other social media platforms to their advantage, it has its limits. “It’s intel, but it’s not really educational,” cautions Wolfe. “Just because somebody posted something doesn’t mean that it’s great or that you should be buying it.”
Ideally, buyers could travel to visit producers and taste wines in larger markets. However, budget and staffing limitations make it difficult for owner-operators to get away. “It’s definitely been a learning curve for me,” says John Hale, who relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, from New York to open Crocodile Wine. “I’m feeling more disconnected from the winemakers than I’d like. A large portion of the wines we buy are special orders that I don’t get to taste beforehand. I just know the winemakers already or trust the importers and hope for the best.”
Buyers need to ask the hard questions of their distributors, importers, and even buyers in other markets, especially for those working with low intervention wines. “I’ll ask what the flavor profile of [the wine] is,” says Graham. “Is it super natty? Does it go mousey? Is it ropey? If it’s a pét-nat, is it going to explode on me?”
Distributors who take their role as a partner seriously and want to build trust with their account base will answer honestly. “I never ever want anybody to sell something they don’t want to sell [or] something they’re not excited about,” explains Arash Hajianpour, the owner of South Florida-based Arash Selects, a two-year-old distributorship specializing in a broad range of natural wines.
Keep an Eye on Cash Flow
Particularly when it comes to special requests and orders, it’s important to keep an eye on the bottom line. “Bringing in cool wine is fun and all, but remember, you need to find a home for those wines to keep the ‘business’ part in ‘wine business,’” says Andrea Hillsey, the owner of Square Wine Co. in Madison, Wisconsin.
Keeping track of special orders and being able to take quick delivery upon arrival is key to developing trust with distributor partners. “I have to be flexible on my end,” explains LaVine. “If all of a sudden the wines come in from three different distributors … well, guess what? I’m going to have to figure out cash flow and make it work.” To avoid being caught off-guard, LaVine keeps a running record of all requests using an Excel sheet.
Setting clear expectations about pricing is essential as well. Taking the time to work through and understand the various shipping fees, margins, and mark-ups along the supply chain ensures you’ll know exactly what the wine will cost customers when it hits your shelf or bar. Sanon notes that there will usually be a bit of a price difference for secondary markets compared to coastal hubs. “Maybe a few dollars difference we can work with,” she says, “but not nine or 10.”
Be Flexible with Delivery
While smaller distributors may legally be able to deliver statewide, actually getting wine to far-flung locations in a big state can be a logistical—and financial—challenge, especially as fuel costs skyrocket. “But I don’t want to penalize people for having businesses far away from my warehouses,” says Hajianpour, who is always open to finding creative ways to make deliveries work. This could include delivery fees or order minimums tailored to location and items ordered.
“As long as a distributor is permitted to sell in your area, it can be worth offering to drive out to their warehouse,” notes Matt Uva, the owner of Curate: Natural Wines in Orlando, Florida. “This can put a retailer at an advantage over their competitor by having wines not readily available in their area.” He also suggests that if legal, “buyers form an alliance of sorts and share the pick-up responsibilities.”
If buyers are bringing new wines into the local market, building in long lead times is crucial. These are not the wines to include in a program that has firm deadlines for printing wine lists or picking up wine clubs. “You have to be flexible and it can be frustrating. I just stopped being frustrated,” explains Sanon. “There are extra steps and so many different things can go wrong. It just comes with the territory of being down here.”
Build a Community
Once the wine arrives, the fun of selling it begins. Many buyers have developed wine club programs to move bottles they’re excited about, while generating a regular cash inflow. “Our club gives us a big boost in sales every month,” explains Sanon. “It also gives me a little more buying power.” LaVine has even started a second club to meet demand. “I’ve had to cap our first club based on quantities of what’s available in the market,” she says.
For hybrid retail/wine bar locations, by-the-glass programs offer a way to educate customers—and staff. “I switch up the wine list often so we are tasting a lot and are forced to keep on our toes,” explains Jill Roberts, the owner of The Hawthorne in Helena, Montana. “We open up something special from the shop most days so that the team can be as prepared as possible for the serious array of needs and requests from our guests.”
C.J. Bienert, the owner of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines in Iowa, notes that even allocated bottles have a place in a sampling program. “By opening them and sharing them with others you’re broadening people’s tastes and most importantly educating, which I feel is essential for retaining customers and staff,” he says.
Regular, themed tastings have long-term impact, explains Biber. “This has enabled so many of our customers to try new things and find new things they like. Over time this has built a lot of trust between ourselves and our community,” she says. “Today, many don’t even question us and know that if we are excited, they should be too.”
“It’s important that you feel the emotion, too!” agrees Uva. “Make friends. Be involved. Give a damn about your community and it will show how much you give a damn about your wines.”
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Christy Frank is a partner at Copake Wine Works, a shop in the Hudson Valley of New York. She is an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds the WSET Diploma in Wines.